With UEFA Champions League, senior international and Bundesliga football in the time since, ex-Newcastle United prospect Kevin Mbabu feels he is now the man that the English game never quite saw. Much has stayed with the Swiss defender from those days, though – in a sporting, social and even a sound sense.
Kevin Mbabu’s move to VfL Wolfsburg last summer followed two consecutive Swiss Super League titles with BSC Young Boys, with his final campaign at the Bern club introducing him to the spine-tingling prestige of Champions League action. Crowned the top division’s Player of the Year in 2018 – an accolade won by the likes of Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (for Basel) in recent times – he proudly earned his first senior cap with Switzerland that same year.
There is nothing outwardly obvious to scream ‘dramatic transformation’ about the former Newcastle United youngster, but suffice to say, he is a markedly different proposition to the one who left Tyneside in 2017 after an initial year away on loan.
“When I came to England, I was a teenager, a kid, and now I’m a man with a lot more maturity,” the 24-year-old explains. “I learned from all the mistakes I made at Newcastle, so now I know what I can do and when, so there’s a lot of things I would do different, and that I am doing different.”
“I completely changed my diet, because at that time, I didn’t really care about my diet. I take care of my body and I do stuff before and after training; sometimes I leave the training ground and it’s 4/5 o’clock.
“I really give everything for my body to be perfect the day after.”
Still 17 when he signed for Newcastle in January 2013, the ex-Servette youngster was a very obvious ‘one for the future’. Two managers and over two-and-a-half years later, he did get his chance, with ex-England boss Steve McClaren (who also managed his current club Wolfsburg in 2010/11) playing him five times during 2015/16.
Ultimately, there would be no elevation to established first-teamer, but the years in Newcastle taught and gave him plenty: exposure to an elite environment, much sharper English proficiency, and a realisation of the variables that can so easily nudge a player off-course. He keeps the lessons with him, the memories good and bad, while he also adopted a more anglicised personal soundtrack.
In a Bundesliga with a steadily increasing sprinkling of Brits – from Borussia Dortmund’s English sensation Jadon Sancho, to young Wales winger Rabbi Matondo at Schalke – Kevin is doing his bit to feed the UK vibes in, with a little help from an Afrobashment duo out of Birmingham.
“I listen to pretty much everything; UK music, American music, French music, African. I always try to find new songs, and at the moment, there is an English song I found: Lotto Boyzz ‘Did it Again.’
“That’s a good song and it’s one I found in the last few days. I listen to music almost all the time; in the morning when I get ready, in the car when I go to training, before games, when I go to bed.
“So, music’s really a part of my life.”
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Having made his professional debut at Servette back home, his Premier League introduction came against Jose Mourinho’s defending champions Chelsea in a 2-2 draw at St. James’ Park, three days after his Magpies debut at home to Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup. In fact, there were stadium firsts aplenty (well, at least one other…) while he was in the North East.
“The only concert I’ve been to was in Newcastle, when John Legend came. I remember I went to that one, but I’ve never had the chance to go to others.”
Luckily enough, Beats & Rhymes FC (that’s this site, by the way…) is not just your opportunity to talk music as a footballer, but also to see any band or artist from all-time perform live. You just have to really use that power of thought.
So, if Kevin could defy the rules of time and bring back a legend in their prime, or just see a current act he admires, who would be his choice?
“I’ve got two in mind. The first would be of course Michael Jackson; my mum went to one of his concerts and she said it was amazing.
“The second would be Beyoncé, because everyone said she’s amazing on stage and that everybody should see her at least once.”
Announced by Wolfsburg as a new signing in late-April 2019, Kevin joined on a four-year deal for an undisclosed fee, taking on the number 19 worn by the late Junior Malanda at the club. His first goal came in the 1-1 December draw at home to Schalke, with Kevin acrobatically converting a spilled corner kick at the Volkswagen Arena.
Increased opportunities have come his way as the season has worn on, and he has featured often in the current eight-game unbeaten run for Oliver Glasner’s side. Before any debut, there is the signing of the contract and the now-customary unveiling for the cameras – but that’s all just a gentle prelude to the true introduction!
“I had to sing last summer at the training camp, and I sang ‘Shape of You’ – Ed Sheeran,” Kevin recalls. “I sang quite well, and then I forgot some of the lyrics…but let’s say it went well!”
An English-language choice, and a Suffolk singer for the squad from Lower Saxony to sample. It most likely wouldn’t have been the initiation route he would have gone down had he not had those aforementioned years at Newcastle to immerse himself.
Kevin, whose first language is French, describes his experiences of adapting to English and German.
“Learning English, when I came to England, I just had the basics from school. I really learned English when I arrived in England.
“I had two or three lessons a week with a private teacher and straight away I learned English, because before that, it was just basic things like ‘hello, how are you? What time is it?’ I would say it’s easier in Germany to learn German, because in Switzerland, I learned German in school, but it was the good German, and in Switzerland we speak the Swiss German, and it’s completely different.
“It was difficult to understand the Swiss German, but I find it easier to understand and speak the real German.”
Coming from Chêne-Bougeries, beside the famous city of Geneva, Kevin was born to a mother originally hailing from the Democratic Republic of Congo. So would there be African music on in the house when he was younger?
“Oh yes, of course. All my childhood I was listening to mainly Congolese music, and also Ghanaian and Nigerian music.
“Everybody loves music in the family, and my sister was really into music, because she was a pianist and violinist. The oldest CD I can remember, it was a lot of songs of The Jackson 5; I remember my sister bought it me.”
Officially arriving on the senior international scene post-FIFA World Cup 2018, Kevin played the entirety of Switzerland’s UEFA Nations League semi-final with Portugal last June. Cristiano Ronaldo struck twice in the dying minutes in Porto to complete a hat-trick and a 3-1 win for the hosts.
In a reunion of sorts, he came up against England in the subsequent third-place decider in Guimarães, successfully dispatching his penalty in the shootout (though England were 6-5 winners) after a 0-0 draw. The Swiss player who scored just before him was current Dortmund defender Manuel Akanji, the man Kevin says is the national team’s changing-room DJ.
Asked if there is someone who takes that role at Wolfsburg, he points to the in-form midfielder whose header started the two-goal comeback to draw at Union Berlin the weekend before last. However, if only in a music sense, the 25-year-old might soon be taking an enforced step back!
“Yes, there’s one actually for our gym sessions and before games,” Kevin explains. “It’s Yannick Gerhardt, but we’re thinking it might be time to change, because we know his songs now!”
As well as football dressing rooms, music is a capsule of different nations’ respective cultures. Some clubs and national sides have a love for cranking the volume and revelling in the atmosphere as a team, whereas others are altogether quieter, with music a more individual element.
Having played in England and back home, this is Kevin’s first comprehensive taste of life and football in Germany, and he offers some insight into the psyche he has sampled so far at Wolfsburg.
“There’s a great spirit in the team, everybody is close to everybody and there’s always a lot of jokes and messing around in the changing room. I think the atmosphere is great in the team.
“There are a few funny guys, but I would say there are a few who don’t really make jokes; they are more serious, and that’s probably the older ones! Most of the players all joke around.”
A decade ago, and with their native language in common, a teenage Paul Pogba made a beeline for Kevin during his trial with Manchester United’s Under-18/reserve set-up. Some years after the World Cup winner had briefly taken him under his wing, Kevin twice played against the midfielder for Young Boys in the Champions League, with only a stoppage-time Marouane Fellaini goal getting past them in the Old Trafford game in November 2018.
The final game of that group stage saw Young Boys beat Juventus 2-1 in a highly memorable night at Stade de Suisse when not even Cristiano Ronaldo could rescue it for the Italian giants. Back at Newcastle, Kevin recalls another player with a Manchester United past (and another from the vast French-speaking contingent at Newcastle), showing the most sharpness with the sounds.
“In the reserve team, I think I was always the one trying to put music on whenever we had our gym sessions, but then there was also Gabriel Obertan. I think he was the best DJ there at that time.”
In a sport that sees so many teammates and colleagues ultimately part ways and never really rekindle their union, there may be others in a player’s career that are there for the long haul. If he was to ever record a song, Kevin knows the Jamaican-born winger from his Newcastle days who would hit this track running.
“I would say Rolando Aarons, because I know he’s a good rapper!”
Like a song cover, today’s VfL Wolfsburg are trying to put a new twist on past glories, building their way back towards prominence. They ruled German football’s land under Felix Magath in 2008/09, as Brazilian-Bosnian duo Grafite and Edin Džeko hit 54 between them as the most lethal strikers in the division, firing Wolfsburg to what remains the club’s only Bundesliga title so far.
Die Wölfe fell from finishing 2nd and winning the DFB-Pokal (German Cup) in 2014/15 – Belgian midfield maestro Kevin De Bruyne and towering Dutch goalscorer Bas Dost starred, while Dieter Hecking was coach – to contesting relegation play-offs in 2017 and 2018. Last season was much improved, with 6th place achieved (only three points from Champions League qualification) before Oliver Glasner replaced Bruno Labbadia as manager in the summer.
Under the Austrian, VfL have climbed to 7th just recently, with a credible goalless draw at home to title-chasing RB Leipzig on Saturday extending their unbeaten run. A few years on from Bas Dost, Wout Weghorst is the imposing Dutchman leading from the front, while exciting young talents like Austrian midfielder Xaver Schlager bring added enterprise.
Kevin explains how he has been finding his feet, and in a wider sense, he shares his delight at being in something of a wonderland when it comes to matchday allure.
“It was difficult at the beginning because the training was quite tough. It took me maybe three or four weeks to adapt to training because it was very intensive every day, and for my body, it was not easy to handle all this training.
“After that, it was difficult because I wasn’t getting a lot of game time, so I just had to wait for my chance. I finally had it and I was happy to finish the year well and play four or five games in a row.
“The thing that is good here is when you go to any stadium, there’s always an amazing atmosphere. It’s just amazing to play in Germany and to see all these beautiful stadiums, and of course to play against some amazing players.”
As well as playing for current Eintracht Frankfurt boss Adi Hütter, his Young Boys time saw him feature alongside present-day Bundesliga peers like French winger Yoric Ravet, the Swiss Super League’s top assist provider in Young Boys’ runners-up season of 2016/17. In Hütter’s last season, they won the 2017/18 title by 15 points from Basel, bringing them their first title since 1986, and they would finish 20 clear a season later under Gerardo Seoane.
Kevin thrived under the regular cut and thrust of senior football, as the potential seen by Newcastle all those years ago started to unfurl. He gives a final fond reflection on his time on Tyneside.
“I lived in Jesmond, so it’s like five minutes from town. I really liked the life in Newcastle; a bit too much temptation sometimes when you’re bored.
“That’s what the young players have to be careful with over there, but it’s actually a great city, and a huge, huge fanbase. I would definitely want to come back and visit Newcastle again.
“When I first came to Newcastle, I came to watch a game, and the stadium was as full as always, and there was this amazing atmosphere. I just told myself my goal was to play on this pitch one day; I managed to do it, but not as much as I wanted to.”
A healthy dose of introspection has been vital to him pushing on to achieve feats like a place in the FedEx Performance Zone Team of the Tournament for the UEFA Nations League finals last year, alongside such names as Cristiano Ronaldo, Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong. To play in major tournaments amongst that company is a huge aim, and it could come to fruition in a matter of months, as Switzerland get set to face Turkey, Italy and Wales in Euro 2020.
Kevin, who was named in Vladimir Petković’s preliminary squad for the last World Cup, most definitely wouldn’t want to tempt fate, however. He played in the superb 5-2 dismantling of Belgium in that Nations League campaign, and he will especially never forget the 6-0 win over Iceland in St. Gallen two months earlier – his senior debut.
“(I felt) a lot of pride, because it’s something I wanted my whole life and it’s every boy’s dream to play for your national team. Also, my family was here, and I think they were happier than me!
“I worked for a long time to play for my country, so it was really an amazing day.”
His first-year adaptation to life as a Bundesliga full-back has meant trying to strike the balance between the defensive focus and chipping in with providing the ammunition from the right flank. Adding more layers to his skill set has certainly been a forte in recent years.
As he looks forward to more of what could lie ahead in an action-packed year, he leaves here with a bit of the old and the new. In the site’s regular closing question, he is gently dropped into a frenetic 5-a-side scenario – hopefully he brought some shin pads – and asked for four examples of teammates from his career who would ensure his team was packed with the desired flavour.
Take it away with your suggestions, Mr. Mbabu.
“I would say Hatem Ben Arfa. Florian Thauvin.
“I would say Yohan Cabaye maybe. Yunus Mallı, from Wolfsburg and now he’s at Union Berlin (on loan).
“Yeah, these are the most technical players I played with.”
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