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If it seems somewhat presumptuous to assert that a player, still only 28-year-old, appears lost to football, then perhaps a review of the career to date of the Spanish player may offer some justification. It’s the tale of a youngster who rewrote the goalscoring records of Barcelona’s youth set up, burst onto the first-team scene with a fanfare, and then seemingly drifted away into relative obscurity.
A La Masia graduate apparently destined for a long and illustrious career in the famous Blaugrana colours of Barca, Bojan seemingly possessed all the requirements for football superstardom; a celestially-bestowed skill with the ball, pace coupled with an elegant balance that made him appear to glide over the pitch and a shark-like eye and hunger for goals. Joining the club at nine, over the following seven years, he would score no less than 850 goals for the various development teams at the club’s famous academy. Putting that into arithmetic clarity, working on an average eight-month season, it equates to almost 3.50 goals per week. It’s an astonishing tally and illustrates why the Boy Wonder was heralded with such acclaim as he progressed towards the first team.
After a season in the club’s B team, scoring ten goals in 22 appearances, a call to step up was almost obligatory and it came the following season when manager, Frank Rijkaard, granted Bojan a La Liga debut against Villarreal. It took a mere 25 minutes for him to open his goalscoring account, only 53 days past his 17th birthday, and became the youngest player in the history of the club to score for the first team. The player whose record he eclipsed was a certain Lionel Messi.
Although the outcome was dazzlingly bright for the starlet, all was not good in the club. Whilst fans and pundits alike gloried in the potential being unveiled before their eyes, Barcelona was diving headlong into one of its regular periods of upheaval. It would result in the removal of Rijkaard, and the arrival of the hitherto unheralded Pep Guardiola.
Having been promoted from the B team where Bojan had previously excelled should have been enough of a pedigree to convince Guardiola of the teenager’s talent. It was seemingly confirmed as the case when Guardiola extolled the young forward’s virtues, asserting that,
“There are only a few players who have a magical touch and Bojan is one of them.” Talk is allegedly cheap, however, and so it proved for Bojan.
Inevitably, any new manager has his own plans, and Bojan appeared to be merely on the periphery of Guardiola’s designs for the squad. The arrival of Zlaten Ibrahimovic, for instance, inevitably pushed him further down the pecking order of strikers, and opportunities to play in the first-team began to dwindle away. Full of anticipation and fuelled by the ardent flattery of so many, the exclusion was hard to accept. Bojan’s remarks 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,” illustrated the player’s frustration and disillusionment. Legend has it that Guardiola offered Bojan a return to the B team in order to garner more game time. Understandably but, on reflection, perhaps rashly, Bojan declined, and eventually, the impasse led to a move away from the Camp Nou. Thirty-one goals in just fewer than 150 games across the best part of four seasons is hardly a pauper’s return for such a young talent, but still represented a decline in his previously prolific rate of finding the back of the net.
Ask any group of football fans their opinion of a player and you’ll get a diverse group of replies, and so it was with the fate of Bojan at Barcelona. Some would argue that the manager had too much emphasis on achieving quick success and sacrificed the potential of Bojan on the altar of new arrivals. Others would gainsay that, and the promotion of players such as Pedro, Busquets, etc from the B team by Guardiola suggests that wasn’t the case. These were Guardiola’s own stars though, a love not offered to Bojan perhaps.
There is another strand of thought, however. It suggests that the pressure-cooker demands of the Camp Nou were eventually too much for a young player to bear, and Guardiola’s treatment of Bojan was merely a logical reaction to player unable to fulfil the requirements of both his promise and more importantly, of his manager. There may well be something to this. Writing in The Guardian, talking of that time, Sid Lowe said that. “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.” Bojan himself would also, perhaps unwittingly, offer support to the theory when he remarked that “Overnight, I couldn’t even walk down the street. I couldn’t go to a birthday party or to the cinema.”
Whatever the cause, it led to a move from Barcelona that precipitated a gradual, but seemingly inexorable tumble down from a potential entry into the elite level of goal scorers to one of mere journeymen status. Roma and Luis Enrique welcomed him to Serie A. It would hardly be a happy time though. One season is hardly an eternity in the city that boasts such a sobriquet, but a mere 7 goals explain why Bojan was then moved on loan to Milan as Luis Enrique, his fellow Catalan, also left Roma. Things didn’t improve with the Rossoneri, just three goals in 27 appearances was unlikely to convince anyone of his ability to prosper in Serie A. Talk of not having a strong enough personality to prosper at the highest level arose again. Italian football correspondent, Susy Campbell commented that “There are a lot of strong personalities in Serie A and Bojan wasn’t one of them.”
A return to Barcelona held out the prospect of rejuvenation, but it would be a false dawn, and he was quickly loaned out to Ajax without recording a single appearance back in Catalonia. Five goals in 32 appearances for the Eredivisie club wasn’t convincing and a sale to Stoke City marked another step down. The English Premier League isn’t the place to go if you’re in need of a confidence boost, and five years with the Potteries club proved to be anything but recuperative. Loan spells with Mainz in the Bundesliga and Alavés back in Spain, brought a single goal each, across two dozen appearances, and time in both the Premier League and Championship, after Stoke were relegated was equally unconvincing, accruing 16 goals in 77 first-team outings.
Where now for the player who once had the football world at his feet? It seems clear that his time in England may well be up with just a single goal to his name in this current term. For a career that has seemed on the slide since a debut season that opened up a road to fame and glory, the way forward is unclear. Somewhere in the psyche of Bojan Krkić is a player of immense talent. If someone can unearth the key to unlocking it, there’s plenty of time for the recovery of a career for so long locked in first-gear. If not, the player who once seemed to have everything may remain lost to the game.