The pressure on young footballers these days seems to increase with each passing day. Back in the day before the advent of 24-hour television channels showing football on a constant loop, it was possible to hear rumours and whispers about a new and exciting talent that would be “the next big thing”. Back then football fans were heavily reliant on journalists who had relationships with football managers and coaches to gain an insight into what was happening at the clubs.
Now that has all changed as all you need is a decent internet connection and Google, and you can quite quickly see a highlights reel on YouTube of the next big thing before he even knows that he’s now a wunderkind. Unfortunately for most modern footballers the comparisons start (as you’re developing and learning your trade) about whether or not you are as good as Lionel Messi was at that age. I think it’s one thing to be compared to the heroes of yesterday like the Maradonas or the Cruyffs because there is never a definitive answer to that question – when you compare across different playing eras you have issues like the lack of protection that former players had from referees, different balls that were used and even different boots and physical conditioning. But when you’re being compared to a living person whom you may play against or even in the same team, it’s a recipe for disaster. That mental pressure of trying to play and develop, whilst trying to avoid comparisons to a current player must be unbelievable.
So it was for Bojan Krkic Perez, or Bojan to those who know the Spanish footballer. Bojan was raised in the famous La Masia academy that produced the superlative talents of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and many of the all-conquering Barcelona team that dominated world club football for much of the recent footballing past. Bojan had the most important characteristics of this generation including great balance, quick skilful feet and the ability to score goals.
In the beginning, it all went so well though. He became the youngest player to represent Barcelona (beating Messi’s record), the youngest player to score a goal for Barcelona in La Liga and the first footballer born in the 1990’s to play in the Champions League. In his début season Bojan scored 10 goals in 14 starts – an impressive return for a young and talented footballer.
There was a call-up to the Spain national team in February 2008 and he would have been the youngest Spain player ever, but he pulled out after appearing to suffer from an apparent anxiety attack. Later that year, he asked to be left out of Spain’s Euro 2008 team admitting that he was “physically and emotionally shattered”. Perhaps a sign of the intense pressure heaped on his shoulders and accumulated over time. As Sid Lowe described it in an article about Bojan in March 2009:
The biggest concern, though, was Bojan’s psyche. Pressure was being heaped on very young shoulders. He’d gone from a 16-year-old inhabiting one world to a 17-year-old living somewhere completely different. “Overnight, I couldn’t even walk down the street,” he admitted. “I couldn’t go to a birthday party or to the cinema.”
Bojan admitted that he had a great relationship with Frank Rijkaard who was the Barcelona manager who believed in him and gave him a chance to break into the first team.
“Rijkaard had complete trust in me,” he said. “He has a great personality. I had a relationship with him that I haven’t had with anyone else.”
Following that first great season Rijkaard was out and Pep Guardiola was in. Bojan didn’t have the same relationship and his career stalled over the next two seasons under Guardiola. Bojan left Barcelona in 2011 without saying goodbye to Pep (still only 20!) and joined Roma where he hoped revive his career. In his first season with the Italian team he played 33 times and scored 7 goals but didn’t manage to make a good enough impression to remain at the club. Pundits noted that he lacked physical strength and seemed overwhelmed by the pressure of playing at this level. He was loaned to AC Milan the following season but things didn’t improve – 19 total appearances from the bench with a return of 3 goals. After Milan it was onto Ajax Amsterdam where he scored 5 times in 32 appearances as he helped his team secure their 33rd Dutch title.
In July 2014 Bojan signed for Stoke City of the English Premier League. Manager Mark Hughes may have unwittingly given the honest assessment of why Bojan signed for the club:
“He’s desperate to prove himself in the Premier League and we’re pleased to be able to offer him that platform.”
It’s amazing to think that Bojan is still only 23 years old! I guess it says a lot about the level of increased expectations that surrounded him when he made his breakthrough at 17.
One of the factors that possibly contributed to his stagnation, in my opinion, is that young footballers do need to be carefully managed as they develop – playing time needs to be rationed to ensure players do not become physically and mentally jaded. Fans and even club management sometimes get so excited by emerging talent that they want to see them play week in and week out.
I’m not entirely convinced that the physical rough-and-tumble of the Premier League is the best option for a small, lightweight player like Bojan who likes to play with the ball at his feet. Bojan has stated that “I understand that the managers like the players to be stronger maybe than in Spain, and over the 12 months, I did a lot of gym work that has helped me.”
Manager Mark Hughes has mentioned that the focus will be on a passing game which may hopefully suit the former Barca starlet.
Maybe by using Bojan as a proxy, we can finally see if Messi will be able to handle it on a “wet Tuesday night in Stoke”?