The plane had started to taxi towards the runway when Bojan Krkic told the flight attendant he was sorry, he couldn’t travel. It was July 2014, he was 23 and he had signed for Stoke for €1.8m, finally severing ties with Barcelona, his “home” where he became the youngest player in their history and had worked to overcome the anxiety attacks that conditioned his career. But he couldn’t do it. “She can see it’s real and asks the pilot not to take off,” he recalls. The plane turned round and went back to the terminal.
“We didn’t tell Stoke what had happened; I don’t remember if we told them I’d missed the flight or if there was a problem with the papers. It was a trauma: I still find it hard to fly alone because of what happened that day. But I knew I had to; there was no other option,” Bojan says, and the next day he was back again. By the time he landed, things looked better. “Stoke were in a hotel in Germany for pre-season and I remember as soon as I got there I had the feeling that there was light.”
He had needed this, more than they knew. Bojan talks about English football as the “essence” of the game, something in him connecting, something freed. There was support too, and soon he was playing the best football of his career, Manchester United and Liverpool among those watching. “Marc Muniesa was there, who I knew. Mark Hughes and his staff welcomed me. My new teammates were happy I’d arrived. My dad stayed in the hotel for a bit. From the first moment, I had a positive feeling. That was the first step. It was like: ‘OK, I had this problem but I’m over it. I’m here now and I’m going to grow.’
“The first flights with Stoke, I didn’t say anything. Because I was handling it, and also that uncertainty that maybe it would happen again. I travelled with pills and Marc was there, which made me calmer. Then there was a flight in February; the team went to Dubai to train and I had to tell the coach what had happened, that I had this issue. They understood, listened, said they would help, handled it all with normality.”
Bojan explained what he had been through; this was not just about flying. He has tried to do so too with a documentary released on Rakuten TV on Friday – Bojan: behind the smile – sharing the experiences that shaped him. He will also do so in his new role as football coordinator at Barcelona, offering support to young players exposed to the pressures he faced. If once he said “no one wants to talk about that: football’s not interested”, now perhaps mental health is better understood, his appointment a step in the right direction, taboos taken down.
Bojan was the kid who had smashed every goalscoring record in Barcelona’s academy and scored on his first league start, but on the day he was due to play his first game for Spain in Málaga in 2007, still only 17, he didn’t come out to warm up. His parents, aware something was wrong, clambered over the fence and headed down the tunnel to the dressing room, where he had suffered an anxiety attack: “I started to feel this powerful dizziness, overwhelmed, panicked.”
That evening, he left Málaga in a minibus; that summer he had to pull out of the Spain squad for the Euros. Bojan was taken to a psychologist by the name of Josep Monseny, who has guided him throughout his life, a man he says “symbolises my process” and who helped him to manage his anxiety. He had “begun to build” as he puts it. But he was still only 17, on medication, working through his illness. The headlines, leaked, spoke simply of a refusal. “The people at the federation didn’t help; they exposed me, at a time when I was very weak,” he says.
Bojan was a boy in a man’s world. Suddenly a public figure, the change was overwhelming, his life different and one not everyone was willing to guide him through. This was not his place. In the documentary, his coach Frank Rijkaard refers to him as “simpler, vulnerable”. When it comes to the dressing room, the judgments are damning. Gerard Piqué describes it as “radically different to his family”. Thierry Henry says: “Sometimes there’s not so much love there”; in fact, the word the Frenchman uses is “war”.
“You find that it’s a totally different story, completely different to the ideal[ised] image,” Bojan says, and yet there is no recrimination; instead, speaking in a soft, almost gentle voice, there is recognition. “I discovered that my idols were people – and they have their days, their character. I don’t see it as rejection but it was a discovery, a shock. It’s competition, and I had to find my way.” Maybe he lacked a little nastiness, malice, Monseny says. “Maybe if I had been more of a son of a bitch, but I can’t,” Bojan says.
Which is not to say others were. He found support in Andrés Iniesta, who was going through a process he would later liken to depression, and from Henry. “He’s sensitive, he looked after me; he started young too and empathises a lot,” Bojan says.
Then there was Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a self-proclaimed superman on his side. “Ibra has a heart much bigger than his body,” Bojan says. “He had been there only a few days and he called me over. As I got closer, he seemed to get bigger and bigger. He said: ‘Sit here, next to me.’ He said: ‘As long as I am here, you will be protected.’ I think he did it because he could see a kid with an innocent face. He’s this character, a media figure, one of the best players in history, but behind that there was a sensitive person, a man with emotions. And that year he helped me so much.”
By then, Bojan had been in Barcelona’s first team for three years and in therapy for as long, learning to understand his place, and the demands made of him; to apply his own expectations, accepting that he had not failed. He had been built up as the player who would mark a generation but he was not Lionel Messi and nor should he be measured against Messi.
The moments that might have changed perceptions, perhaps including his own to begin with, were denied him. At the end of the 2010 season, the goal against Internazionale that would have taken Barcelona through to the final of the Champions League was ruled out – “logically that would have changed my life in personal and football terms, but why lament it?” he says. The following year Barcelona did get there, but he did not play a minute at Wembley. There, something broke. He had to leave, find his own path.
“I felt I deserved to have three minutes: Barcelona were my family, playing a Champions League final in their shirt, winning something with them would have made me very happy. That was decisive in deciding to go. But you have to understand and manage the pain. It hurt: you could see that in my face [at the farewell]. But I was going to go without recrimination. I was leaving, which hurt. But I was determined not to externalise that.” Did you speak to Pep Guardiola again? “No, no. We haven’t ever spoken.”
Now, a decade on having retired in March at 32, he is back at Barcelona, where his role will involve looking after the players out on loan, as he was for two years at Roma and Milan before finally flying to join Stoke, and guiding a new generation of young players. Last month Lamine Yamal broke Bojan’s record to become the club’s youngest goalscorer and when Marc Guiu scored the winner against Athletic a fortnight later, he was 33 seconds into his first-team career at 17.
“Marc Guiu went from 40,000 followers to a million overnight in Instagram,” Bojan says. “That’s madness. ‘How nice, how incredible, a million followers!’ But that’s hard to manage, transformative. With Lamine Yamal, we’re talking about a kid in the fourth year of ESO [secondary school]; we’ve spoken about finishing his schooling. I don’t want to smother them at a sensitive moment but they know we’re here at their side, that they have the protection they need. People ask: ‘What advice would you give them?’ But it’s not advice. You have to let them live it, experience it, accompany them, help them manage it.
“In the end, it’s empathy. And in football, it can be hard to empathise with a player, what he is living through. We all want immediate results, to win. It’s a wide world, there are so many interests. They’re exposed. You help them so that they are better players and people. I don’t know that mental health problems are still taboo, it’s more visible now, and everyone has the freedom, or should have the freedom, to face life how they want. It’s not abnormal, it happens. If I am externalising it is because I have the confidence and the strength to do so now and because hopefully that can help others.”