Insights & Stories Nishan Burkart: “I’m Taking a Relaxed Approach.”

Nishan Burkart: “I’m Taking a Relaxed Approach.”

He plays on Switzerland's national U16 team and is a virtuoso at scoring goals. Now Nishan Burkart, the super-fast, talented striker, is moving into the big leagues with a transfer to Manchester United. 

Nishan Burkart

Picture: Keystone/Peter Klaunzer 

Successful careers have something mythical about them. That moment in which a star is born. A magical moment when it all begins. If there was one defining moment when Nishan Burkart met the high expectations placed on him, it was the Swiss Cup in summer 2015. At this international junior tournament in Ruggell, Liechtenstein, he put on an extraordinary show. Whether he was outmaneuvering his opponents, providing perfect assists to his teammates, or getting the ball in the net himself – he did it all with exceptional ease. And to simply say that he "got" the ball in the net does not do his talent justice. It was actually more like small works of art, choreography, magic. Solo runs, lob shots, headers, bicycle kicks – the whole range of goal-scoring tricks. At the end of the tournament, the striker and captain had scored nine goals over seven games, with his team FC Zurich bringing home an impressive tournament win. Participants included renowned teams such as Manchester City, West Ham United, Werder Bremen, VfB Stuttgart, and Rapid Vienna. From that day on, his name was at the top of the list in scouts' notebooks. Suddenly the 15-year-old was one of the most sought-after talents in the world of football. 

A Strong Year Group

Nishan Burkart is one of Swiss football's great hopes for the future. The U16 international player belongs to the class of 2000, a year group that insiders are calling the most promising in a long time thanks to players like Lorenzo Gonzalez, Noah Okafor – and also Nishan Burkart. The young footballers born in 2000 are also the first to have completed Footeco – a program designed to promote young talent – in full. This program was set up in 2012 by the Swiss Football Association with the aim of improving training for 11- to 14-year-olds by identifying talent earlier and providing better training for the youngsters. "We are confident that Footeco is driving Swiss football forward," says U16 national coach Yves Débonnaire. "It is too early to draw any conclusions, but our initial impression is that the breadth of quality is growing and the number of talented young players available to choose from when selecting the national youth teams has increased."

The experienced coach, who has been working for the Swiss Football Association for the past two decades, had this to say about Burkart: "He's one of those players who can make a difference, and he's extremely versatile." He has the right mentality, competitive spirit, and technique. But it's his speed that really stands out: "He's one of the fastest junior players I've ever worked with. And not just over longer distances – he is also extremely explosive and agile in the first few meters."

Sporting Genes

Speed is in his genes. His father is Stefan Burkart, two-time Olympic athlete and former Swiss record holder over 100 and 200 meters. His mother is Helen Barnett, a former British 400-meter runner who was part of the Swiss relay team at the 1992 Olympics. "My father would have loved for me to become a track and field athlete too," he remarks on this mild spring afternoon at a trendy restaurant in Zurich West. "To make him happy, I also took part in two or three sprint competitions when I was little – and won, as he recalls. But that was enough. I found it too boring."

Instead, the seven-year-old knocked on the door of the local club, FC Urdorf – but was turned away because of the long waiting list. Next, he tried the major club FC Zurich. Here, they recognized his talent straight away. The club accepted him after just one trial session. From that moment on, football – with three training sessions and one match a week – became a defining part of his everyday life. "He has chosen this sport himself and never once had to be encouraged to do it," his father remembers. "My parents were always there for me and supported me in a positive way, but they never screamed from the sidelines or analyzed my performance over dinner," recounts the son. "I didn't want that. And they stuck to it." 

First Goal after 51 Minutes

This unshakable belief in his own ability remains one of his greatest qualities, and sets him apart off the football pitch too. Self-assured, but also laid back and eloquent, he describes his career. He has no trouble at all dealing with the intense competition. With the exception of a strained ligament and an inflamed patellar tendon, he has remained injury-free so far – although as a rapid striker he is destined to be the victim of some hard attacks. "It's as if I can sense when someone wants to foul me. I anticipate dangerous situations and avoid the opponent's legs with a jump or a change of direction."

He does not have a hero, a real role model. In terms of players, he tells us that he likes Barcelona aces Neymar and Suarez. "One is a dancer, full of tricks, the other an ice-cold scorer – I would like to be a combination of the two." And essentially, he already is. On the FCZ youth team, he made a name for himself as a provider and finisher a long time ago. At the U15 championship, he was the top goalscorer with some 25 goals. And when it came to being selected for the national team, too, it was not long before he achieved his first success. Sporting a jersey bearing the Swiss cross for the very first time against Scotland in April 2014, he needed just 51 minutes to score his first goal.

Tug of War between the Major Clubs

One year after that, he went to the previously mentioned tournament – the one that was destined to change his life for good. His performance at this tournament brought Nishan Burkart fame, along with all the usual industry hype that surrounds talented young footballers. The first agents came knocking; English websites heralded the "Swiss superkid" and branded him "the next Theo Walcott." In fact, the young Swiss player bears a striking resemblance to the forward on the English national team. He has the same build (at 1.72 m and 63 kg, he is also small and light) and a very similar style of playing to the super sprinter Walcott, who the Guardian once described, full of wonder, as galloping across the pitch "like a jack russell chasing a wasp along a crowded beach."

According to the media, last fall there was a veritable tug of war at the top table of English football for the speedy Swiss teenager with the dreadlocks. As well as Southampton, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United were all rumored to be after him. For once, the rumors were true. "I visited each club and analyzed its infrastructure while there," he explains. "I always knew: If I were going to move to a club abroad, then it could only be to England, my mother's home country."

A New Life

A few months later, in April 2016, the decision was finally made. Nishan Burkart signed a four-year youth contract with Manchester United. "Pure gut feeling – the other clubs were also very interested," he says, with a relaxed smile on his face. This summer, he will now be making the move to the North of England with his mother, where he will join the U18 team of the famous club. He will also go to school for one-and-a-half days a week there. Language will not be a problem since English has always been spoken in the Burkart home.

These last few weeks at home in Zufikon in the Canton of Aargau, Switzerland will mark the end of childhood for Nishan Burkart. At his new club, he will be one of many talented players, the training will be harder, and the football will be faster. He is not naive. And he knows Saidy Janko's story. Saidy Janko also transferred from the FCZ youth team to Manchester United three years ago. There, he made the leap to the U21s and was even selected as "Reserve Team Player of the Year 2014." However, he was not a full-time member of the professional team. He now plays for Celtic in Glasgow, Scotland. Despite this, hip-hop and basketball fan Burkart appears cool: "I'm taking a relaxed approach to it all," he says. "If it doesn't work out with Manchester United, the excellent training will still provide a fantastic foundation for launching a career at another club."

And sometimes – as the young Swiss also knows – players can rise to the top extremely quickly at Manchester United. Just like last February, when Marcus Rashford made his debut in the Premier League and scored his first goal with his very first shot. Three days later, he scored two goals to secure his team's place in the next round of the Europa League. He had come straight from the junior team and was just 18 years old. There is a reason why the venerable Old Trafford Stadium has a second name: the "Theater of Dreams." 

Nishan Burkart

Picture: Michael Krobath