Johan Vonlanthen

wsc300 A nomadic lifestyle drove a young Swiss star to God, abstaining from football and eventually back to the country of his birth. Paul Knott finds out why

The 12-year-old Johan Vonlanthen was in tears when he was taken away from his hometown of Santa Marta in Colombia in 1998 because he thought it meant he would never see a football pitch again. For a while, it seemed that he need not have worried. There were plenty of pitches in Switzerland, the home country of his mother’s new husband. During his teens Vonlanthen did little else but play stunning football on his way to becoming one of the most sought after prospects in Europe.

By the time he was 16 years old, Vonlanthen was a professional and a regular starter for Young Boys Bern. At 17, he chose PSV Eindhoven from a queue of high-end suitors on the grounds that their record of converting precocious talents, such as Ronaldo and Romário, into achievers would provide the perfect springboard to the next level. Soon afterwards, Vonlanthen made his debut for the Swiss national team and became the youngest ever scorer in a European Championship with a goal against France at Euro 2004.

Then Vonlanthen’s career slowly started to unravel. For a few years after Euro 2004 he remained Switzerland’s great hope. But he never quite made the transition from exciting youngster to dominant force. Despite some thrilling glimpses of what he might become, he was unable to secure a regular place in a strong PSV side and was loaned out to Brescia and then NAC Breda. Again, Vonlanthen impressed sporadically but not enough to clinch a long-term future back at PSV. In search of stability and more game time, he made another apparently sensible decision by stepping down a level (but up the pay scale) to join Red Bull Salzburg in 2006.

Things seemed to start well for Vonlanthen in Austria. He had a regular place in the team and won the league title in his first season. But the frustrations of the young man who wanted to play football were already percolating. Despite featuring in 42 games, Vonlanthen was only allowed to complete 90 minutes in 13 of them. Over the next two seasons the pattern became entrenched and Vonlanthen’s frustrations led to rows with successive coaches, Giovanni Trapattoni and Co Adriaanse.

By 2009, Vonlanthen was no longer welcome in Salzburg and his agitating for more playing time had saddled him with a reputation for insubordination that deterred other clubs from buying him. Eventually a solution was found and he moved to FC Zurich in season-long loan. Vonlanthen did well back in Switzerland but there was puzzlement at his occasional absences and Zurich’s decision to waive the option agreed with Salzburg to make the move permanent. At this point a new development came to light.

Vonlanthen has spoken recently in the Swiss press about how lonely he became during his peregrinations around Europe, as a young man who had only arrived on the continent a few years earlier. The pursuit of his dream career had precluded him from putting down roots anywhere. Rather than filling the void with cars and girlfriends, Vonlanthen has explained how he plunged into the Bible “with my heart and soul”.

Vonlanthen’s growing religiosity led him to join the strict Seventh-Day Adventist church. But the comfort he found there created an obstacle to his football career. The Adventists demand strict adherence to the ten commandments, including the law about reserving the seventh day for rest and prayer. They designate Saturday as their Sabbath. After months of agonising, Vonlanthen decided that his faith had given him so much that he could no longer justify playing on Saturdays.

Despite the efforts of the TV schedulers, this is still the most inconvenient day to opt out of football in much of Europe. It was an insurmountable difficulty for FC Zurich. There then followed a fruitless 18-month search for an Adventist compatible employer in Europe before Vonlanthen hit upon a more imaginative solution and found his way to a small club, FC Itaguí, in his country of birth.

Although he is being paid less than a fifth of what he earned in Salzburg, Vonlanthen says he has “rediscovered himself” since arriving at the club’s base near Medellín in August. He sounds happier than he has done for years. Medellín has a substantial Adventist community and Vonlanthen is able to live his chosen life there with his wife and young son without being mocked as an oddball. Better still, he is playing football every week again on the fields of Colombia he never wanted to leave and “really having fun getting back to being the player
that I used to be”.

From WSC 300 February 2012