22. Chadrac Akolo
Having only joined VfB Stuttgart this past July, Chadrac Akolo has become a fan favorite for Die Schwaben. The 22-year-old forward is is the club’s leading scorer with four goals in his first eleven appearances in all competitions (Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal matches), two of those being match winners. His most notable goal so far has been the 95th minute dazzler against 1. FC Koln, where the Congolese winger took on and dribbled past a couple of defenders from his favored right wing position and held off a third before firing a hopeful low shot toward goal with his weaker left foot — deflecting off Frederik Sorensen’s boot past Timo Horn.
Akolo has become an important player for Stuttgart as they aim to finish the season safe from relegation. Often featuring on the right wing or just behind the target man (Daniel Ginczek or Simon Terodde), he has great technique and ball control, as well as a remarkable first touch. This clean first touch allows him to dribble past his marker before firing precise and powerful shots, even with his weaker foot. What sets Akolo apart, is employing center forward-like skills to play with his back to goal. Despite standing just 5′ 8″, Akolo holds off defenders and attacks from deep, central positions. In his first season in a top 5 league, he is making waves for the storied club, leading them to a midtable position after Stuttgart earned promotion just last season.
His own personal story in itself could serve as a great film subject — one of the better feel-good football stories of the year — one but common to the tens and tens of thousands who in the last years have crossed the Mediterranean on a boat, at risk of their own lives, to escape their country. The trip across the sea has become a perilous adventure for those who live to tell their story. In 2009, Akolo made that journey with his father at the age of 14 to reunite with his mother and sister, who had preceded them by finding asylum in Switzerland.
Thus began a new life far from Kinshasa, DR Congo, where Akolo was born and learned to play football. For several months, his family lived in a center of refugee asylum seekers in Bex (a local municipality in the Swiss Canton of Vaud), living with the fear of being deported back to the Congo, seeing many of his new friends suddenly gone overnight. As he states in an interview in Tages
Einzeiger, he always worried, “Are we next?”
He joined the youth team of local club FC Bex and makes his debut for their senior team in 2.Liga Inter at the age of 16. It is here where he exhibited his raw dribbling ability and unruly movement to the extent that he would go offside countless times because he never had the tactical training. Soon after, Akolo had a few trials from FC Basel, but did not receive an offer to join the team. Nonetheless, FC Sion youth team coach Blaise Piffaretti saw enough of his talent to sign him on a youth contract in March 2012. At 16, he was refining his talent in Sion’s U18s, adding a much-needed tactical intelligence to his portfolio.
Akolo would rise through the youth ranks quickly, receiving his first professional contract at the age of 19, then making his first senior team appearance and start versus St. Gallen and Grasshoppers, respectively, at the end of the 2013-14 season. The next season and a half, he featured primarily on the bench or in rotation, but not able to break into the starting XI. When he did make it on the pitch, he did not produce the goods.
During the Winter Transfer window of 2016, Sion lent him to Neuchatel Xamax in the Brack.CH Challenge League. It was there where manager Michel Decastel finally unlocked his talent. Akolo netted nine goals in sixteen appearances, playing mostly on
the left wing. He often racked up goals at the youth level due to his unbeatable pace, but during his loan at Neuchâtel Xamax, he reached a turning point in his evolution. Here in western Switzerland, he became a modern central forward with an improved goal accuracy, able to play with his back to the goal, as few other strikers in Switzerland are able to do. In his final match for Xamax, Akolo scored a hat-trick against Le Mont, starting at that #9 position, before returning to Sion with explosive momentum.
The 2016-17 season was Chadrac Akolo’s most successful with FC Sion. He scored 15 goals, dragging the Valais to a sensational fourth place, earning qualification to the preliminary round of the Europa League, and helping the club to a Swiss Cup final where Sion would ultimately lose to perennial winners FC Basel.
Chadrac Akolo established himself as one of the most talented young players of theSwiss Super League prior to his 6 million Euro move to VfB Stuttgart. His low centre of gravity and explosiveness combined well with the footballing style of FC Sion coached by Peter Zeidler.
For a brief period in Switzerland, there was a flirtation to play for the Nati, but Akolo would have needed to go through the lengthy process to gain Swiss citizenship. In the end, Chadrac opted for to play for the Leopards after being called up by manager Florent Ibengé this season. He made his debut in the September World Cup Qualifier, as a substitute in the 2-2 draw in Tunisia, alongside the likes of Cedric Bakambu and Chancel Mbemba.
As he has stated in many interviews regarding his rise to playing top flight football in the Bundesliga and featuring recently for the Leopards: “It’s happening all the while, sometimes I think I am dreaming and I am afraid to wake up.”
By: Victor Charnetsky/@VanDerCharks