Kevin Mbabu is one part of the Bundesliga's best defence right now at Wolfsburg with six clean sheets in a row in the league. And at 25, it's fair to say the Switzerland international has had enough experiences to last an entire career for most.
bundesliga.com sits down with Mbabu to discuss his career so far from Newcastle, Rangers, Young Boys and now Wolfsburg as well as growing up not knowing his father, overcoming major injuries and much more.
bundesliga.com: 42 points and 3rd place after 22 matches. Would you have thought that Wolfsburg could have such a strong and outstanding season?
Kevin Mbabu: "Not really. It's a bit of a surprise, but it's also a gift for a lot of hard work. We had a new coach with new ideas and new tactics and we needed one season to adapt and to put what he really wants into practice. We're showing it this season and we're doing very well because we've only lost two games this season in the Bundesliga."
bundesliga.com: What are the main reasons for Wolfsburg's success this season?
Mbabu: "I think the team spirit. You can see this on the pitch, for example, when there's a counter attack and Wout Weghorst runs from one box to the other to make a tackle. We're always there for a teammate when he makes a mistake and we've really improved defensively. We're very strong now and I think we've had five or six games in a row now with a clean sheet. That's quite difficult to do in the Bundesliga when you see that there are a lot of goals every weekend. These are the two parts in which we have improved a lot, and we're also definitely more efficient in front of goal than we were last season."
bundesliga.com: Seven competitive games without conceding a goal, how amazing is that achievement?
Mbabu: "It's unreal and it's just the gift for everything that we've done in training and for what the coach has given us. He has told us the way he sees football and what he thinks is important. Defending with the right numbers, for example, is very important for him because if you're in a good position, you can stop the counter-attack and then you only have to run 10 metres to get the ball back, rather than having to run back 70 metres. I think we're the best team in this kind of thing in the Bundesliga. I think we're also an amazingly physical team because we run a lot and we're almost always the team that runs the most in terms of distance and sprints and high-intensity runs. This also comes from the coach."
bundesliga.com: As a right-back, you're part of that strong defence. Could you please explain what has made Wolfsburg's defence invincible in the last couple of weeks? What's the secret?
Mbabu: "Of course, because my first job is to prevent goals. We've been doing this for seven games now and we can be very proud of that. But it also starts from the strikers, the wingers, and the number 10 who start the pressing. If the opponents get in front of goal, then it's our job, but it's a whole team job including the goalkeeper. He doesn't have to do much at the moment, but when he does have to do something, he's always there."
Watch: Tactical analysis - Wolfsburg's wing play
bundesliga.com: Can you tell us about the role John Brooks plays in your back line?
Mbabu: "He's the most experienced player in the back four and he is the one who has played the longest in the Bundesliga and is the oldest. He's the leader of the defence and he always talks to us and encourages everyone. This is the kind of player we need in the defence."
bundesliga.com: How big is this team's self-confidence and determination after that impressive winning streak?
Mbabu: "The confidence is very high at the moment - not too high, but very high. What is happening right now is amazing, but there are still 12 games to go and there's still a long way to go. We have the Champions League in the back of our heads and it would be an amazing goal if we reached it."
bundesliga.com: How would you describe the atmosphere and team spirit and how does it show in the dressing room, especially after winning games?
Mbabu: "I know the coach has talked about it in the media that we don't enjoy it as much when we win. Now we're really trying to show it as a team and we put music on and have a little party. Even the players who didn't play are part of it and they celebrate as much as those who played. This is how you can see that there is an amazing team spirit in the team."
bundesliga.com: Is Champions League qualification now no longer just a dream but a realistic goal?
Mbabu: "Right now, it's a realistic goal because we're five points ahead of Leverkusen who are fifth, so we have a good advantage right now. Leverkusen had the Europa League and Gladbach and Dortmund also have European games, so it's an advantage for us. But you never know what can happen in football and we have to take it game by game and we have to try to win each of our games even though it's very difficult in the Bundesliga. We're in a good rhythm at the moment and this can continue if we keep doing the same job and if we keep the focus, which is also very important."
bundesliga.com: You already played in Champions League games with Young Boys. How big is your desire to return to this stage and hear the hymn in the stadium instead of watching on your couch?
Mbabu: "It's a little boy's dream. I had the chance to do it with Young Boys and it's just amazing when you walk onto the pitch and you hear this special music that everybody knows. It would be a little bit different now because if we reach the Champions League with Wolfsburg, we would be going as a big team. With Young Boys, it was the first time in history that we qualified, but Wolfsburg has already played in the competition and we would be there as a big Bundesliga team. We would fight to get to the last 16 or the quarter-finals, so it will be a little bit different because we will play to win. With Young Boys, we didn't just play for fun, but we were still discovering it for the first time."
bundesliga.com: How would you describe your abilities and what is it that you can bring to Wolfsburg's game?
Mbabu: "First of all, I can always bring my good mentality and I always fight for the team. I always try to stay positive for my teammates because I think that's very important for the team and I always try to help my teammates. I'm a very physical player and I can run up and down the pitch all game. I'm strong defensively and I can bring a lot going forward. I always try to help the team to score goals and to have good chances up front. But I think my strongest part is my defensive part."
bundesliga.com: In the past, you've said Cristiano Ronaldo was responsible for your desire to become a professional football player. What did you mean by that?
Mbabu: "First of all, I always admired him and Lionel Messi because they were always big players. I was a Manchester United fan at the beginning, so I watched him when I started to watch football and when Man United were at their best. I always told myself that my dream one day was to play against Ronaldo or Messi and I said I would do everything for this to happen one day. I managed to do it because I played two times against Cristiano Ronaldo and it was an amazing experience."
bundesliga.com: Let's go a little bit through your career. How did it all start and who encouraged you to play football?
Mbabu: "We're really sporting in my family. My sister played basketball and my brother played football. My little sister was doing athletics, but my step-father got me into football and I think this is how it all started."
bundesliga.com: You started with FC Servette and then, at the age of 17, you went to England and played for Newcastle United and Rangers in Scotland. Who and what made you decide to go there and how do you look back on those days of your career and the experience?
Mbabu: "It was amazing for me to sign in England because it was always my dream as a kid to play in England. It didn't go like I wanted it to go, but it was an amazing experience and it helped me to grow mentally. In the three-and-a-half years I was there I had almost two years of injuries, so it was a very difficult time over there for me. But I still had the chance to play a few games in the Premier League and, of course, I wanted to stay longer and play more in the Premier League, but it was very difficult with injuries. A new coach came and he told me that I had to find a solution to continue my career, so I came back to Switzerland."
bundesliga.com: Since you didn't get a lot of playing time with Newcastle and Rangers, you went back to Switzerland and joined Young Boys. Would you rate that as a step back or as an important step forward for your future/ongoing career?
Mbabu: "To be honest, I didn't want to come back to Switzerland because a lot of people would have said that I went to England too early and that I failed. But I had good people around me saying that it was a great opportunity to go back to Young Boys and that they had a big project for the future. Their aim was to win the league and a good coach, Adi Hütter, was there, so I came back. At the beginning, it was difficult because I didn't play so much, but I started to play regularly after six months. When I look back today, this was the best choice I made in my career so far because it helped me to get back on track and I ended up here in Wolfsurg."
bundesliga.com: With that team, you won the championship in 2018 for the first time in 32 years for the club. How exciting was that and what did it mean to you and the club?
Mbabu: "It was a historic win and I will never forget the 28th of April, 2018. It was just an amazing feeling because the club hadn't won anything in 32 years and it was just a magical night. We did it again a year after, so I won two titles and it was just an amazing feeling."
bundesliga.com: What kind of role does your family play in your football life? Who encouraged and helped you to become a professional football player?
Mbabu: "I loved it when my mum came to my games and I always wanted my family to come to my games. I always thought it was a little push of motivation because I wanted to make somebody that I love proud. My mum always tried to come to my games and she was always pushing me and encouraging me, especially when I had my injuries. She was always by my side, apart from on the day when I told her that I wanted to stop going to school to play football. It was a difficult time for her because I had one year until I finished business school and I told my mum that I had to make a choice now. She wasn't happy at the beginning, but then she said that she would always support me and that we would see how it goes."
bundesliga.com: You were raised by your mother and step-father, and you never met your father who left when your mother was pregnant. Is that something that still affects you and makes you sad occasionally?
Mbabu: "The last time I saw him was when I was three years old, but I don't really remember. My mum took on both roles and she did it very well. My step-father then also came into my life and although he is my step-father because we don't share the same blood, I consider him like my father because he helped me a lot through my childhood until I was a teenager. He really helped me and he also sent me to some football camps in Mainz, which were some good experiences. He always helped me and he would always buy me the best shoes for me to be comfortable, so I consider him like my father."
bundesliga.com: Your mother was born in The Democratic Republic of Congo. How much African blood is running through your veins? Where does Africa show up in you?
Mbabu: "As I am light-skinned, I would say 50 percent. You can probably see it in my physical abilities because I'm very fast and strong and I have got good stamina. You can also maybe see it a little bit outside of football because I'm very chilled and I can become lazy and slow. I really like to be calm and sometimes I like to be left alone in my own world. Also my hair, I forgot about my hair, but that's too obvious!"
bundesliga.com: What did your mother tell you about her life there when she grew up?
Mbabu: "She told me that she had a good life over there because even though there was a dictator, Moputu, she still had a good education and she comes from a good family. She went to a private school and she used to play handball and she was almost a professional in handball. She's also a very sporty woman and she had an amazing life there. She grew up surrounded by love and happiness because they had a huge family and I can't tell you how many brothers and sisters she had. She told me that she had a very good childhood over there."
bundesliga.com: Do you have any connections to Congo, or any family or friends, or have you ever been there?
Mbabu: "My grandmother lives there and she visited us in Switzerland a couple of times. We stay in contact through WhatsApp and Facetime."
bundesliga.com: Injuries are also a part of your young career. How frustrating were those times and how hard was it to always work your way back?
Mbabu: "The hardest was in England because I was in a bad vicious circle of getting injured, coming back, and then getting injured again. I was in this bad circle for two-and-a-half years and that was the hardest time in my career. I always had that dream in my head that I was going to make it and I'd never give up until I couldn't run any more. This is what pushed me and I also had my family and friends always behind me and telling me that they believe in me and that it'll come if I work hard and keep believing in it. I believe that if you work hard and give everything you can to what you do, you'll get something back, and that's what is happening right now. I also had a bad injury at the beginning of the season. It could've been very serious and I was lucky that I didn't need surgery. I managed to work my way back earlier than planned and I'm happy that everything is fine today and that I'm fully fit and playing."
bundesliga.com: Last summer you were tested positive for the coronavirus. How did you cope with that news and the situation that came with it?
Mbabu: "At the beginning, I was just thinking that it was impossible because we had that important game against Shakhtar and I really wanted to play it because I worked very hard during my holidays to be fit for this game. We only had two weeks of training before that game and I was just thinking then that everything was ruined. I just had to stay home for 14 days and luckily it was summer, so I had good weather and I could go in the garden. But it was very annoying to train at home because I had to run in my garden and it was a difficult time because I came back from the coronavirus and then got injured two weeks later. It was very difficult."
bundesliga.com: You will probably be part of the Swiss national team that takes part in the Euro 2021 this summer. Does that make you proud and how much do you enjoy playing for the Swiss national team?
Mbabu: "I'm so excited to play in a big tournament for the first time. I really waited for it last year and I was very excited, but then came the whole situation where it was postponed to this year. I'm also very excited because we're in a great situation at the moment and I think we could spring a little surprise this year as a "small country" at the Euros. Of course, I will take Renato Steffen and Admir Mehmedi too!"
bundesliga.com: In a group with Italy, Turkey and Wales, what are your expectations and hopes and how far can Switzerland go in this tournament?
Mbabu: "I think we have a good chance to go through. Ideally, we will be in the top two. Of course, Italy is the favourite in the group and then it'll be between us three. I think we have good capabilities to finish first or maybe second, even though it will be difficult to fight for first place against Italy. I believe that Switzerland can go to the quarter-finals at least this year."
bundesliga.com: Half of the Swiss squad is playing in the Bundesliga. What makes it so attractive here and how close is the Swiss Bundesliga community? How often do you exchange words?
Mbabu: "I'm close with Denis Zakaria and I was also close with Yvon Mvogo, who is now in Holland. I think Switzerland and Germany have a good connection because most of the time it has worked with Swiss players and this is why I think clubs are coming to get players from Switzerland. We produce good players and you can see this now at Gladbach with Yann Sommer, Nico Elvedi, Denis Zakaria, and Breel Emobolo. We also have it here, and I can see that it works very well with Swiss players. The mentality is quite similar and we also learn German and speak a lot of German in Switzerland, so I think this is also why it works very well with players in the Bundesliga."