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

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate