It has been a record-breaking few years for Barcelona’s young players. First came Ansu Fati, then Pedri and more recently Gavi and Alejandro Balde. Last month, 15-year-old Lamine Yamal outdid them all, becoming the youngest player to feature for the club in LaLiga when he came off the bench against Real Betis.
There is something exciting about the presence and promise of a precocious talent coming through, and naturally, comparisons are drawn and predictions are made. If they are this good at 16, how many Ballons d’Or will they win by the time they are 25? Even the legendary Lionel Messi didn’t make his Barca debut at 15.
Headlines follow, social media followers rise and massive contracts soon arrive. That is one side of the coin. On the other side, though, a huge amount of pressure is being piled on teenagers still relatively new to the world, let alone the football world, unprepared for the instant results that the industry so often prioritises.
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None of this is new, of course, but it should be cause for reflection.
Bojan Krkic, who recently retired at the age of 32, was in the same position as these players not long ago. With a young Messi already seated in Barca’s first team, Krkic emerged in 2007, making his debut as a 17-year-old. He went on to score 12 goals in his first campaign with the club, including one in the Champions League.
However, as everyone else marvelled at his quality, Krkic was weighed down by his new fame. At the end of that first season, he turned down a call up from the Spain national team to be part of the squad for the European Championship in 2008 — a tournament La Roja would go on to win — because of the anxiety he had suffered after bursting on to the scene.
Following a career that saw him go on to play for Roma, Milan, Ajax, Stoke City, Mainz, Alaves, Montreal Impact and Vissel Kobe, there are few better to pass on their experiences to Barca’s next generation than Krkic. In fact, sources have told ESPN he could return to the Catalan club in a role that would see him act as the link between the reserve side, the academy and the first team.
As part of Mental Health Awareness Month 2023, the former Barca forward spoke to ESPN about the side of the game you don’t see on television, the struggles he confronted in his breakout season and the factors that contribute to a player having a career in football or not.
(Interview conducted by Ricardo Puig and has been lightly edited for clarity/content.
ESPN: Can you identify with what Pedri, Gavi and Ansu are going through as young players at Barca?
Krkic: I can identify in that they are also players who made their debut at a young age. After that, each player has their own path and circumstances. They are all different, because of age or the situation with the club, whatever.
Everyone has their own situation and circumstances; obviously, they are all showing that they have the level needed to play in Barcelona’s first team.
Is there too much pressure on younger players? The same thing happened to you when you were called the ‘new Messi.’
Everyone is free to put that pressure on somebody else. It has been done and is going to continue to happen. You have to be aware that when playing for teams like Barcelona, one of the biggest clubs in the world, age is really the least of it. The requirement is to be good, to play, to win, and that is what it implies.
The outside stuff has nothing to do with the player or the young person who is going through these emotions. What they are responsible for is how they manage this outside pressure, how they can arm themselves to understand the moment of their development they are in, to understand that all the labels that are put on them do not equate to what they think of themselves. That is up to the player, as well as the player’s inner circle, in terms of how they feel in that situation.
You had anxiety problems at the start of your career. Do you think this is linked to professional football?
I went from being unknown to being a public figure in a very short time. There was a very important change in my identity that affected both me and my surroundings. I always said that professionally I was prepared, in fact I proved it, but the repercussions that come from having a high profile and from representing a team like Barcelona, that is not something that is taught. It’s something that you learn through the life lessons along the way and that’s what happened with me.
It was a bit like entering a new world, very suddenly, and with a total change of identity. You have to realise what is going on and accept that this is your new reality. And you have to keep progressing and improving. That’s what I did.
Before scoring your first Champions League goal, making your debut with Barca, did you ever have any problems with anxiety?
Not really: it was something new for me. That’s why I say that it’s not something that is taught or you can warn anyone about. They are situations that crop up, real situations that are part of human nature.
It is the same as a muscle injury. The first time you have it, the sensation is new, it’s unpleasant and you learn to recover. Well, it’s similar. You have to accept that injury. You have to be aware that you have a rehabilitation process ahead of you. That’s what I did, I confronted it as a challenge. I experienced it, I confronted it and I overcame it.
Did the comparisons with Messi and the expectations that were being generated in your second season increase your anxiety?
No, the anxiety issues were actually a specific issue in my first season, towards the middle and end. In the second season, I felt much better. Those episodes were diminished greatly to the point where, thank God, I played my whole career using those experiences to help me a grow and to continue living my dream of playing football at a professional level.
Wasn’t that the reason why in 2008 you said no to Spain coach Luis Aragones when it came to playing in the European Championship?
Yes, yes, it was at the end of the first season. I arrived with an empty tank at the end of that season, just as the Euros were coming up, and I could not go. After that, I focused on recovering well and I came back at the beginning of the second season ready to go.
Do professional clubs work on these experiences? Do you feel like clubs are prepared to help a player in this way?
There’s really no time with clubs because each have their own pressures and obligations to win. That’s why, in part because of what I’ve been through, you can handle it at a group level and that strengthens the team. At an individual level, I think it’s the player himself who must make the decision and take the initiative to face all those insecurities to be prepared as best as possible.
Can you work through it within the club with someone trained to help? Yes, obviously, but really there’s not much of that. There’s a lot of physical therapists who can help you with injuries. With these other situations, since not a lot of them are known, there isn’t that awareness that I think could be helpful not just to the club but to the manager as well.
Ansu has had problems after coming back from injury, Gavi sometimes seems too fired up on the pitch: do you think it has to do with pressure or mental health? The pressure that Pedri has, for example, because fans say that Barca lose when he is not there?
If that’s the case, it’s because there is reason to talk about it. Ansu has proved to be a great, great player; the same as Gavi and Pedri. And that’s what I was talking about. It’s not their responsibility what happens on the outside.
Ansu is going through something that is not at all his doing. He’s a young guy who had a big injury, made a decision based on advice from the club and, in turn, for the best possible path to recovery for his knee. He did everything he could on his end. We’re talking about a significant injury that he’s had to overcome at a very young age. It’s all part of the process.
It’s the same with Gavi, and everything that’s surrounding his situation. It’s his style of play, of understanding the game, and whatever happens on the outside doesn’t have to affect him regardless of the conditions.
I would like to think that they are players who are more than prepared and can continue to be important players at Barca. Logically, they are still in the early stages and have to follow this road for many more years to come.
Does this fascination to find the ‘new Messi’ put too much pressure on the young players?
Yes, but I think it has always been the same and it will always be the same. It’s a reflection of society. We want everything in the moment, and we don’t value what we have and we don’t value ourselves. Sometimes we value the person next to us more and that sometimes takes away the satisfaction that we could have if we felt and observed what each one of us has.
Having said that, I also don’t really understand the need to find or want to find that “new Messi” or, before Messi, that “new Ronaldinho.” Because, in the end, each one of us is losing the essence of what that player can become, who has nothing to do with another one and the beauty of this is that it is so.
What’s next for you? Perhaps working with young players?
Some of it is passing on and sharing my experiences from my career as a football player. As far as the second chapter, which started not that long ago, there are not a lot of words that have been written yet. What I want to do is keep writing them, continue feeling it all. Really, seeing all those concerns that could come up where I could find a place to fully grasp them, that would be satisfying on a personal as well as a professional level.
I’m not fixated on any one place; it would be a mistake do to that. Obviously, Barcelona is a huge organisation, it’s all but my second home, and I would be proud to be a part of the club on a level that works with my situation. But I’m not focused on just one place. There are several situations that could come into play where I could continue to write my next chapter.