In the interview, Johan Vonlanthen talks about a bitter trial session at Real Madrid, PlayStation duels with Robben and his problem professional image.
Johan Vonlanthen was once considered a Swiss talent of the century. At the age of 17, he moved to PSV Eindhoven and became the youngest European goal scorer of all time at the 2004 European Championship. Afterwards, however, “the problems” began, as he says himself.
In an exclusive interview with goal and SPOX the now 34-year-old looks back in detail on his eventful career. Vonlanthen talks about his childhood in Colombia, fears of moving to Switzerland, a bizarre trial session at Real Madrid and his early transfer to the Netherlands.
He raves about his former coaches Guus Hiddink and Lothar Matthäus as well as Arjen Robben’s PlayStation and football arts. He also explains why he was labeled a problem professional in Switzerland and what role his religion played in it.
Johan, is the information that you ended your career in 2018 still up to date?
Johan Vonlanthen: Yes, that’s right (laughs). I officially ended my career in 2018.
At the age of 32. Why did you draw this relatively early line?
Vonlanthen: I contracted an Achilles tendon tear at Servette Geneva in 2015 and found it extremely difficult to come back. When I was reasonably fit again, Kevin Cooper brought me to Wil FC. After a while, however, the club went downhill, the investors withdrew, and from a sporting point of view it quickly became clear that we would miss the promotion to the first division. It was not my wish to play for another year in the Challenge League (second Swiss league, editor’s note). However, I also have to say that my performance was no longer enough to play at the highest level. So I wasn’t exactly in a position to make great claims. I wasn’t as fast as I used to be, and my motivation decreased more and more. So I decided to stop.
During your career, there were always rumors about an early career end. The media flirted for the first time in 2009 with the end of her career, in 2012 and 2015 such reports appeared again. How did this vortex come about at regular intervals?
Vonlanthen: There were always private matters that forced me to take breaks in the meantime. The Swiss media in particular picked up on this and sometimes simply speculated that I could end my career. However, I have never expressed this wish.
Source: imago images / Geisser
Didn’t you deny the reports?
Vonlanthen: I didn’t want to talk about my motives in the media because they were private. Back then, I needed a break and took some time out, which particularly helped me as a person. On the other hand, my career as a footballer suffered as a result.
Let us come to the beginning of your career. You were born and raised in Colombia. What memories do you have of your time in South America?
Vonlanthen: I had a very nice childhood. I attended a good school and spent a lot of time on the soccer field in a village called El Parque, near Santa Marta. I had a very early wish to become a professional footballer one day. In 1991 my mother met Roger Vonlanthen, a man from Switzerland, and moved to Europe with him. My siblings and I followed her seven years later.
And in the meantime?
Vonlanthen: We lived with my grandparents. Our mother came to Colombia regularly to visit us. She mostly stayed for a month before returning to Switzerland. The longest period in which I have not seen my mother was two years.
Why didn’t you follow your mother until seven years later?
Vonlanthen: It was clear from the start that one day my siblings and I would also move to Switzerland. My mother didn’t want to take us with her right away because she wanted to sound out what life was like there. I didn’t understand that as a child, but looking back, I have to say that she and my stepfather did exactly the right thing.
Moving out of your familiar surroundings at the age of 11 and moving to a completely foreign country is probably not easy. What were your biggest fears when you came to Switzerland?
Vonlanthen: It was really not easy, that’s right. My biggest fear was that I would never be able to play football again. Of course, I also thought about whether I would make new friends and whether I would go to school. I didn’t speak German and didn’t know how to deal with the Swiss mentality at all. When I was on the plane, I asked myself one question above all: “What can I expect?”
Credit: imago images / Pius Koller
What was your first impression of your new home?
Vonlanthen: I imagined Switzerland to be very different. My mother showed us photos, which is why I always associated the country with snow (laughs). But I didn’t know, for example, whether soccer was played there at all. The only Swiss player I knew was Stephane Chapuisat. At that time it was the figurehead and accordingly also popular in Colombia.
You have already mentioned the language barrier and the differences in mentality. How did your integration go?
Vonlanthen: The first few days were really difficult. I was only in the country a week before I started school. I can still remember being very nervous on my first day at school. I was downgraded to two years because of the language barrier and moved to fourth grade. In addition to school, my siblings and I attended a two-hour intensive German course every day with a great teacher, who was also called Vonlanthen. The fear of not being able to make any new friends soon turned out to be unfounded. At the school playground, the other children encouraged me to play soccer with them. Some even spoke Spanish, which made integration even easier.
So did football contribute a lot to your integration?
Vonlanthen: Definitely! Football brings people together.
When did you realize that you can handle the ball better than your new friends?
Vonlanthen: In our home town of Flamatt, I kicked at the local football club and always scored a lot of goals. Then I noticed that I was obviously pretty good (laughs) and suddenly the young boys noticed me. I moved to Bern and shortly afterwards I was appointed to the Swiss national team. It was really, really fast. I have always put myself under pressure, told myself that I absolutely have to pack it. Also with a view to my family in Colombia, whom I wanted to support financially as a professional footballer. I took a really high risk for my career and basically put everything on one card.
Credit: imago images / Pius Koller
How difficult was the balancing act between school and football when you played in Bern?
Vonlanthen: That was not a problem at all. Flamatt is located in the canton of Friborg and is not far from Bern. The train journey takes about 20 minutes, so I was able to do the balancing act. I like to think back to that time.
What do you particularly like to remember when you think back to your time in Bern?
Vonlanthen: I was able to train with the first team for the first time at the age of 14, it was a great experience. When I was 15 I played in the U17 and was regularly part of the professional training squad. A year later it suddenly said: Johan, you are now one of them.
You made your professional debut in the first division as a 16-year-old, just five years after you came to Switzerland from Colombia. What was going on in you?
Vonlanthen: When I look at the 16-year-old footballers today, I can hardly believe how it worked and how quickly everything went. Back then I didn’t really think too much. I was just happy that I had implemented my plan to become a professional footballer. Maybe I should have brought more patience back then.
In what way?
Vonlanthen: In retrospect, it would have been better if I had gained more experience with Young Boys before moving abroad.
Instead, you switched to PSV Eindhoven early. How did the change come about?
Vonlanthen: I played in the U21 national team when I was 16. My advisor came up to me and told me that several clubs were keeping an eye on me. In addition to PSV, Real Madrid and Inter Milan were also interested. He asked me where I wanted to go. I just said to him: “Let’s see which club really lets me feel that he wants to sign me on.” Then Real invited me to a trial session. Before I moved to Eindhoven, I was in Madrid for ten days and trained with the U17 and U19.
Vonlanthen: I barely touched a ball in these training sessions. Nobody alluded to me, nobody wanted to give me the ball (laughs). The only balls I got, I fought for myself in a duel or they ended up by accident. The teammates probably thought: “Who is he?” Especially for the boys in the U19 it was probably strange that such a young guy trained. Nobody took care of me in my free time. Nobody said to me: “Come on, let’s go have a drink, I’ll take you with me.” There was no camaraderie at all.
What happened next?
Vonlanthen: After said ten days, I returned to Switzerland and my advisor told me that PSV Eindhoven would like to invite me to audition. I immediately agreed and played in an A youth tournament in the Netherlands. I was voted best player. Afterwards I had a very good conversation with Guus Hiddink, who was then coach of the first team at PSV. He made it clear to me that he would like to have me on the professional team. In addition, the boys were very different from the ones in Madrid. Many invited me and really made me feel good.
Source: imago images / VI Images
What experience have you had with Hiddink?
Vonlanthen: Guus is incredible human. I’ve only had positive experiences with him. He always took time for his players and often talked about private matters. When he called me to his office, he always asked if I was comfortable and how my family was doing. Looking at football, he just said: “Have fun and do your thing!” I knew he liked me. Nevertheless, my career at PSV experienced a kink.
What were the reasons?
Vonlanthen: I was 17 years old and all alone in Eindhoven without my family. I missed her very much. My parents stayed in Switzerland because my siblings went to school there and lived on. I couldn’t ask everyone to move to the Netherlands just because of me. At the beginning I was still optimistic that I could do it alone, but gradually the opposite knowledge matured. Even though my teammates took care of me, it is important at this age to have the family close by. For example, Arjen Robben, who was a little older than me, always had his family around him and was given the best possible support. When I realized that it was different in my case, the problems came.
What were the specific problems?
Vonlanthen: I was not a player who often went to parties or had other things on my mind. But I overslept several times and was late for training. Guus Hiddink turned a blind eye twice, but the third time was too much. You lose credibility, and the other boys get the impression that you are not quite there. My chances of playing time decreased noticeably. Even after the 2004 European Championship, not much has changed in my situation.
While your young career experienced the first kink, Robben’s star went up at PSV. What experiences do you associate with him?
Vonlanthen: Arjen’s apartment was just around the corner, at most a hundred meters from mine. I was with him very often and got to know his girlfriend and parents. His life, unlike mine, was very well organized, nothing was left to chance regarding Arjen’s future. However, we often found the time to play PlayStation. You couldn’t beat Pro Evolution Soccer. The way he played on the soccer field, he also gambled on the PlayStation. It was absolutely amazing what the boy had on the console (laughs).
So Robben was a force on the virtual lawn. How did you perceive him in the real place?
Vonlanthen: If you got the ball in training on the outside line, it was always “actie” from outside, meaning that you should start an action. Arjen didn’t care whether he got the ball on the wings or in the middle – he did “actie” everywhere. He grabbed the ball, went it alone and tried to finish. Many teammates were upset that he kept dribbling. Then he said, “Okay, that’s fine. Next time I’ll play.” A few seconds later he started to go it alone (laughs). Even then, he had outstanding qualities.
Source: imago images / VI Images
What particularly distinguished him?
Vonlanthen: I met him when he was 18 years old. I admired how focused and mentally stable he was despite his age. He knew exactly what he could do. Usually, young players struggle with fluctuations in performance, this is completely normal. At Arjen I could never see such fluctuations, he just didn’t make any mistakes. Instead, he was the deciding man in almost every game I’ve played with him.
Why have your two careers been so different?
Vonlanthen: I have already mentioned its solid environment. I think that is extremely important. I completely underestimated being alone abroad. In addition, he was wider in the head than I was then.
Robben moved to Chelsea in 2004 for 18 million euros, six months later you were loaned to Brescia. How did it go in Italy?
Vonlanthen: The fact that PSV wanted to borrow me hit me really hard. I had to react and first have to look at which clubs could be considered. Then it was said that Brescia would like to sign me on. Brescia’s coach Giovanni de Biasi called me personally, I liked that. Series A also appealed to me.
However, you did not play many games for Brescia.
Vonlanthen: Two weeks later, de Biasi was released and a new coach, Alberto Cavasin, took over. The situation had changed completely because Cavasin didn’t know me. That didn’t work out at all and I had to admit that the decision to go to Brescia was not the smartest.
You were young and, despite your problems, were considered a great talent in Eindhoven. It’s hard to believe that Brescia was the only option.
Vonlanthen: My advisor told me at the time that only Brescia had looked after me. Only later did I learn that clubs from Germany also signaled interest. Of course that hurts. Had I known that earlier, I would probably have moved to Germany.
Do you regret your move to Italy?
Vonlanthen: Not necessarily. I didn’t assume that the coach who brought me in would have to leave after two weeks. Under his successor, I only made nine appearances. I sometimes experienced things there that I could not understand.
Vonlanthen: Above all, I can remember a game in which I should have been playing from the beginning. A teammate came up to me five minutes before kick-off and said, “Johan, you’re not playing today, someone else is starting for you.” I asked him: “Why, what happened? I warmed up with the team and was still in the first eleven in the cabin on the board.” In fact, the coach had changed his mind without informing me. I still don’t know why I wasn’t allowed to play. Maybe it was better that way, because we were behind after 20 minutes (laughs). But after this campaign at the latest it was clear to me that I would return to Holland.
You once said that no one prepared you for the brutality of the football business. How did this brutality express itself?
Vonlanthen: My parents couldn’t protect me from certain people because they had no experience in the football business and didn’t know how the business was going. Back then, many saw only the chance to make coal with me. It was brutal. It may be worse these days, the consultants make a lot of money with young talent. On the other hand, it is positive that parents are now also allowed to assist their children as advisors. In the past, only official FIFA agents were allowed to do this.
They replaced none other than Wayne Rooney as the youngest European goal scorer of all time at the 2004 European Championship. What emotions did the hit trigger for you?
Vonlanthen: It was indescribable, a great moment and certainly my high point in my career. As a young player, I was simply thrown into this European championship and then met Fabien Barthez. At that moment, a lot of memories appeared in my mind’s eye. I thought about my childhood in Colombia, how it all started.
Source: imago images / PanoramiC
With the same goal, a real hype about you developed, especially in Switzerland. Did negative aspects result from this?
Vonlanthen: I do not think so. I knew what I was capable of and was well aware of my qualities. The only negative aspect was lack of patience. I put too much pressure on myself after this goal. Even my advisor couldn’t go fast enough afterwards. Guus Hiddink tried to slow me down. He said to me: “Your time will come.” He wanted to give me the necessary discipline and convey that I have to be patient. But I didn’t understand why I wasn’t used more often. Today I would grab my former self by the ears and say: “Boy, stay cool! You are 18 years old and play at PSV. Step on the gas and wait for your chance.”
In the run-up to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, it was reported that you did not want to vacate your squad even though you were injured. You have reportedly submitted medical certificates that should certify your ability to play. What is the veracity of these reports?
Vonlanthen: I mainly had a look at the Swiss tabloid Look always a certain problem professional image. There was always a tendency to report.
What was the reason for declaring you a problem professional?
Vonlanthen: It all started with a very big mistake that I very much regret: we had a qualifying game against the Czech Republic with the U21 national team and my coach explained to me that I would not be in the starting XI. Even though our striker was injured during the week and could only train once, I was put on the bench and allowed to play. Because I didn’t get any support from my teammates in this situation, I was extremely disappointed and sat on the stands. A stupid action that caused me to suddenly have a certain reputation.
And what about the 2006 World Cup?
Vonlanthen: I had a torn muscle. The Swiss doctors said a month before the tournament started that I would not make it. I approached our trainer Köbi Kuhn and asked him: “Will you give me the time to get fit, coach?” He agreed, but ultimately he had to explain to me that it was not enough. For me, Hakan Yakin was in the squad at the time. I was of course disappointed because I gave everything and really wanted to be there. In retrospect, I have to admit that the coach’s decision was correct.
Have there been any complications within the team because of this?
Vonlanthen: No, the boys noticed that I tried everything. Some gave me courage and encouraged me to keep trying, others thought I had to accept my World Cup exit. I found it difficult to admit to myself that it was not enough and that a torn muscle fiber could not be completely resolved within four weeks. But there were no disputes.
Despite the negative press reports, Lothar Matthäus, as assistant coach of Red Bull Salzburg, was committed to bringing you to the city of Mozart. How was it working with him?
Vonlanthen: He was the one who really wanted me. He stood up for me and kept calling me to convince me of a change. I am grateful to him for that. My first year with him was great. We became champions with him and head coach Giovanni Trapattoni, I played very well and was even voted the best midfielder in Austria. Lothar said to me: “Boy, you have to be the first on the field in training, step on the gas!” He instilled discipline and punctuality on me.
Source: imago images / Ulmer
In Germany, Lothar Matthäus is sometimes smiled at as a trainer. What do you think of the critics?
Vonlanthen: I can only say that he gave me very valuable tips, his coaching was great. He played an important part in making us successful. After an away game in the Champions League qualification against FC Zurich, he took me aside and said: “You are one of the youngest players, you have to run more, do more than the other boys – only then will you prevail. ” I scored a goal and we won the game, but the performance was really manageable. He recognized that immediately and communicated it clearly. After his speech, I was back on the ground.
Why didn’t things go on for him in Salzburg?
Vonlanthen: I think that after a while he and Trapattoni could no longer agree on a common path, so the ways parted.
What was your relationship with Trapattoni like?
Vonlanthen: Overall very good! But I played for Salzburg in my second season with a hernia. At first I didn’t want to be operated on. But because the 2008 European Championship was due in summer, I finally decided to have an operation in the winter to attack again in the second half and to recommend myself to the national team. Trapattoni disagreed. Suddenly I didn’t play that often. But I was taken to the EM anyway (laughs).
After your return to Switzerland in 2009, when you joined FC Zurich, the press obviously became interested in your affiliation with the Seventh Day Adventists. What was the background?
Vonlanthen: I want to say in advance that I am a believer, but what was made of it was unspeakable. I gave an interview to a small Adventist magazine in Salzburg, where I shared my thoughts about the Bible and God. That’s where the whole thing started. They didn’t care what I go through as a human being, but reported that I belong to a sect. Nobody cared what was going on.
What was the story that you didn’t want to go to work on Saturdays because the Adventists keep the Sabbath?
Vonlanthen: Because the Adventists keep Sabbath, it was written that I have a problem from now on. For me, football was very important. Some people in the denomination put pressure on me to make a decision, but I wanted to be able to control my private affairs myself and be calm. It was a difficult time for me, but the topic is now ticked off and I don’t want to go into it further. The most important thing is that I am happy with my wife and have two wonderful children.
Credit: imago images / action pictures
After two years at FC Zurich, you returned to Colombia and stayed there for two years. What was your drive?
Vonlanthen: The reports triggered, among other things, efforts to go back to Colombia with my then pregnant wife. I wanted my child to be born in a good environment. I also always wanted to play in my country of birth and switched to Itagüi Ditaires. Most of all, I spent a lot of time with my family in Colombia.
You only played five times for Itagüi. Why?
Vonlanthen: I had knee problems after finding cartilage damage in Zurich. Shortly after the Champions League, I had surgery during the winter break, but the pain remained. I felt in the second half of the season that I could barely bend my knee. For this reason too, my time at FCZ ended. Even though the association offered me an extension of the contract, I knew that I could no longer give one hundred percent. That’s why I didn’t sign. But the media did not devote themselves to this topic, but focused exclusively on the history of faith. What I also found sad was that my advisor suddenly wasn’t as present as before. The people who were close to me were gone from one day to the next and I realized that I don’t seem to care so much about them anymore.
You have already described in detail that you were not necessarily the darling of the Swiss press. What was the media coverage like when you showed up at the Grasshoppers in 2013?
Vonlanthen: The expectations were back to one hundred percent, just like at the beginning of my career when the stamp “talent of the century” was put on me. Incidentally, I never said anything in this direction.
Source: imago images / Geisser
Were you able to meet expectations?
Vonlanthen: In the meantime, a membrane was inserted and the knee did not swell after the workout. For me it was a sign that I can come back. I was able to sprint without pain, do strength training and play soccer. My first game against St. Gallen was catastrophic, I wasn’t really on the pitch at all. Because I focused too much on what the people calling me from the stands.
Vonlanthen: “Vonlanthen, what do you want here? Go back to your church!” After the game it was very difficult to get back into the starting line-up because my competitors had done a great job and took their chance. There was no reason to put myself back in there. After that we decided to take a step back. I switched to the second division at FC Schaffhausen to get more practice. The team was very ambitious and wanted to move up. It went really well because I had a great coach with Maurizio Jacobacci. I should have scored nine or ten goals, but instead I missed many good chances. As an offensive man you are measured by goals and assists.
Then you tried your luck in Geneva.
Vonlanthen: Exactly, at Servette I finally met the gate again (laughs). We were long leaders before the Achilles tendon tear. By the way: all serious injuries that resulted in an operation occurred on the left side – the inguinal hernia, cartilage damage and the Achilles tendon tear. I would probably have stayed in Geneva anyway, but the club went bankrupt and relegated to the third division. And then my last stop came, Wil.
You have had an eventful career and now work as a player consultant. What do you give your clients on the way?
Vonlanthen: I pay a lot of attention to the environment among the talented players, try to see whether the parents mean well with their children. It’s about keeping the players on the ground, always working on themselves. You have to know that the job as a professional soccer player is very risky, something can always happen. In the worst case, serious injuries can mean the end. For this reason, I convey to the players that they should take precautionary measures. I speak from experience.