The airplane was in the process of moving towards the runway when Bojan Krkic informed the flight attendant that he was unable to travel. This occurred in July 2014, when Bojan was 23 years old and had just joined Stoke for €1.8m, ending his time with Barcelona, his “home” where he had become the youngest player in their history. He had also worked to overcome anxiety attacks that had affected his career. Despite his efforts, he could not bring himself to board the plane. He remembers the flight attendant noticing the seriousness of the situation and requesting the pilot to turn the plane back to the terminal.
Bojan shared that they did not inform Stoke about the incident that occurred. He cannot recall if they disclosed that he missed his flight or if there were issues with his documents. The experience was traumatic and it still affects his ability to fly solo. However, he knew he had to face it as there was no other choice. The following day, he returned to the team. Upon arrival, the situation had improved. Stoke was staying at a hotel in Germany for pre-season and Bojan remembers feeling a sense of hope upon reaching the location.
He desired this more than they realized. Bojan refers to English football as the “essence” of the sport, a connection that was freeing for him. He also received support and soon began playing the best football of his career. Teams such as Manchester United and Liverpool were among those who took notice. “Marc Muniesa, someone I knew, was there. Mark Hughes and his team welcomed me. My new teammates were happy I had joined. My dad stayed in the hotel for a while. From the start, I had a positive feeling. That was the first step. It was like, ‘I had this issue, but I’ve moved past it. I’m here now and I will continue to improve.'”
On my initial trips with Stoke, I remained silent. I was managing the situation and also uncertain if it would occur again. I brought medication with me and having Marc there helped ease my nerves. However, in February, the team traveled to Dubai for training and I had to inform the coach about my condition. They were understanding, listened to me, and assured me they would provide assistance. The matter was handled in a calm and ordinary manner.
Bojan shared his personal story, which went beyond just his career as a professional footballer. He also released a documentary on Rakuten TV called “Bojan: behind the smile” where he discusses the challenges and experiences that have influenced him. In his new position as football coordinator at Barcelona, he will provide guidance and assistance to young players who may face similar pressures. In the past, he stated that football was not interested in discussing these issues, but now there is a better understanding of mental health and his appointment is a positive step towards breaking taboos.
Bojan, the young player who broke all scoring records in Barcelona’s academy and scored in his first league match, was supposed to make his debut for Spain in Málaga in 2007 at the age of 17. However, on that day, he did not come out to warm up. Concerned, his parents climbed over the fence and went to the dressing room, where they found him suffering from an anxiety attack. Bojan explained, “I suddenly felt extremely dizzy and overwhelmed with panic.”
In the evening, he departed from Málaga in a minibus. During that summer, he had to withdraw from the Spain team for the Euros. Bojan was referred to a psychologist named Josep Monseny, who has been a guiding force in his life. He describes Monseny as the embodiment of his journey and credits him for helping him manage his anxiety. He had started to make progress, but at 17 years old, he was still dependent on medication and working through his illness. The media reported on his decision to not participate in the Euros, which had been leaked. Bojan believes that the federation did not support him and instead exposed him during a vulnerable time.
Bojan was a young boy navigating a world dominated by adults. With his sudden rise to fame, his life changed drastically and not everyone was willing to help him adjust. This was not where he belonged. In the documentary, his coach Frank Rijkaard refers to him as “naive and vulnerable”. Within the team’s locker room, the opinions were harsh. Gerard Piqué describes Bojan’s environment as “completely different from his family”. Thierry Henry comments, “There isn’t always a lot of love there,” and even goes as far as to say “war”.
Bojan explains that the reality was quite different from the idealized image he had in his mind. However, he does not blame anyone for this, and instead speaks in a calm and soft tone, acknowledging the truth. He came to understand that his idols were human beings with their own flaws and moods. He does not view this as rejection, but rather as a discovery that came as a shock. He also acknowledges that there is competition and he had to find his own path. Monseny suggests that maybe Bojan lacked a bit of aggression or hostility, to which Bojan responds by saying that he cannot change who he is.
This does not mean that others were not supportive. Bojan received support from Andrés Iniesta, who was experiencing a similar process to depression, and also from Henry. “He is a sensitive person, he took care of me; he also started young and understands a lot,” Bojan explains.
Next to him was Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who considered himself a superhero. Bojan recounts, “Ibra has a heart that surpasses his physical size. After only a few days, he called me over and I couldn’t help but notice how large he seemed. He told me to sit next to him and said, ‘As long as I am here, you will be protected.’ I believe he did this because he saw an innocent kid. Behind his media persona and status as one of the greatest players in history, there was a sensitive man with emotions. That year, he was a huge help to me.”
At that time, Bojan had been a part of Barcelona’s main team for three years and undergoing therapy for an equal amount of time. He was learning to comprehend his role and the expectations placed upon him, as well as adjusting his own expectations and acknowledging that he had not fallen short. He had been highly regarded as the player who would define an era, but he was not on the same level as Lionel Messi and should not be compared to him.
The opportunities for a shift in perspective, even his own, were taken away from him. In the 2010 season finale, the crucial goal against Internazionale that would have secured Barcelona’s spot in the Champions League final was disallowed – “logically, it could have had a significant impact on my personal and professional life, but there’s no use dwelling on it,” he reflects. The following year, Barcelona did reach the final, but he did not have any playing time at Wembley. It was at this point that something within him snapped. He knew he had to move on and forge his own path.
“I believed I was entitled to three minutes of my time: Barcelona was like a family to me, and playing in their shirt during a Champions League final and winning with them would have brought me great joy. This was a major factor in my decision to leave. However, I had to come to terms with the pain that came with leaving. It was evident in my expression during my farewell. But I was determined not to dwell on it. Despite the hurt, I was leaving without any resentment. Have you had any communication with Pep Guardiola since then? No, we have not spoken at all.”
After retiring at the age of 32 in March, he has returned to Barcelona after a decade. His current role is to oversee the players who are currently on loan, a position he previously held for two years at Roma and Milan. He will also mentor and guide the younger players on the team. Recently, Lamine Yamal became the youngest goalscorer in the club’s history, breaking Bojan’s record. In another match, Marc Guiu scored the winning goal against Athletic just 33 seconds into his debut at the age of 17.
Bojan explains that Marc Guiu saw a huge increase in his Instagram following, going from 40,000 to a million overnight. This sudden growth can be overwhelming and transformative, especially for someone like Lamine Yamal who is still in secondary school. Bojan wants to support them without suffocating them during this important time in their lives. He believes that instead of giving advice, it’s important to let them live the experience and provide guidance and assistance along the way.
Ultimately, it all comes down to understanding and compassion. In the world of football, it can be difficult to truly understand and empathize with a player and the challenges they face. We are all focused on achieving immediate success and winning, but there are many outside pressures and competing interests at play. As coaches, it is our responsibility to support and guide our players to not only become better athletes, but better human beings as well. Mental health issues may have been seen as a taboo subject in the past, but now there is more visibility and everyone should have the freedom to handle their own life in a way that works for them. It is not uncommon to struggle with mental health, and I am speaking openly about it now because I have the confidence and strength to do so, and I hope it can help others as well.