INTERVIEW – In the documentary “Behind the Smile”, Bojan Krkic, former Spanish football and FC Barcelona prodigy, recounts the psychological ordeal that accompanied his career.
He is 33 years old, but his youthful features stand the test of time. His light brown eyes reinforce the expression of his emotions, like his devastating smile which broke so many hearts, when he sported his Beatles-style haircut. It’s been years since the name Bojan Krkic distanced itself from the elite of football.
Former FC Barcelona nugget, record breaker that had just been established by a young Lionel Messi in the 2000s, the ex-striker tells his story in a documentary, “Behind the Smile”, available on the Rakuten TV platform since November 3. Against a backdrop of mental health, Bojan opens up about the pressure that has engulfed both the footballer and the man. “That I’ve been wanting to talk about all this for years. I feel strong enough to speak about it now», he explains to Le Figaro.
Top scorer in Barça’s youth history
You had to walk the sunny streets of Barcelona, smell the smell of the dry lawns at La Masia, Barça’s training center, one of the most referenced in the world, to measure the extent of the Bojan phenomenon. He wandered around the field like a firefly, unmissable but elusive, the ball illuminated by the touch of his crampons, by his unpredictable dribbling and his impeccable technique. He is still, today, the top scorer in the history of FC Barcelona’s youth teams with 423 goals, according to the club website.
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When he made his professional debut on September 16, 2007, he was Barça’s youngest player since the Second World War, 17 years and 19 days old. He became the youngest scorer the following month., against Villarreal, on a p from Messi. The comparison with the Argentinian, three years his senior, also trained at the club, also an attacker, also precocious and who is the same height (1.70 m), is obvious. “Leo Messi was a completely different person, he immediately integrated into the group. Bojan had a simpler, more vulnerable personality», Points out in the documentary Frank Rijkaard, the coach who launched the two men at Barça.
“In his world, his sensitivity is a disadvantage”
“Whether in a football locker room, in the office or elsewhere, sometimes there is not so much affection and love», Adds Thierry Henry, his teammate at Barcelona from 2007 to 2010. The difficult integration of Bojan, a cheerful but reserved boy, is also explained, in part, by the collective context of a moribund Barça, 3rd in Liga this season . And by the special pressure that weighed on the shoulders of a native of Catalonia, proud region which claims its difference from the rest of Spain. Barça does not hesitate to play on this with the supporters, thinking of having a standard bearer in Bojan.
Bojan experienced this entry into the professional world as a “change of identity“. “It was clear that he didn’t like fame, requests for autographs, or photos. He accepted it, always smiling, but he didn’t like it», Shares his father, Bojan Senior, a former Yugoslav footballer with a modest career. “When you become a professional, they don’t teach you how it works», agrees the son.
An episode crystallizes his psychological torments. In February 2008, he was the youngest Spaniard to be called up to the A selection. His first opponent? France, in a friendly match in Malaga. But before kick-off, Bojan is paralyzed. He can’t find the strength to leave the locker room. Officially, he suffers from gastroenteritis.
By his own admission, he “Understood» how football worked at that time, that psychological flaws were taboo. “In his world, his sensitivity was a disadvantage», notes, moved, Bojan’s dad. “He feels that the environment in which he finds himself and the reasons which make him play do not correspond to the world in which he was raised and the motivations which had been so successful for him», Diagnoses his psychiatrist, Josep Monseny.
Fees and hospitalizations
The little virtuoso makes do, as best he can. His first season was promising (48 matches, 12 goals, 5 ists). It won’t do better. Pep Guardiola was named to the Blaugrana bench in the summer of 2008. His Barça will be legendary, even if it doesn’t work with certain players, including Bojan, often a substitute. The latter plays but suffers. He takes pills to manage his anxiety and sometimes has to be hospitalized. His teammates don’t know anything about it. “I didn’t want to show weakness to anyone», he rewinds.
Bojan will have a hard time not playing a minute in the 2011 Champions League final (Barça victory against Manchester United 3-1). Guardiola will never justify himself. It’s too much, Bojan leaves the club. He has never spoken to his coach again since. “I don’t think we need it», he dismisses dryly today.
He had barely turned 21 when he joined AS Roma on loan in 2011. The rest of a great career began, far from the golden letters he was promised. AC Milan, Ajax Amsterdam, Mainz, Stoke City… Until the Japanese club Vissel Kobe, where he returns in 2021 his former partner Andrés Iniestawho also testifies in the documentary, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Gerard Piqué.
Bojan leaves Japan in November 2022 to return to Barcelona. Five months later, he formalizes his retirement at 32. All these years, the Catalan has moved forward with the wounds of a past that have not healed. Of his career, Bojan keeps “fantastic memories, but…», he sighs. “It’s hard to understand that success can be traumatic“, says psychiatrist Josep Monseny.
When I realized that these expectations were the ones that had been created about me and that I could create my own, I realized that I was the opposite of a failure.
It took Bojan a while to put depression behind him. “When I realized that these expectations were those that‘people had created about me and I could create my own, I understood that I was the opposite of a failure, that I was very privileged», he appreciates from his home in Barcelona, he who joined the Barça organization chart as sports coordinator with the youth teams.
He insists: we must not “not demand too much from young people» athletes who are not all Kylian Mbappé or Erling Haaland. They “can skip a step“, Sometimes, “but not all the steps», Supports Bojan, who hopes that this documentary will contribute to normalizing discussions around mental health, and that it can “help a lot of young players“. It did him good to talk about it. “I feel freer. Today I am very happy with my life.»