Vincent Kompany is definitive proof that football is not just football

Kompany lives with one foot inside and one foot outside the Premier League bubble

“Vinny” is surrounded by Manchester City fans. He is a legend at the club. Photograph: PA

“Vinny” is surrounded by Manchester City fans. He is a legend at the club. Photograph: PA

 

It is 10am on an early spring day when I pull up at the electric gates of Vincent Kompany’s home. In the drizzle, the Manchester sprawl has given way to the leafy streets of Cheshire, where long driveways announce the grand houses of the affluent. Kompany answers the door in a black T-shirt and jeans, having just finished a workout. It’s March, and Manchester City’s battle-hardened captain and central defender is only now returning to fitness after a six-week layoff for a calf injury. “I wasn’t feeling great today, so an extra session in the gym is the way to get through it,” he says, a towel draped around his neck, his gentle Belgian accent blending with Manc vowels.

At 6ft 4in, Kompany’s stature is reassuring rather than intimidating. He makes green juice in a whizzy little machine that the players are testing. “Sometimes I have a berry one as a treat,” he says, tidying up. We take them into his home office, where we talk for the next two hours. A whiteboard marked out with a football pitch stands against one wall. On the top row of his bookshelves, trophies line up like toy soldiers; below them are biographies of Mandela, Gandhi, Obama; histories of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country that Kompany’s father, Pierre, left as a political refugee in 1975; biographies of Alex Ferguson and Kompany’s teammate Sergio Agüero.

At 33, Kompany is one of the Premier League’s elder statesmen, an erudite, multidimensional player with as much to contribute off the pitch as on. This season is his 11th with City, a milestone for any professional athlete, and in the months following our interview he will lead the club to its ninth major trophy since he signed, beating Brighton 4-1. But it will be his phenomenal 30-yard strike against Leicester City that pops the cork on the Premier League title celebrations, in the penultimate game of the season: a thunderbolt, delivered with artful timing, by the defender dubbed Captain Fantastic.

After scoring the winner against Leicester City, City’s captain fantastic. Photograph: Getty Images
After scoring the winner against Leicester City, City’s captain fantastic. Photograph: Getty Images

It’s a moment that shows Kompany’s strength of character, ignoring his manager and teammates as they beg him not to attempt such an audacious shot – his first goal from outside the box since 2013. “Where do you want your statue, Vincent Kompany?” shouted Gary Neville from the Sky commentary box .

If Kompany can top this season’s Premier League title and Carabao Cup by leading City to an FA Cup win on the day this interview is published, it will be the culmination of an unprecedented domestic treble.

Kompany lives with one foot inside and one foot outside the Premier League bubble. In 2017, he graduated with a global business master’s, which provoked some dressing-room banter. “Now and then I’d get a trainer thrown at me while I was studying,” he says. He is also a family man – he and his Mancunian wife, Carla, have three children. Last year, social media went wild for footage of him celebrating City’s title win on a cream leather sofa in his United-supporting father-in-law’s living room. Fans were struck by both their friendly rivalry and the modest setting; a departure from the usual footballer stereotypes. That night, a video of Kompany delivering a victory speech in his local pub could have been of any bloke winning his Sunday league: “If there’s kids in the room, cover their ears… it’s been a fucking long journey.”

At the same time, his schedule – training, travel, fixtures, sponsorship commitments, cup games – is unforgiving and fluid. It has taken weeks to pin down our interview.

He is keen to exploit this influence while it lasts. By autumn, he will have generated an estimated £1m to help tackle Manchester’s homelessness crisis, having pledged a series of fundraising events through his charity Tackle4MCR (four is his shirt number). The biggest of these will be a testimonial match on September 11th. Kompany’s contract with City expires this summer, and the sports pages swirl with reports of his recurring injuries and speculation about retirement. City’s manager, Pep Guardiola, has signalled that he still rates Kompany among the world’s best, but fitness will determine whether his last years are played out in Manchester.

The next decade will be about proving his leadership beyond life as a player – to himself, if not the rest of us

Does retirement scare him? “I’m in a business where I’m flavour of the month and nothing more,” he says. “I’ve had injuries from a very young age. I’ve always been forced to think that my career could be over tomorrow. I’ve had 15 years to prepare, so for it to be daunting at this point wouldn’t make sense. I’m probably the most prepared player in the world for my after-career.” Because, while he is at a crossroads, Kompany has been here before, half a lifetime ago.

***

Kompany was born in 1986 to a family that was poor but educated. His father, who was elected last year as Belgium’s first black mayor in Brussels’ Ganshoren district, had been imprisoned as a student in a DRC labour camp for joining the uprising against the dictator Mobutu. In Brussels, he completed an engineering degree and drove a taxi by night to support his young family (Vincent has two siblings). His white Belgian mother, Jocelyne, who died from cancer in 2008, was a union leader who worked for Brussels’ government employment agency.

The Kompanys were acutely aware of the discrimination their mixed-race children would face, and taught them to challenge it. They spoke French at home and Dutch at school; Brussels is a multilingual city and languages are a valuable currency in the job market. Vincent speaks German and English, too, and is semi-fluent in Italian and Spanish. “I owe everything to my parents,” he says. “From the minute of being born, we expanded our horizons from our tiny apartment.”

Did his parents experience racism? “My dad wasn’t accepted in the family at the beginning. My mother comes from the most rural village you can imagine and when she arrived, in the 70s, with my dad, straight from Africa, it was a shock. It was ignorance. My dad always ended up being accepted because of his personality. It was normal for us to go to youth tournaments and be called monkeys; parents shouting it. That would nearly cause a fist fight with my mother. We were taught to be stronger.”

Kompany always excelled at football; he joined Anderlecht, Belgium’s biggest club, aged six, and stayed until he was 20. “Football was, first of all, a way for my parents to get me off the streets,” he says. “It was the most competitive environment you’ve ever known. I loved every bit of it, but if you talk about dealing with stuff at a young age, you want to see elite football. You’re not a child.”

He was clever and streamed high in the academically weighted Belgian school system. But he felt underrepresented by its social structure. “It was quite socially divided. Those parents from traditional Belgian backgrounds were very present, influencing how the class should be. My parents had to work – there was absolutely no chance for them to participate.”

At 14, he was kicked out of school – the board cited absences for travel with the national team – and thrown out of the Belgium youth squad, too; he clashed with his coach, who told him he would never play again. Kompany didn’t like his leadership; and he didn’t like Kompany’s attitude.

“I had an edge, a different way of dealing with things,” he says. “My parents always revolted against inequality or unfairness, so you can imagine that when my teacher would punish someone – or me – for something that wasn’t fair, I wouldn’t take it.”

In the space of a year, he underwent surgery on his knee, his parents divorced and the family faced eviction from their social housing block in the troubled inner-city area of Uccle. Had the young Kompany wanted to go off the rails, the way was wide open for him to do so.

“I’ve been sometimes very, very close to being on an extremely wrong path,” he says. “If I had wanted to sell drugs, I could literally have gone downstairs and walked into some dark and shady operation. If I’d wanted to look good to impress girls, I could have hooked up with one of the gangs. These were all people I knew. I was playing football with these guys.”

Instead, Kompany stayed focused on the bigger picture. “Setbacks, racism – everything was like feeding a fire. The biggest danger to me is complacency or inaction, which I never allow into my life. These are the defining moments – that age where you can throw everything away by being the worst version of yourself.”

By the age of 17, in 2004, Kompany was walking out as Belgium’s youngest international cap. He was sold to Hamburg in 2006 in the most expensive transfer deal in Anderlecht’s history. The move to City, for £8m, came two years later.

Kompany tells me that he didn’t recognise his own potential until he was 16. “I thought, if I make £300 a month playing football and have a job at Tesco, I’m having fun and can buy myself a little house with a garden.” That was as good as it was going to get. “I never felt I was talented or blessed at anything. Most things that appear to be talent are just the result of a process.”

“This is bullshit,” Kompany’s long-time agent, Jacques Lichtenstein, tells me later. “You see a Vincent Kompany once every 50 years. He is so fast for his size. This is a gift from God – if you believe in God – or his parents.” Fans view him as a colossus, a tower of strength leading from the team’s defence.

Lichtenstein tells a story of a 16-year-old Kompany turning away Italian agents who arrived at his flat with a bag full of money, because, while he hadn’t exchanged contracts with Lichtenstein yet, he had given the agent his word. “On the pitch there is one word to describe him: a captain. Off the pitch, above all, he shows loyalty.”

***

It is February, the month before our interview, and a biting 2C outside. At the Manchester Hilton, Kompany and his wife Carla are hosting a black-tie fundraiser for Tackle4MCR, to mark his decade at City.

Vincent Kompany and his Mancunian wife, Carla, have three children. Photograph: Getty Images
Vincent Kompany and his Mancunian wife, Carla, have three children. Photograph: Getty Images

The region has recorded a drop in the number of rough sleepers, but more than 300 people are still spending the night in shelters; in Manchester’s Piccadilly area, homeless people beg in every third doorway. It’s hard to square this stark reality with football’s unimaginable wealth. At the Hilton’s mezzanine bar, the City squad have a late pass and the champagne flows. Kompany and the compere, Gary Lineker, sneak a selfie as Noel Gallagher performs an intimate gig for guests who have paid up to £1,000 a pop. Gallagher’s guitar goes for £50,000 at auction; a second sells after the event, taking the evening’s proceeds to more than £250,000.

Kompany’s father is here, too. He has a quiet resilience about him, and his political victory four months ago, in an overwhelmingly white constituency, is still something to celebrate. He shares his pride in his son – both his career and now his charity work. In the ladies, Carla is rearranging her gown, a glamorous appliqué dress with barely there straps. Her girlfriends compliment her and “Vinny” on the evening’s success.

Lineker introduces Kompany to the stage. “Vinny is not like other central defenders I know. He can string a sentence together, for starters,” he quips. “He is one of a small number of players who are universally liked and respected. He transcends football rivalry.” Kompany, dressed in a tux accented with a crimson pocket square, gets a standing ovation, but there’s only one reason why he’s standing in a function room on a Monday night, mid-season. “When we go home to our children, when we look other people in the eyes, we can say we have done everything we can as a community,” he says.

Back in his home office, I ask if guilt plays any part in his decision to give something back. He earns a reported £120,000 a week. “Definitely not guilt,” he says. “I do it because I want to and I’m able to. I earn a tremendous amount of money, thanks to football. My mother was a socialist, a borderline communist. It was her nature to fight for the rights of the deprived. My father was a political refugee. That is my past. I really have to look at myself and say, ‘Am I doing enough?’”

Kompany has visited shelters but dislikes taking a media circus to the streets. Carla has gone, instead, unpublicised. “I don’t want to be intrusive,” he explains. “It would be too easy for me to go and take some selfies with homeless people. I inform myself and I definitely make an effort when I’m around people in need, but in reality I need to go to people with deeper pockets than mine and there’s a shelf life on that.” The gala is attended by some of the city’s wealthiest business people, and he is aware that he won’t command their attention for ever.

Manchester City’s Belgian defender Vincent Kompany after his team sealed the Premier League title at Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images
Manchester City’s Belgian defender Vincent Kompany after his team sealed the Premier League title at Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images

Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor who has announced an ambition to end rough sleeping by 2020, tells me Kompany has a reach way beyond any politician’s. “That he chose this cause speaks powerfully about the effect Manchester has had on him – how he understands the place, his emotional intelligence.” Kompany favours early intervention – namely, investment in schools – to combat the problem.

What part has austerity played? “One of the social workers at the shelter was explaining how badly they were affected by the cuts and what impact it had on the work they were able to do. Austerity plays a part in it, but it’s a mix of everything.”

Tackle4MCR is not his first third-sector project. Kompany has worked with SOS Children’s Villages, creating a village for more than 100 orphans in Kinshasa, the DRC’s capital. In Belgium, he founded BX Brussels, a football club with a roster of 1,300 youngsters and 200 volunteers, and an emphasis on social mobility.

“I’ve never seen football as just football,” he says. “It’s one of the biggest movers of people. It gives kids an organised context, people to look up to, talk to. We’re trying to support them with language skills because, in Brussels, you need two, three or four languages to get a job. I’ve seen the toughest kids in the neighbourhood just mingle and have a laugh with guys who would typically be the target of their behaviour. This would only be possible in the dressing room.”

***

Most Premier League players retire by 35. At that age, their earnings drop off a cliff and their lives change dramatically; plenty go bankrupt. Kompany has thought hard about his second act, even before his first is over. He is eloquent, so he is already being tapped up for punditry; he is a leader, so he can coach; and he is a big enough name to play abroad. But he is leaving nothing to chance.

He embarked on his business master’s in 2012 because he wanted to be able to read a business plan, he says. “It was a necessity. If you have a lot of income and you’re someone who can’t sit still, it’s a recipe for disaster. I got stung a few times when I thought I was pretty intelligent and that touched my pride.” He lost £2m on two Belgian sports bars that opened in 2014 and went bust a year later. “It wasn’t so much the loss of money, it was the fact that you feel like you’ve been tricked.”

His other interests include media and property development; he started working with my husband a few years ago, although this is the first time we have talked. “The reality is that, for 10 years of your life, you live in an absolute bubble,” he says. “The money is all coming in as if there’s never going to be an end. But there is a very clear end in sight, [SET BY]your physiological limits.”

He sees business as a way of rectifying social injustice, too. “When I talk about institutions of power, private and public, in these boardrooms it is still mainly white males making all these decisions. This needs to change. We have got absolutely no access to these places at the moment. Take the boardrooms of football clubs. It’s important to start looking at what these institutions are made of and you’ll see, very soon, that it’s still one of the real hidden hotbeds of inequality.”

He follows politics closely but, like most of us, is exasperated by it. “I cannot look at anyone at the moment and say, ‘I know what he really thinks,’” he says. “It’s like theatre.” He considers himself a foreigner “when it’s convenient” and wasn’t surprised to wake up to the Brexit result three years ago. He now fears for the long-term costs of the UK’s “selfish” action. “If the EU was to collapse as a result of this, we are going back into very dangerous territory, especially when you look at how the political landscape is changing in Europe.”

He refers to Donald Trump as a “lunatic” and says Europe is at risk of the same politics. “If you split up Europe and get a whole load of lunatics in isolation, who get elected based on hardline rhetoric, who is going to be the first guy to press the button because he’s pushed himself into a corner?” I point out that people will now be wondering if he’s eyeing a career in politics. No, he says. “The world doesn’t belong to politicians.”

***

Later that afternoon, at City’s first-team complex, the team meet after an almost unheard-of two-day break and buzz off each other like classmates returning from school holidays. Daily training is accompanied by performance monitoring, physio, team meetings and club-controlled meals.

As heavy clouds briefly clear to reveal a City-blue sky, Kompany sweats through two hours of drills. He is Vinny here, to everyone from the security staff to Guardiola. His attention to his game, his teammates and his coaches is unfaltering.

I think back to something I asked him earlier that day, about who he was when he came to Manchester and who he is now. “Ten years ago I was just a young guy who grabbed an opportunity playing in the Premier League,” he said. “I still think I’ve got that attitude of ‘I can take on the world’ but, nowadays, I respect planning and time.” The next decade will be about proving his leadership beyond life as a player – to himself, if not the rest of us. It certainly won’t involve sitting still. “I need to be fed stuff constantly, otherwise I don’t know how to function. I can’t remember a lazy Sunday,” he says.

The floodlights come on. It is 5pm and Kompany offers – and apologises for – a sweaty hug as he heads inside, preparing for the final stretch of his 11th season with the club that changed his fortunes as much as he has contributed to theirs. He is happy, energised, and ready for whatever comes next.

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