Bojan Krkic is sitting in his kitchen looking at a glass trophy. It is on display beside his sink and is a reminder not of his many feats as the teenage prodigy who won three Liga titles and two Champions Leagues with Barcelona, but instead of a more recent, rather less heralded event – his victory in Stoke City’s “Best Baker” competition.
He smiles at the recollection of the “bomb” as he puts it – a triple-layer, strawberry-and-cream sponge confection – which last month won him the vote of British Bake-Off judge Paul Hollywood ahead of team-mates Marc Muniesa and Joselu. “That is because they have girlfriends living with them who cook – I am here and cook for myself,” he says.
Bojan may be happy to try his hand at baking cakes but don’t expect him to eat them. A slender figure in his T-shirt and jeans, he is serious about his food – he has a dairy-free diet and will eat only wholewheat rice and pasta and organic meat – and this is indicative of the wider dedication to his profession which helped him on the road back from the cruciate ligament injury he suffered at Rochdale in January to halt a highly promising first season in English football.
He has invited me into his home in Cheshire for an interview which begins with his reflections on his rehabilitation back at home in Barcelona and his recent return to action. He made his comeback in a Capital One Cup tie at Luton before marking his first Premier League start since January with a goal against Leicester a fortnight ago. “It is a reward for the time I’ve been away,” he says. “I know it’s not a big prize. It is a push to do more and take the next step. I scored against Leicester and people were [saying] ‘Bojan is 100 per cent’ but I know I need games and minutes.”
In person, it is hard to equate this modest, reflective 25-year-old with the YouTube footage of the floppy-haired 17-year-old attempting an outrageous trick on his debut for Barcelona. He conducts the interview in a mixture of Spanish and English and is careful with his words in both languages but one message that comes across clearly is that his injury, a partial rupture of the ACL in his left knee, provided an important learning experience. Stoke let him return to Barcelona where he worked daily with a physio, Jose Vilarino, at two centres in the city. He would start at 10 in the morning and often finish at 10 at night and though he missed the thrill of “competing”, he turned the setback into a positive, learning “to know that what’s good is not so good and what’s bad is not so bad – you need a balance. I know it’s a stereotype but I’ve seen there are other things in life and you learn from everything.”
Bojan has had more lessons than most footballers of his age, given his grounding in Barcelona’s La Masia academy – and the hype that surrounded his first season in their first team under Frank Rijkaard in 2007-08 when he usurped Lionel Messi as the youngest player to score a league goal for the club at 17 years and 53 days old. It was one of 10 strikes in a memorable breakthrough campaign – a total he never surpassed in three subsequent seasons of increasingly limited opportunities under Pep Guardiola who kept him on the bench for the Champions League final victories of 2009 and 2011.
“The first year was as wonderful year,” he recalls. “I started in a team where the coach trusted in me, and for me every day was a dream.”
He remembers the players who supported him – “Titi Henry was with me a lot, also [Carles] Puyol,[Andres] Iniesta, Samuel Eto’o” – but admits that away from the pitch it was “not easy”. He explains: “I always say that in one way I am happy to have enjoyed four years at the best club in the world, the club I have in my heart, but it was not a good age. Because you are ready to play football but you are not ready for off-the-pitch [things] – the pressure – when you are only 17.
“People said ‘the new Messi’ or ‘la promesa’ [the hope], but these were things beyond my control. I was always given labels that had nothing to do with me. All I’ve ever done is try to play football well and score goals but if I played well but didn’t score in Spain it was ‘shit game – we have to sign a new player’. I know football is like this but in Spain it is too much.”
Today he is far from that intense spotlight – and has the perspective that age and experience bring. “I think when you are 17 you are very innocent. You need to take a lot of knocks to know where you stand, to be able to give football and life their proper focus. When you’re 17 everything is great and wonderful. Sometimes innocence is a good thing but I think life, experiencing different situations, different clubs, gives you a lot of knowledge.
“I am happy, I am very proud, but I would also have liked to have lived that period having the experience I have now. It is not a complaint as what happens happens and it was a good way to learn.”
There was quite a fuss made about Bojan’s arrival at Stoke in summer 2014, following year-long spells with Roma, Milan and Ajax, yet it is easy to see the appeal of life here for the Spaniard. “It is important to find a place where you feel trust, you feel belonging and stability,” says Bojan. Off the pitch he is not a man you could imagine partying with Ronaldinho; instead, as the basketball on the floor of his hallway and the hoop high on the wall outside suggest, it’s the sport he plays to let off steam with his house mate David, an old childhood friend. In the garden the football nets are strictly for when his younger relatives visit from Spain. “It’s a quiet life. Normally it’s training, house, gym.”
There are actually four Barcelona old boys at the Britannia Stadium now – Muniesa, Moha and Ibrahim Afellay make up the quartet – and he cites the economic power of the Premier League as the logical reason for their presence. “If there was a better balance in the [Spanish] league and stable clubs a lot of players would be in Spain but there they don’t take care of you as well. England is better and healthier on an economic level [and] there is more equality between the clubs.”
On the pitch, the question is whether Stoke, who visit Aston Villa today, can recover from a slow start, having only posted their first league win against Bournemouth last weekend. “The players are there, the team is there but the reality is we’ve not started well,” admits Bojan, who says the absence of injured captain Ryan Shawcross has not helped. “We need his character, his power, everything. He covers a big space on the pitch for us, he is a great captain.” Bojan speaks highly too, of Mark Hughes, his manager at the Britannia. “He’s a good coach. He has changed the story of Stoke which is not easy with this new way of playing.
“As a coach he doesn’t put up barriers where ‘I am the manager and you are the player’. He tries to always have a dialogue with his players, which is important.”
And while there may be occasions like Tuesday, when he watched Barcelona beat Bayer Leverkusen and felt a pang of nostalgia for those old European nights – “The Champions League is something every player wants to play in” – he appreciates the opportunity he has at Stoke. “Here I can play in my position,” says Bojan of the No 10 role he was never afforded at Barcelona, but in which he shone last season before injury struck. “Everyone wants to play for Man United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Barça, Madrid, but for me, I had that experience in a big club and I know what it means to play in a big club and for me the most important thing is you have to play,” he adds. “If you play you are happy. And if you are happy things come. Here in Stoke, I am playing, the gaffer trusts in me and for me it is the most important thing. After this I don’t know what will happen but at the moment I feel good and happy.”
My Other Life - Playing Basketball
I like basketball and when I was back in Barcelona this year, I went to watch their basketball team play. I also read a Michael Jordan biography. At home here we have the hoop and playing it helps me switch off. I am better watching than playing though!
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