What went wrong for Bojan, once dubbed the future of Barcelona, at football’s summit?

What went wrong for Bojan, once dubbed the future of Barcelona, at football’s summit?

Ten years in football can feel like a lifetime. Just ask Bojan. In 2009, Bojan Krkić Pérez was the new kid on the Barcelona block. A regular with his boyhood club, the teenager had strutted along a path to stardom too perilous for many to even contemplate walking on, plundering some 900 goals at youth level before surging through La Masia and debuting as the third youngest in his famous club’s illustrious history – the first of many records to fall to his name.

As Guardiola’s charges conquered all before them on the way to an unprecedented calendar year sextuple, Bojan conquered alongside them. The boy from Lleida was on top of the world.

In 2019, a matter of days into the new campaign, Bojan departed Stoke City by mutual consent, closing the door on his seventh club in eight seasons. Now a year away from his 30s, and having been shown to lack the capacity to cut it on those cold, wet Tuesday nights in Stoke – or nights of most discernible meteorological varieties, be they in Rome, Milan, Amsterdam or elsewhere – one is left to wonder just how it is that Bojan found himself here. Alas, it is a tale one needn’t wonder over for too long. Truth be told, you may even have heard this one before, or at least one just like it.

The son of Bojan Krkić and Maria Pérez, Bojan Krkić Jnr was born in Linyola, west Catalonia, in August 1990, and by 1999 was a member of Barcelona’s academy of excellence at La Masia de Can Planes. If the journey from wearing a baby’s bib to wearing the Blaugrana seems somewhat expedited, it was, helped in no small part by his father’s own history as a footballer and the prodigious talents he seemed to inherit. It seemed to most of those privileged to witness his rapid ascent that Bojan was made to play for Barcelona.

As the story goes, across the many levels of youth football Bojan experienced while growing and learning at La Masia, he clocked up some 900 goals for Barça, his junior goalscoring record nowadays a thing of legend. His innate speed and his swiftness of thought, his exquisite close control and deft dribbling, precipitated many raised eyebrows and many mouths left agape. It also precipitated the Barcelona chiefs painstakingly counting down the days to his 17th birthday, understandably eager to sign him to professional terms at the earliest opportunity.

It was with this kind of speed and efficiency that the earliest chapters of Bojan’s Barcelona career passed, almost as a matter of routine. Having already made his opening bow for Barcelona in a friendly the previous April, a little over a fortnight beyond his 17th birthday, Bojan made his professional debut for the Barcelona first team on 16 September 2007 as a second-half substitute away to Osasuna.

Three days later he replaced Messi, whose record as Barcelona’s youngest ever league debutant Bojan had just broken, as a late substitute against Lyon, as another record came his way, before, the following month, Bojan started his team’s LaLiga fixture away to Villarreal and found the net 25 minutes in, making him the club’s youngest league goalscorer. Then came his first Champions League appearance. Then, predictably, his first Champions League goal.

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It was perhaps the natural order of things, as Bojan’s emphatic start to life in blue and red thrust wide the floodgates and through them burst a torrent of comparisons with Lionel Messi. Those who sought to compare players based upon their technical gifts saw a familiar likeness in Bojan’s style; his weaving runs, low centre of gravity and adept finishes evocative of the magic South American three years his senior.

And even those more superficial observers, who knew or cared far less about their footballing idiosyncrasies, saw two young men of a similar build, sporting matching hairstyles, adorned in the same colours and occupying similar positions close to their opponents’ goal, and echoed the comparisons being made by those around them.

These unerring equivalences refused to relent and soon Bojan found himself swimming against a current that threatened to consume him. Sometimes, on his finest days, it seemed as though he could convince the world it was the perfect motivator, that it was helping him to flourish seeing the bar set so high. But, most often, when he failed to match Messi’s freakish standards – regardless of the fact that nobody, including Bojan, seemed capable of matching them – the comparisons weighed him down like an anchor, to the point where Bojan struggled to stay afloat at all.

As Bojan told Sid Lowe,in a 2018 interview with The Guardian, “At 17 my life changed entirely. I went to the Under-17 World Cup in July and no one knew me; when I came back, I couldn’t even walk down the road. A few days later I made my debut against Osasuna, three or four days later I played in the Champions League, then I scored against Villarreal, then Spain called.” Bojan’s life changed dramatically in a matter of months and he struggled to keep up.

His rapidly changing landscape saw him stricken by regular bouts of anxiety. “Anxiety affects everyone differently. I spoke to someone who felt like their heart was beating 1,000 times a minute. With me, it was a dizziness, feeling sick, constant, 24 hours a day. There was a pressure [in my head], powerful, never going away. I started to feel this powerful dizziness, overwhelmed, panicked.”

When it all became too much, it was this mental toil that prevented Bojan from answering his first call-up to the Spanish national team. Luis Aragonés called Bojan and told him he wished to take him to Switzerland, along with the rest of the country’s squad for Euro 2008 – a reward for his fine form throughout the season.

Bojan could only say no. The opportunity should have delighted him, but he simply found it daunting. The pressure was too immense. Fernando Hierro, his country’s sporting director, called him regularly to check on his well-being and see if he had changed his mind about the international call-up. Bojan felt he couldn’t and he begrudgingly told him ‘no’ each time they spoke.

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In training, at Barcelona, Carles Puyol became a shoulder to lean on, reassuring him that just as he had helped him at their club, he would be there to help him on international duty. But Bojan couldn’t bring himself to go. “I can’t, Puyi. I’m on medication, I’m on the edge,” he told him. Then, finally, the squad was announced, without Bojan, at his request, but an alternative version of the story reached the press and the announcement that covered the front page simply read: “Bojan says no”. “That headline kills me,” Bojan told Lowe. 

As if Bojan wasn’t under enough stress, wrestling with the guilt of rejecting his country but knowing he must prioritise his mental health for the sake of his career, the media span it as though he didn’t care about playing for his country. “I remember being in Murcia and people insulting me: they don’t know, they just think I don’t want to play. That was hard. What hurt was that the headline presumably came from the FA. How can you call me up when you speak to me the day before, know how I am, and then that comes out? I felt very alone. I was scared. I was ill. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

A short while later, Bojan indulged Barça TV with an interview he hoped may mend his reputation in the eyes of the Spanish public. When asked why he wouldn’t be joining Spain at the European Championship, Bojan claimed it was simply a matter of fatigue, telling them his time would be best served taking a much needed holiday.

This face-saving lie accomplished completely the opposite of what Bojan hoped, but he saw himself as having no other option. “I knew it wasn’t the right thing … [but] at that age you don’t know and the bomb had already exploded. We just tried to extinguish the fire. I felt that I had to escape, any way I could. People struggle to admit things aren’t going well and what matters to football is that all’s OK, gloss over it.”

Spain, of course, won Euro 2008 in Bojan’s absence and the youngster was left to rue a missed opportunity. Nevertheless, not one to fraternise with ghosts from the past, Bojan succeeded in finding help where he needed it, taking back control over his anxiety and subsequently enabling himself to focus fully on his football once again. Normality returned and his progression with Barcelona resumed.

A succession of new shirt numbers over the following seasons told the story of his development. The number 27 gave way to the number 11 which, itself, was soon replaced by the number 9. He continued to play regularly for Barcelona as he and his teammates commenced their assault on Spanish and European football, plundering no fewer than three league titles and two European crowns among a smattering of silverware during Bojan’s time in Catalonia.

But the forward couldn’t shake the feeling that, if he were to test the limits of his tremendous potential, he would have to do so away from the Camp Nou. After all, a front three of Lionel Messi, David Villa and Pedro left precious little room for a youngster desperate for minutes.

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And so, Bojan departed the city he loved so in search of a new story that placed him firmly at its centre, a tale in which he could be recast as the brave, unflinching protagonist. He found his new story in Italy, set among the grandeur of Rome. Little did Bojan know, the pages set before him were destined to tell a tragedy.

Bojan failed to find what he was looking for in Rome and, after spending more than half his life with Barcelona, the forward suddenly became rather peripatetic as a matter of necessity. The £10.5m deal that had taken Bojan to the Italian capital came with a clause that allowed i Giallorossi to purchase him outright for an additional £24.5m, in the process of scrapping Barcelona’s buy-back option.

But Roma, underwhelmed by the miserly return on their investment – just seven goals in 37 games – chose not to exercise such a disproportionately costly option, while Barcelona saw no benefit in bringing the player back and so, instead, Bojan was loaned to AC Milan in a second shot at making it in Serie A. Much to the frustration of both player and club, not the soaring sights of the San Siro nor the treasured red and black stripes temporarily adorning his chest could inspire Bojan to reclaim his form of old and, after just a single season, Bojan was back where it all began.

Eager to find a suitable foundation upon which to rebuild his quaking career, a selection of potential suitors in Netherlands made themselves known to Bojan, all keen on the prospect of taking him on loan. With his choice of the very finest clubs the country had to offer, Bojan eventually sided with Ajax, seduced by Johan Cruyff, whose tales of his own mightily influential years in the Dutch capital earned Bojan’s signature.

The presence of Champions League football, of course, helped Ajax win the race ahead of Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven. Once again, though, come the season’s end, Bojan’s new club were left wondering if the acquisition had been worth the effort. For their troubles, and in spite of Bojan’s very best efforts, five goals in 32 matches were all they had to show. The Amsterdammers quietly passed on the option of extending the Spaniard’s loan by an additional season.

If the ever-decreasing shirt numbers entrusted to Bojan once plotted his rapid rise through the game’s ranks, his distressing descent was plotted with comparable efficiency by the decreasing transfer fees his services commanded. Once valued at many tens of millions of pounds, and having been offered permanently to Roma just three seasons earlier in a deal worth around £35m, in late July 2014, Bojan gave his signature to a four-year contract with Premier League side Stoke, who signed him from Barcelona for just £1.4m.

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Bojan would spend five eventful seasons as a Potters player, during which time he experienced a number of highs, inclusive of a markedly promising start to life in the Premier League, scoring goals in memorable wins against Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton. He also became reacquainted with the various lows known to many in the game, the most impactful of which saw Bojan shipped out to the eclectic reaches of Mainz and Alavés in search of game time as various managers overlooked his talent.

Following his eventual release from second-tier Stoke, in the summer of 2019, Bojan wasted no time in finding a new club ready and willing to take a chance on him. Under an initial year’s contract, Bojan will soon be plying his trade west of the Atlantic, having signed for Major League Soccer side Montreal Impact. Just which Bojan the Québécois receive only time will tell.

At this juncture of his career, it appears to be something of a matter of fact: Bojan never reached the heights many expected him to reach. But there is something so inherently jarring about such an objective evaluation, especially when centred around the talk of expectation. 

After all, it was those on the periphery of the game, the impotent observers, who exclaimed they had seen something special in Bojan in the first instance. It was the observers who heralded him as the latest genius to graduate from La Masia and chose to label him with a comparison to a titan he never once asked for. It was the observers to whom Bojan felt he could not be honest when his mental health threatened to take from him everything he had worked so hard to obtain, the observers who deplored and disregarded him, and they who sought to pass judgement on his fate at every step that followed.

There is, quite frankly, nothing to be learned or gained from evaluating Bojan’s career in such a way. Instead, why not look to Bojan himself and how he tallies his experiences thus far: “I love football and no one will ever take that from me. I’m proud of my career, proud of what I have lived, and even if there are hard moments, you have to be strong,” he told The Guardian. “I will always love football, always, I’m still young, I enjoy playing, and I have no intention of stopping yet.”

The most stifling of all the shackles bound to Bojan throughout the course of his career were those closest to home yet furthest from his control: the constant comparisons to Lionel Messi. As he said himself, in that same interview with Sid Lowe: “People say my career hasn’t been as expected. When I came up, it was ‘new Messi’. Well, yes, if you compare me with Messi – but what career did you expect?”

Even at 29, with just a few more favourable hands from Lady Luck, Bojan could yet have another four, five, six years left in the game. It remains torturously far beyond the realms of reality to imagine he could still emulate the career of the Argentine whose inimitable example has continued to plague him so. But no man’s legacy in the game exists solely to be compared to another’s, and surely time enough remains for the Spaniard to prove himself capable of crafting a legacy that will ensure his own name is remembered years from now, not as the new Messi but perhaps simply as Bojan.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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