The Kompany that you keep

Why join Manchester City? Actually there are many reasons, says their best signing of last summer - from the friendliness of the locals to Robinho's dressing-room tricks. An unsung hero spoke to Ian Herbert

Ian Herbert
Saturday 10 January 2009 01:00

And what is life like when you join Manchester City? It is the question which will have crossed the minds of Gianluigi Buffon, Kaka, perhaps David Villa, in these crazy past four months and the answer most people might give will include apartments, Ferraris and all the other trappings which come with the whole Arab ownership fandangle. Vincent Kompany isn't "most people" though and he's made the journey into east Manchester already, so he is worth listening to when he insists that a casual chat about egg cups sums up what it has meant to join the richest club on the planet.

City's Belgian defensive midfielder was in Manchester's Trafford Centre with a friend, looking to kit out the place he has called home since his £6m summer arrival from SV Hamburg, when he saw the said items. "And all of a sudden a discussion started with a woman who worked in the shop about whether we should like boiled eggs, fried eggs or what," he says. "She was just someone who was working there and it was something you could never imagine. In Germany, you go in needing information. You get information. Here, I bought a bed. You have a chat about which one you feel comfortable in; the one you had in your childhood – and it's just normal. It's having a conversation about meaningless things. It makes everything so relaxed."

Egg cups? Eggshells are what you imagine Kompany has been walking on since arriving in a dressing room which has become damaged by the faction which has not taken to Mark Hughes and his uncompromising managerial methods. But amid the eddies of conflict which all the Arab millions have somehow created, Kompany has provided an oasis of hope for Hughes, demonstrating that even while clubs the world over are inflating their prices for City it was possible to walk into a Bundesliga club and prudently acquire the player whom many observers – this one included – would describe as City's best piece of overseas summer business bar none.

It has certainly helped that Kompany and Hughes are individuals on the same plain. Hughes was always the quiet, reflective one in those tough early Nineties dressing rooms at Old Trafford and Kompany is a deep thinker too – comfortably the most erudite individual at City since David James walked out of the door. His reflections on Barack Obama's victory will impress James – "it's good for the environment; he thinks green," he says – and even the England goalkeeper will struggle with the Belgian's literary range. His favourite novel? The Alchemist, Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho's story of a young man's voyage of self discovery. Kompany's read it in translation, though it's usually the original text for this individual, who has immaculate English to go with his French and German and reads in all three languages. "I don't want to sound too..." he says, checking himself as he expounds on the merits of the book on Napoli's Camorra Mafia which he is currently reading. "I've just got those languages because I'm lucky enough to be born in a small country and you need to communicate."

There is a fair bit more to his intelligence than that. Kompany's quest for knowledge has its roots in an immigrant work ethic ingrained in him by his father, Pierre, who arrived in Belgium from the Congo in the 1970s and by his late mother, Jocelyne, whom he lost last year, from the Belgian Ardennes. His mother's own long hours of work, latterly as an employment adviser for the Belgian government, enabled his father to juggle his night work as a taxi driver with daytime studies which saw him qualify as an engineer for logistics firm DHL. "My father had the usual tough time for someone who comes over from Africa and tries to make something of his life," Kompany says. "He and my mother were doing what work they had to do to bring in food for the children but education was always the most important thing for them. They sacrificed everything for that. From the youngest age, they decided for us to follow a different way."

The outlook was not auspicious for Kompany, his elder sister Christel and younger brother, Francois, growing up in an area behind Brussels railway station near the city's red light district where drug abuse and vandalism were rife. But their parents loaded activity into the children's lives – Kompany attended scouts, a track and field club, with football matches beneath the floodlights the municipality installed around one grassy pitch – to keep them on the straight and narrow. In return Kompany made the couple a promise he would keep: to complete the baccalaureate he was studying for at a Flemish-speaking school in Belgium before throwing himself into a career in football.

Doing that wasn't easy. It is hard to underestimate the clamour there was across Europe five years ago for a player whose prodigious talent was apparent as he worked his way through the youth system at Anderlecht – the club he joined, aged six – and earned a reputation as the "Belgian Desailly''. Even then, he found words way beyond his years of articulating why he would not leave – despite the interest of Manchester United and Chelsea. "I do not have the maturity to play two big matches a week. With Anderlecht I play one every fortnight. That's enough," he told L'Equipe at the time. "If I left it would be putting a part of my learning process to one side. It would be like playing Russian roulette.''

Kompany still feels that decision was right – even though, he says, he was aware of United's interest. "I was playing Champions League football for Anderlecht but at the end of the season when everybody went off for holidays I was doing the exams – and when I had finished those it was time for the new season," he reflects. "After all those sacrifices I didn't want to throw it away in my last year. It was only one more year and I've never regretted it." It seemed like the gamble had failed when, having played 15 Champions League games by the age of 18, he moved to SV Hamburg, a less prestigious outcome than many had predicted, and found himself in the throes of two debilitating years of injury. There was a back problem following by Achilles tendon trouble, which kept him out for eight months, and a shoulder injury for a further five. Kompany rationalises that period as his body's way of telling him he was advancing too fast. "Good I was in Germany. If I'd suffered at Inter Milan or Manchester I could have been forgotten forever."

Serendipity played its part in him making it to Manchester in the end. Kompany had been incensed by Hamburg's decision last August to haul him back from the Belgium's Olympic Games campaign before the nation competed for the bronze medal against Brazil and the day before he told the club's president he wanted out, City managing director Paul Aldridge enquired about the player. Thaksin Shinawatra still owned the club but Sheikh Mansour al-Nahyan was evidently on the horizon. "I was just told something big is going to happen," Kompany says. "I had a discussion with Mark Hughes and Paul Aldridge before I signed and some things were told to me but nothing specific. They said: 'We want to do something big and you will see

things move'. The next day Shaun Wright-Phillips signs, and then [Pablo] Zabaleta comes in and then Robinho, so for me that was a pretty good sign."

The 6-0 win over Portsmouth on 21 September – the return match at Fratton Park comes today – was another good omen but little has gone to script since then. Kompany isn't for discussing dressing room strife, of course, but there is evidence that he has little time for those – the Brazilian Elano is chief among them – disgruntled by a place on the bench.

"Many players have the same opinion as me on this," he says. "I've always aimed to play for teams in Europe that would go for trophies every year and if you play for one of those clubs – Chelsea, Arsenal, United, Liverpool, Madrid – there are always going to be better players coming in for your spot. That's just natural selection; part of playing for a bigger club, and if it's difficult, it's no big deal. You go on with your life. No one can disagree that [Didier] Drogba must have been the best striker in the Premier League for a couple of years now but still Chelsea have searched for another striker. [Andrei] Shevchenko came in, [Nicolas] Anelka came in but it doesn't mean Chelsea want to get rid of him. But it does mean it's a way to make the team better. Bring in everybody for me, as long as the team benefits. I absolutely believe there should be no problem with that."

Kompany, like Hughes, speaks of the "young team" City are assembling, one he says, in which "there is not much double thinking, everybody is quite straight; there's no politics." It's single rooms on Uefa Cup trips, no cliques borne out of players rooming, and the young British players like to join in when Robinho starts his fabled dressing-room football tricks. The £32m man has "a very big heart and that makes things easier," Kompany says. "He stands out that much – not only because of his qualities but because he is able to make himself accepted."

City's struggles are a reflection of the fact there is much more work to be done. "Perhaps we don't yet have the level of concentration that the big teams have because we have many young players," their Belgian believes. But for this moment, with dusk setting on City's training ground and everyone else gone, it's the finer points of British regionality that Kompany is more interested in. "Yes," he reflects again. "I realise even more, now, that I'm a big fan of the English mentality. I've never been to London but the way people live here up – I can say 'Up North', yes? – has been a big surprise. A very positive surprise."

My Other Life

It's politics for me. That's why I stayed up late to see if Barack Obama had made it to the White House last month.

Of course, there wasn't a real moment for quite a long time where they could say: 'Obama's won'. He'd won a couple of states that looked as if they were going to be decisive and that's when I went off to bed, because it was looking good for him. The next morning I had so many messages from my friends saying: 'It's Obama', 'He's done it.' Never mind how good the Americans felt about it. I can't tell you how happy I was. It actually surprised me how close it was. I'd been following it almost from the beginning and John McCain should have been 30 points behind, in my opinion.

People can say the media was at Obama's side all they want because if that was the case then it was logical. That result gives Americans a big chance to be positive to other foreign countries again. It's also good for the environment – Obama thinks green – and it makes a statement about what immigrant families, like my own, really actually mean when you are in America. After all, all Americans are immigrants anyway, aren't they?

People the world over like Obama – and they haven't liked an American president for so long. That means a lot for world diplomacy. Other countries will be more open to him and he can't mess that chance up. Nobody has been in a better position in America to re-straighten the friendship between them and their allies and even open the discussion with their enemies. People suddenly want to hear what America have to say.

I know there are plenty of British politics programmes around but I've actually steered clear of them so far because it's quite a good feeling not to know anything about British politics. I live in a country, Belgium, where I know everything about the political situation. But our situation in Belgium is one of the most complicated in Europe and it just gives me a headache! American and French politics? Yes, I do follow them, but that's more than enough for me. That's why Newsnight isn't for me but I do like to watch Family Guy, the comedy on BBC3. I've found it at 10.30pm, at the end of the evening, and it's always ideal before you go to sleep.

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