Sitting in the canteen at Stoke City's training ground, Bojan Krkic's eyes light up as he thinks back to his cameo in an epoch-defining clásico and what is widely regarded as one of the most complete team performances of all time. Pep Guardiola's Barcelona were leading 4-0 against Real Madrid at the Camp Nou, revelling in passing their bitter rivals to death, when Krkic, a 20-year-old substitute, replaced David Villa and quickly made his mark.
“I assisted the fifth goal,” Krkic says, replaying the memory of the cross he delivered for Jeffrén Suárez to convert for a Barcelona side in their pomp. “It was incredible how this team used to play football. The players used to have a lot of confidence, things simply worked themselves. I also played when we won in Madrid 6-2. We played a lot of games that were perfect. We played at a very high level for two or three years. But definitely that was the perfect game, because we won 5-0 against Real Madrid.”
Four years on
That was the back end of November 2010. Four years on and Krkic is preparing for Burnley’s visit to the Britannia Stadium on Saturday. Two famous English clubs – founder members of the Football League no less – but el clásico it is not. Indeed there is something surreal about listening to Krkic talking about the good weather in the Potteries in recent weeks and how life at Stoke is “more tranquil” than Barcelona.
It is a conversation that would have been unimaginable not so long ago, when Krkic was the boy who had it all. Schooled at Barcelona's La Masia academy from the age of eight, he was the classic child prodigy. Krkic scored a staggering 895 goals in the club's junior ranks, played for Spain Under-21s at the age of 16 and racked up 50 appearances for Barcelona before he was old enough to drink sangria.
Records tumbled. Against Villarreal in October 2007, Krkic supplanted Lionel Messi as Barcelona's youngest scorer in La Liga, aged 17 years and 53 days. Not long afterwards Krkic became the first player born in the 1990s to score in the Champions League. Krkic finished that season, in 2007-08, scoring 12 goals – including the winner in the Champions League quarter-final first leg against Schalke – and with five assists to his name.
The hype went into overdrive. Krkic smiles at how one newspaper mocked him up in a cape with a "B" on his chest. "Yes, yes, yes, I remember," he says, laughing. Frank Rijkaard, Barcelona's coach at the time, described the teenager as a "treasure".
There were inevitable comparisons with Messi. Others drew parallels with Raúl. Spain and Serbia – the birthplace of his father – fought over him. Everything was happening in a blur and it is only now, after swapping Barcelona for Stoke in the summer, following spells with Roma, Milan and Ajax, that Krkic can step back and try to make sense of it all.
“When you are 17, you don’t know what pressure is, because you play with the best team in big stadiums with big players. But when I look back now, it’s difficult for a 17-year-old person to get by and deal with the whole situation,” Krkic says. “My friends were at school and it was very complicated everywhere I went with them. It changed my life overnight. Going through the streets, fans were running to me.”
Krkic nods when asked whether life in England is easier. "Yeah. I remember when Thierry Henry came to Barcelona, after 10 days he was like: 'Wow!' He played here, in England, a long time. He said in England it was easy, the people never came to the training ground and the journalists visited once a week. At Barcelona it's completely different. There are 5,000 people at training every day, journalists there every day.
Passion and pressure
“I love the passion at Barcelona, but I like it here. In Spain, people do not respect the players, the same in Italy. In England, it looks like a different world – the people admire the player, but also respect the player.”
Barcelona will always have a special place in Krkic’s heart and he sounds genuine when he insists that he has no regrets about his time there. Yet listening to Krkic rowing back over the four seasons he spent in and around the first-team, a picture emerges of a club where the pressure and expectation is close to intolerable at times, in particular for a local boy. “When you play with a big club, you need to get results every single day, even more when a homegrown player goes into the first team. It’s not easy,” Krkic says.
It is tempting to wonder whether Krkic lived the dream at Barcelona but lost his childhood in the process. “That’s a good question,” he says. “This is one of the things that I am more sensitive about and that touched me the most, because I am a family person. There are many moments that I haven’t had the chance to enjoy with my family and also with my friends. But thanks to football I’ve been able to enjoy some other things.”
Wearing the famous colours of the club he grew up supporting, being idolised by the fans – “They loved me and that helped a lot” – and playing alongside some of the greatest names in world football in what Krkic describes as “one of the golden ages for Barcelona” is about as good as it gets.
Was he good enough?
Except everyone hoped for more when it came to Krkic, especially after that explosive breakthrough season. Looking back, there were signs that all was not well towards the end of that campaign, when Krkic asked not to be taken to the 2008 European Championship, saying he was “physically and emotionally shattered”. Krkic won his first Spain cap the following September, just after his 18th birthday, but he has never played for his country since. Some wondered whether he could cope with the pressure bestowed on him at Barcelona, others questioned if he had that ruthless edge needed to succeed at the top. Was he good enough?
As for Krkic, his own explanation leaves the impression that life at Barcelona was never quite the same for him once Guardiola took over. "When you are a football player, you depend … my first year I had Rijkaard, he gave me the chance to play with the first team and to continue. Also, I played well and scored, so that year was important for me. In the second year, they changed the trainers [Guardiola was appointed], and the chances and opportunities were different. It was something else that I learned in my life. I stayed for a further three years, there were moments when I was a very important player for the team and I always gave my best every day."
Krkic, who is speaking through a translator but confident enough to answer some questions in English, comes across as a likeable guy and one of those players who probably benefits from an arm around the shoulder at times. He has certainly warmed to the way that Mark Hughes manages the players at Stoke. “One thing that I like from a coach is that they don’t put up too big a distance between the player and the trainer,” Krkic says. “He is very close to us and that’s why I like him.”
Life at Stoke
Adapting to life at Stoke has not been seamless. Krkic soon discovered he needed to find another route to the training ground from his home near Manchester. "The M6 every day is traffic," he says, smiling – and it is only in the last couple of matches that he has hit form on the pitch, culminating in his first Premier League goal, a fine strike in the 2-1 win at Tottenham Hotspur before the international break. "The more you play, you get a better rhythm and play better," he says.
It will be fascinating to see how Krkic fares at Stoke and it is worth remembering that, for all the talk about what might have been, he only turned 24 in August.
While there is no escaping the fact that the last three seasons, spent with Roma, Milan and Ajax, were a big disappointment, Krkic’s record at Barcelona needs to be put into some sort of context. He scored 41 goals in 163 games for the club, before the age of 21 and at a time when he was competing for a place up front alongside Ronaldinho, Messi, Henry, Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Villa.
It is, perhaps, an achievement that is easy to overlook. “I agree. But it’s something that does not depend on me,” Krkic says.“I feel all that I have done so far … I know it, I know how much it cost me, so that’s why I feel proud. And that’s what gives me the strength to continue.”