It may feel like a flippant, knee-jerk reaction way to talk of a player who won’t be 24 until August, but the career of Bojan Krkic, onetime wonder-kid of the Camp Nou, is now resembling one of those ‘what could have been’ stories redolent of a bright spring that turned into a damp, disappointing and dispiriting summer. Recent reports have even suggested that next season he could be plying his trade with Stoke City. No offence to the Potteries’ club, but Bojan burst onto the season, that wasn’t on the menu.
Born to a Serbian father and a Catalan mother in the small town of Linyola, ironically about a 90 minute drive from the Camp Nou, Bojan joined the Blaugrana at nine and had all the makings of a La Masia graduate destined for greatness; blessed with consummate skill, elegant balance and an unerring eye for goal. In the next seven years he accumulated more 850 goals for the club’s junior teams. It’s a mind-blowing total. If one works on an eight-month season over the period, it equates to almost 3.50 goals per week – every week; not for the team, just for Bojan himself. When he was 15 he played for Spain in the U17 European Championships, and although officially a year too young, still ended up as the competition’s joint top scorer. He returned to the same tournament the following year and notched the winning goal for Spain in the final. Here was a player set to rank alongside Cruyff, Messi and Maradona as an all-time great at the Catalan club – and a born Catalan to boot. The football world lay at his feet. Or so it seemed.
The 2006-07 season seemed to confirm that all was on track. Playing with Barcelona B, Bojan made 22 appearances, netting ten goals. It was the sort of performance that was crying out for a promotion to the first team squad, and that duly arrived for the following season as then manager, Dutchman Frank Rijkaard included him in his plans for the coming season. Not long into the new term, a couple of late cameo substitute appearances in the Champions League, amounting to no more than 15 minutes in total convinced Rijkaard to give Bojan a full debut in a La Liga match.
His chance duly arrived in October 2007, in an away game at Villareal. A mere 25 minutes later, he had scored his first goal for the senior team. He was just 53 days past his seventeenth birthday and the goal made him the youngest player ever to score for the Barcelona senior team, besting the previous record by over eight months. It was a record incidentally that had previously been held by a certain Lionel Messi. A few months later, he ‘fooled’ the Schalke defence by scoring his debut goal in the Champions League on 1st April 2008 to become the second youngest player ever to score in that competition, and the first to do so having been born in the 1990s. His season ended with a total of 10 goals, beating the record for a Spanish debut season. It was previously held by Real Madrid’s legendary striker Raul. Manager Rijkaard said that “Bojan is a treasure.” Whilst Bojan was living up to the value ascribed by his manager however, the club was demonstrating the old adage of all that glistens, may not be gold.
Rumours abounded of divisions in a squad that seemed bloated with overpaid players, with egos to match. The season had finished disappointingly trophy-less for the Catalans, and the need for change was becoming a clamour. For all his qualities, Rijkaard seemed unable, or unwilling, to take the decisive action required to shake the squad from its comfort-zone of complacency. While pundits were purring about Bojan, painting vivid pictures of an outstanding career ahead, something was rotten in the state of FC Barcelona. In The Guardian, Sid Lowe relates how even some non-Catalan newspapers were lauding Bojan as a superhero – donned in underpants and cape, with a large “B” on his chest – destined to save Barca from themselves. Both Serbia and Spain were courting the player to represent them, but, in truth, Barcelona’s need was probably the greatest. After an unseemly end to his tenure, Rijkaard was eventually moved on, and the club appointed Pep Guardiola, promoting him from the B team, to take over the senior team’s affairs.
Whilst the appointment of Guardiola to lead the club could be seen as heralding the start of a period of dominance for Barcelona, it was less the case for Bojan. Outwardly, Guardiola has hailed the player, saying “There are only a few players who have a magical touch and Bojan is one of them.” His actions however did not quite reflect this apparent esteem. Of the players who have left Barcelona when Guardiola was in charge, famously Zlaten Ibrahimovic made large play of how he considered that he was treated less than well by Guardiola, devoting a number of passages in his autobiography ‘I am Zlaten’ to how he felt he was driven from the club by the manager. Bojan may have similar feelings. Although, there is of course, two sides to every story.
What is probably safe to say however is that the exit of Rijkaard was not a help to Bojan’s Barcelona career. The player himself has remarked that “Rijkaard had complete trust in me. He has a great personality. I had a relationship with him that I haven’t had with anyone else.” It may be significant to reflect on whether that second sentence is as much a comment on Guardiola as it is on Rijkaard. It’s been said that during his first season with the senior team, Bojan was offered an option to return to the B team, now under the tutelage of Guardiola. The young player, probably understandably, refused. Guardiola may not have forgotten.
What is undisputable is that in Guardiola’s first season, opportunities for Bojan to play in the first team were curtailed. He played eight fewer games than in his single season under Rijkaard, and the pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 term. Inevitably, reflecting the relationship between Guardiola and Ibrahimovic perhaps, tension grew with the player’s frustration. Bojan was moved to declare that “As a fan, Guardiola is the best coach in the world, but personal things that have happened to me [that] were hurtful. He was not fair with me on several occasions, and this is one of the reasons that I decided to leave.”
That may not have been the whole story however. The Catalan cauldron that is the Camp Nou is always a seething pressure-cooker, and with the acclaim and expectation piled on what was still a teenager, the young star may have begun to wilt. Spain won out in the battle with Serbia for international representation and Bojan was called up. In what remains a slightly mysterious episode however, he pulled out of the squad after what was reported to be a panic attack. He was also selected for the 2008 European Championships. Again he declined claiming that he was “physically and emotionally shattered.”
Some may find it difficult to accept that someone who could defy his tender years and perform heroics on one of the biggest stages in world football, could then crumble under pressure when selected for the national team. Writing in The Guardian however, Sid Lowe takes a different viewpoint. “Pressure was being heaped on very young shoulders,” he wrote. “He’d gone from a 16-year-old inhabiting one world to a 17-year-old living somewhere completely different.” In a comment that seemingly echoes Lowe’s appraisal, Bojan said that “Overnight, I couldn’t even walk down the street. I couldn’t go to a birthday party or to the cinema.” Whatever the competing, or combining, reasons, a move from the Blaugrana seemed inevitable if Bojan’s stalled career was to be reinvigorated.
An ideal opportunity seemed to open up with a move to Roma. The Italian club was managed by former Barcelona stalwart Luis Enriques, and there was promise of the sort of football being played that Bojan was suited to. Roma’s sporting director Walter Sabatini said that “Luis Enrique represents an idea of football that we would like to follow which imposes itself today through Spain and Barcelona,” The deal went though and Bojan began the 2011-12 season in Serie A. In sharp contrast to the last couple of seasons at the Camp Nou, Bojan couldn’t complain about lack of playing time at the Stadio Olympica. He made 33 appearances – the highest of any player in the squad, and at times appeared capable of rediscovering his form of a couple of years previously. It was however inconsistent and despite the statement of Sabatini, the football was certainly more robust than he was used to in La Liga. A lack of physical strength was an issue for the slightly built striker but, more damning there was talk of a lack of mental toughness as well. A failure to take the initiative and impose himself on games began to wear down his confidence and the season ended with a return of only seven goals. Perhaps Guardiola had been right, and he was simply not ready for this level of competition.
Italian football correspondent, Susy Campbell commented that “There are a lot of strong personalities in Serie A and Bojan wasn’t one of them. He was very quiet and seemingly lacking in confidence. He was also accustomed to a different tactical style and Spanish forwards have traditionally struggled in Italy. They are not accustomed to being marked so firmly and expect far more time and space on the ball than they’re allowed in Serie A. Bojan expected more than most. He needed to barge his way into the game a bit more but wanted to always have the classy move without the hard work that goes with it.”
Roma considered their Spanish indulgence had not worked out excessively well, and Luis Enriques left the club at the end of the season. It wasn’t difficult to predict that Bojan would soon follow him out of the door. Not content to yet give up on his attempt to make it in Italy however, he opted for a move to the north of the country and AC Milan. It was far from a roaring success. Starting just nine games all season, plus a further 14 from the bench, he scored just three goals. His situation may not have been helped however by a clause that was rumoured to be involved in the loan deal requiring the ‘Rosaneri’ having to stump up an additional fee if the player made a certain number of appearances. Campanale said “It was reported that the clause in his contract meant Milan would have to buy him out permanently if he amassed a certain number of appearances, so towards the end of the season they simply stopped using him.” For someone anxious to prove their worth, it was an eminently frustrating situation.
He returned to Catalunya for the following season as Barcelona re-signed him for a fee in the region of £11million. A further loan move was on the cards however, and this time it was vital that Bojan and his advisors chose the right club. They selected Ajax in Holland.
The Dutch club were renowned not only for their tradition of possession and passing, but also that they brought players through and developed them. It seemed an ideal choice for both player and club. The ‘BeNeFoot’ journalist Michiel Jongsma said “When Bojan was signed by Ajax, it was seen as quite a coup. In Eredivisie measures, it was as if a superstar had arrived because usually the type of player that joins the league is a either a promising talent or an unknown player. In Bojan, they had the combination of a name well known in Europe and still the promise of someone who could go on to become a very good player.”
His first game, a pre-season friendly against Werder Bremen brought great promise of things to come. Luxuriating in the new-found space and time he was given, freed of the Serie A ‘marking straight-jacked, he not only worked and looked confident, but also meshed with his new team-mates as if he had known them for years. A few tricks and flicks were followed by a goal and an assist for a further one. It was a glorious dawn, but sadly, was to be a false one.
As the domestic season got under way, it took in excess of 650 minutes for Bojan to notch his first competitive goal for the club, and he had added a paltry three more by the season’s end; and after contributing three assists in his first half-dozen games, no more followed in the 24 games he played that season. The sale of Christian Eriksen to Spurs may well have disrupted the flow of the team, but it’s difficult to class his time in Amsterdam as a success.
Old manager, Frank Rijkaard had once remarked that “I’m delighted for Bojan because he just does everything right on the field. Every decision he takes is the right one.” It was hardly the case during his time in Holland. The sentiment was picked up by Jongsma. “He starts dribbles when a pass would be more appropriate. He has also found himself in decent positions to shoot but he waits for someone he could pass to.” It seemed a familiar tale, echoing the problems experienced in Italy. The Amsterdam fans were less than understanding as early promise turned to disillusion.
Nevertheless, the season was not a complete failure. Bojan still collected a medal as Ajax won the Eredivisie and, as the Barcelona website records he celebrated with a special message on his shirt for Tito Vilanova. Bojan was also keen to put a positive spin on his experience. “I’ve really enjoyed this season,” he said, “and I have to evaluate the pros and cons.” A number of clubs, not least Barcelona will also be doing the same thing. What now is the future for a player who once looked to be destined for greatness?
With players of the calibre of Messi and Neymar already ensconced at the club, the potential for Bojan forcing a way into first team reckoning may be a difficult task at the Camp Nou. Things may have changed in his favour however, with the arrival of Luis Enrique as the new coach. This is the manager that took him to Roma and gave him so much game time, even when things were not shaping up so well for him in Italy. Whether Enriques remains convinced of the player’s talent or merely let down, and bruised by the experience, however is not yet clear.
Boas I is at least still talking a good fight and believes he is good enough to play for Barcelona, although at this stage of his career, there seems a tacit acceptance that his future may lie elsewhere. “I have no doubt I can play for Barca but I don’t know if it would be the best option for me at this time,” he recently said in an interview reported in the Spanish newspaper, Marca. Now in the last year of his contract, it appears to be a case of ‘now or never’ at the Camp Nou.
Back in February, reports circulated that Liverpool would try and sign him on a cut price £5million deal. That all seems to have gone quiet however, and may have been mere speculation. With the signing of Ricky Lambert from Southampton already completed, any chance of that being resurrected appear remote in the extreme. So with only a few clubs interested in taking a player that promised to be one of the world’s best, a sojourn in Stoke may be on the horizon.
The enigma that is Bojan Krkic remains the unsolved riddle of a player that promised so much, but to date has delivered so little. Is it a case of not being able to cope on the big stage, or perhaps more a matter of finding the right stage upon which to perform? Whatever the outcome of decisions about his future this summer, the lament of Bojan Krkic’s unfulfilled career is a sad song, all about a coming man, who never really arrived.
(This All Blue Daze article was initially produced for the ‘touchlinebanter’ website).
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