Torn between representing Switzerland or Cameroon, AS Monaco’s Breel Embolo opted for the former, and now prepares to face the latter in an “emotional” World Cup opener.
In an interview with Monaco Life, Embolo discusses that “difficult decision” as well as addressing his start to life in the Principality and his personal objectives for a World Cup campaign that gets underway against Cameroon on Thursday 24th November.
Born in 1997 in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, Embolo moved to Switzerland — via France — at a young age. Having come through the ranks at Young Boys and then at Basel, Embolo was faced with the “difficult” decision of choosing his international allegiance before he was even considered a legal adult.
A “difficult” choice
“When I chose to play for Switzerland, there was always a part of me that wanted to represent my country of birth,” Embolo explains. “I am very happy with my choice, and I am Cameroon’s biggest fan.”
He is now 25 years old, but still reflects on that time: “I was 17-years-old. It was a difficult time. I pushed back my decision for a few months. I remember that I even had the chance to join up with the Cameroon squad. It wasn’t an easy choice, but my family respected it, and that’s the most important thing.”
Despite opting to play for Switzerland, Embolo admits that he is still “very close” to his country of birth.
“Most of my family live there. I try to go back once or twice a year to keep that link to Cameroon. It’s important for me not to forget where I come from.”
He is now preparing to face his country of birth in Switzerland’s World Cup opener, which evokes a set of mixed emotions.
“It’s a special match for me and my family, and I know there will be lots of emotions,” he tells Monaco Life. “It will be a big moment for my family. It was an emotional moment when the draw was made. I must confess I didn’t exactly jump for joy.”
The Swiss team then goes on to face Brazil and Serbia in their World Cup group. Coincidentally, Switzerland faced both sides in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Asked if he is disappointed to be drawn against familiar faces, Embolo responds, “Yes. Especially to be drawn against Serbia with everything that happened after the group stage match in 2018, but it remains a football match.”
Back then, Swiss teammates Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, both of Kosovan descent, demonstrated support of Kosovo, which is a country unrecognised by Serbia. The pair were later investigated by FIFA for the gesture, and tensions between the two countries remain high.
“There are also lots of discussions around Qatar, who are hosting this slightly special World Cup. It is up to us to bring joy to our supporters. Playing against Brazil is a dream, but when you find yourself in almost the same group as four years ago, it’s a bit strange. But we’re happy and impatient to compare ourselves against teams like that.”
While Switzerland finds itself in a difficult group, Embolo reveals that both he and his country have high expectations going into the tournament.
“We don’t have any limits,” he says with confidence. “We have learnt a lot in the past few years, and not just in the World Cup, but also in the Euros and in the Nations League as well. We have a young and tight-knit group, but also with a lot of experience and a lot of quality. We are going to try to move to the next level. We’re all ambitious. I’m not just talking about myself, but about everyone.”
Ambition, confidence and experience
Embolo is heading into his second World Cup, but despite having prior experience of competing in the most prestigious tournament on the planet, he isn’t yet assuming a leadership role.
“[To play in my second World Cup is] an immense pride,” he says. “Playing in the World Cup is hardly trivial. When you play football as a child, you have just one dream: to play in a World Cup. To play my second World Cup at the age of 25 is a great thing. My role is to give everything to help the team win. I have done that since my arrival in the national team at the age of 18. I’m still not one of the old ones! My role is different to that of your Xhaka’s, Fabin Schär’s or Ricardo Rodriguez’s. But people expect things from me. I’m aware of that and I want to live up to it.”
Those expectations are linked not only to his experience, but also to his form at club level. Since his arrival at AS Monaco from Borussia Mönchengladbach in the summer, he has hit the ground running, scoring eight goals in his first 23 appearances for the Principality side.
However, he still expects more from himself.
“I am trying to grow and to learn more and give the best side of myself, but of course that isn’t always easy. When I came to Monaco, I always said that I wasn’t coming to have a holiday. I came here to progress. I learn a lot from training with Wissam Ben Yedder, Aleksandr Golovin, Kevin Volland and Myron Boadu. I haven’t yet reached the peak of my abilities.”
As far as pedagogical experiences go, being a (relatively) senior member in a World Cup and leading the line for your country is about as good as it gets. While he doesn’t believe he has “peaked”, Embolo could make a significant step towards reaching that optimal level, and despite the timing of the competition and the myriad of controversies engulfing the Qatar World Cup, he is looking forward to getting going.
“We don’t decide the timing, but the joy is the same,” he muses. “It’s true that in the summer, you have three or four weeks of preparation, which means you have time if you turn up for international duty with a little niggle, that’s happened with me before. It’s a bit special because we [are] going straight there, so there isn’t the time to look forward. But we all can’t wait.”
Embolo hasn’t set a ceiling on his personal and collective ambition, and now is the time to live up to those high expectations that he has of himself and of his international teammates.
Photo credit: Sven Mandel