The Premiership Interview: Teenager going places fast
Born in Africa, raised in Geneva and now based in London, 19-year-old Johan Djourou is already a man of the world - and will not be fazed at the prospect of marking Wayne Rooney tomorrow, he tells Glenn Moore
Saturday 16 September 2006
We already know more than any sane person needs to know about Wayne Rooney, probably more than the man himself. Tap him into Google and there are five million links. If you want something more traditional, there are more than a dozen books written by, or about him. Some may even be worth reading.
But what about the man who could be marking him at Old Trafford tomorrow, Johan Djourou? What do we know about him? As a footballer, he is quick, strong in the tackle and in the air, decent on the ball. A little naive at times, but full of potential. Though born in the Ivory Coast, he is a Swiss international who played in the World Cup. If you are something of an anorak, you may even know his first senior start came at 17 in a 3-1 victory against Everton in the Carling Cup in 2004, a match in which the attention was stolen by Quincy Owusu-Abeyie.
Digging on the internet (188,000 results, most of them repetitive news snippets) produces little more. You learn he is a "196lb defenseman" (SI.com), that he has a Swiss mother and Ivorian father, that he moved to Switzerland at 17 months, went to a residential training centre set up by the Swiss football association at 13 years, and moved to London at 15.
And that is about it. The only way to flesh out the webfacts was to ask the man himself. So yesterday lunchtime, at Arsenal's serene London Colney training ground, I sat down with Djourou to hear his life story.
"It is," he confessed, "a bit complicated." His father Joachim, is a laboratory pharmacist who was working in Geneva when he met Daniele, a nurse. They met, they married. But then they parted and Joachim went back to the Ivory Coast, met Angeline, and had a son, Johan. Joachim then returned to Switzerland, and to Daniele, who adopted Johan, formally and emotionally, as her own. Which is how this son of Africa came to represent Switzerland in the World Cup.
"There was talk, last year, of my playing for Ivory Coast but I always knew I would play for Switzerland," said Djourou. "I grew up there. I played for the national teams when I was younger. I've always felt both [nationalities]. My dad is from the Ivory Coast, my mum raised me, helped me to grow up. So I feel Swiss as well."
Geneva is one of the more culturally diverse cities in Switzerland and Djourou said he had no problems fitting in as a youngster. His sporting prowess, obvious from an early age, may have helped. "My dad says even when I was a baby I would grab balls in stores and play football in the store." At the age of 13, he was fast-tracked by the Swiss FA, who took him to Payerne, its equivalent of the FA National School at Lilleshall which produced several internationals, including Nick Barmby, Sol Campbell and Andy Cole, before being disbanded.
"It was great experience," he said. "I learnt a lot. It was just a few of us, working on technique and tactics." It also fostered an independence that would later prove valuable. "Payerne is not that far from Geneva but I would have to get the train at six in the morning, leave my mum for a week, then get back at the weekend. But I had a great host family looking after me in Payerne." Djourou was soon putting the skills he learned at Payerne to use and at 15 was playing, as a midfielder, for Etoile Carouge in the Swiss equivalent of League One.
Then one day, in an indication of just how thorough the modern football club's scouting system is, his coach said to him "there were scouts here from Arsenal". Djourou said: "I didn't really believe it, at 14, 15 you think it is a joke." It was not and Djourou soon had to decide whether to leave the family again [he has two sisters and a brother], this time for London.
"It was hard leaving my family behind, and all my friends, but when you want to do something in life you have to make choices, sometimes you have to make sacrifices. I had always wanted to be a footballer so if I had the chance to go to Arsenal I can't say 'no, I don't want to'. I said to my mum 'Don't worry. I had to go to Payerne at 13, so I am used to it'.
"It took a bit of time to settle. I'm someone who likes to have the family around, but the club had good people looking after me. I stayed with Philippe [Senderos, a fellow Swiss] for a while, and with an Irish family. Now I am living by myself [in north London]."
Learning English speeded the transition, unlike some arrivals Djourou immediately began lessons. He also rekindled his Ivorian connection with Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Eboué. Djourou, who has stayed in touch with his birth mother, said: "It has been good for me being friends with them." On the pitch, his first opportunity came with that Carling Cup defeat of Everton. By then, at Arsène Wenger's instigation, thinks Djourou, he had converted to central defence.
"I was quite young and it was my first game at Highbury so I was nervous but it went well. It was also the first time I had played with Philippe, before we had only played against each other." Djourou's first Premiership start was not for another 14 months but when it came it could hardly have gone better as Middlesbrough were thrashed 7-0. "It was a very good game, but I never thought 'this is easy'," he insists. That was in January. His subsequent rise has been meteoric. Kobi Kuhn, Switzerland's manager, gave him 45 minutes against Scotland, then picked him for the World Cup squad. He faced Thierry Henry and Andrei Shevchenko before Switzerland went out in the second round.
The Swiss did not concede a goal all tournament but went out in an abject penalty-shoot-out. Djourou, who would have taken the third kick but had gone off injured, said: "It was unbelievable. That morning we did a shoot-out and everyone scored."
Nevertheless, the team's exploits struck a chord back home. "When we came back from the World Cup people were waiting for us at the airport and they are really looking forward to the Euros [Switzerland co-host the 2008 finals]. Now people respect us. They no longer say 'the little Swiss team', we have showed we can compete as we did against France. We have young players in nearly every position, the future looks good."
So does the forecast for this smiling, level-headed teenager. The confidence the club have in him was demonstrated when he agreed a new contract to 2013. He knows he will not keep his place all season, not at 19 with Touré, Senderos and William Gallas also at the club, but he is learning. "When you are young you just want to play as many games as you can to get better and better. That is what I am looking for at the moment, to get that experience. I am going to make mistakes because I am young, but I learn from them and every game I get more experience. I'm just giving my best and trying to show the manager to keep picking me.
"It is great William [Gallas] has joined because he is a great player. It is good to have to compete with him and [to] play with someone like that. It will make me raise my game and I will learn from him." Moving the other way, of course, was Ashley Cole. When Djourou says he reads books to pass the time, in English and French, I see an opening and ask if he has read Ashley's.
"It's not out yet," came the swift reply, closing the door as effectively as he hopes to shut out Rooney tomorrow. "What about the extracts?" I persevere. "There's not been much talk about them here," he said. "We focus on ourselves and that is outside. Ashley's a nice lad, I get on well with him, but in football people move." Not many have moved as often, and at such a young age, as Djourou has, but the signs are he is here to stay.
Presents unwrapped, turkey gobbled... it's time to relax
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