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It is written all over his face. Bojan Krkic has transported himself back to a wet and windy Tuesday night inside the Britannia Stadium; a place he affectionately calls his second home. "Oh yes, the cold nights in Stoke," he says with a warm smile. "It's beautiful. It's just beautiful. It's so special."
As the likeable Spaniard speaks from his new surroundings in Japan following a summer move to Vissel Kobe, you can immediately sense an unbreakable bond with a club that gave him so much. "The years I was there... what the football gives to you, and what the Premier League gives to you. I can say I fell back in love with football in England."
It has been seven years since Bojan decided to take a leap of faith and join Stoke City from boyhood side Barcelona. During his spell at the Camp Nou, he was labelled the next big prospect after scoring an obscene amount of goals at youth level [more on that later].
The diminutive striker broke Lionel Messi's record of the youngest Barcelona player to feature in La Liga after being thrust into the limelight by Frank Rijkaard, just 19 days after his 17th birthday. Three days later, he made his Champions League bow. "Everything was happening so quick," he remembers.
You can understand why he was rated so highly when you read glowing reviews from his former bosses. "There are only a few players who have a magical touch," said Pep Guardiola. "and Bojan is one of them." Rijkaard, who promoted him to the first-team set-up, was another huge admirer, calling him a "treasure".
Now, at 31-years-old, he plays alongside La Masia graduates Andres Iniesta and Sergi Samper in the J-League. "I am excited about the present," he tells SPORTbible. "I'm in a good place right now. I am living in the moment and enjoying everything."
It is easy to look back and debate what could have been for Bojan Krkic; so how does he really feel about it all?
Back together! You can't imagine how happy I am to enjoy your magic and friendship again. It's a pleasure to play alongside you once again. We're going to have so much fun,@andresiniesta8! pic.twitter.com/cKtCIEvWYN
- Bojan Krkic (@BoKrkic) September 3, 2021
From the very beginning, Bojan set a benchmark for those around him. At youth level, he netted more than 900 goals for Barcelona. In fact, according to the man himself, he scored 224 times in his first season at the Catalan club, aged nine.
Despite that staggering record growing up, not many people in football spoke of his progress. Beyond the gates of La Masia, Bojan's talent was relatively unknown. Looking back, he knows how important that was; especially knowing the amount of pressure social media can bring in modern times.
"When I was scoring all these goals, not many people knew about it," he says.
"I felt that was better for me because when you are younger, you should be able to just enjoy your football. When you are younger, you need to do what you really feel. Nobody knows what young lads are going through these days.
"You could even say football is not attractive as it was before. Before, only people could see what was happening in the game."
In a time when Facebook and Twitter were in the early stages of their cycle, Bojan's career was about to take off. Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard was convinced by his talents and in September 2007, he handed the highly-rated forward a deserved La Liga debut against Osasuna, just three weeks after his 17th birthday.
It was the start of a memorable season for the teenager, who would break Raul's record of most goals scored in a debut campaign, netting 10 times in all.
"Every day was like a dream for me," he remembers.
"I was training and sharing a dressing room with players that used to be on posters in my room... one day I had posters of Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho in my room and the next I was playing with some of the biggest stars in the world; all while doing what I loved the most.
"Henry was a big influence. I think he knew how it felt for a young lad to play at a big club. Samuel Eto'o was great, too. Lilian Thuram was a great guy. Andres Iniesta had a big heart. I can say these were good people in the dressing room. I felt protected."
He burst onto the scene with a bang but with that success came increased expectation and, in the space of a few months, Bojan was being touted as the next Lionel Messi after hitting the ground running. Still, he didn't let those comparisons affect him.
"You know which player you are," he says. "Even if the people say you are the new Messi. Messi is Messi. Everyone is doing their own thing. I learned to control what you can control and to forget about what the people think or what the people want you to be."
After a three year spell in Italy with Roma and AC Milan, he returned to Barca and would end up scoring 42 goals in 162 appearances; a respectable tally for any player, never mind someone who was challenging for a first-team spot in a team brimming with world-class talent.
So what would he say to a young player who is surrounded by expectation, like he was all those years ago?
"Everybody has their own mentality," he says. "It's not an ideal world. It's not easy. If you really want to be a footballer or a sports person, you need to work. You need to be really disciplined and calm - even if you start doing good things. You've still got a long way to go.
"It's something you have to do with your heart; with your passion. Try to balance out the good and bad moments and forget about what the people say about you."
Seven years after leaving the Camp Nou, some might say Barcelona need more personalities like Bojan in their current squad.
Sitting ninth in La Liga after a poor start to the campaign, the Catalan giants have struggled in the absence of Lionel Messi, winning just four of their opening ten games. Ronald Koeman was relieved of his duties on Wednesday night, too, but the La Masia product has faith in the process.
"It's not the best situation in our history but every club has these moments," he says.
"Barcelona is a big club. Before this, they dominated Europe for 15 years. I'm not worried because I think the president, Joan Laporta, is someone who loves the club. He will find the solution, rebuild the project and put Barcelona at the place they have to be."
Bojan is the first to admit he didn't know a great deal about Stoke City before penning a four-year deal in 2014.
"If I'm honest with you, it was the Premier League that was the initial attraction," he says. "I went there without knowing the style of Stoke, without knowing much, to be honest, but it was a dream to play in England."
To outsiders, the transfer may have come across as a surprise considering his pedigree in European football. It was a risk but the Spaniard wanted to feel that passion again. He knew England could provide that spark. And it did exactly that.
After scoring three goals in pre-season friendlies against Schalke, Blackburn Rovers and Real Betis, he continued to impress under Mark Hughes, a manager who had his back from day one.
"He [Hughes] was important because firstly, he decided to sign me but most importantly he believed in me.
"He not only gave me that opportunity to play in the Premier League but he trusted me to be one of the key players in the team. Even after I had my injuries, I was still playing a lot of games. He gave me that chance."
Bojan knows it was a bold decision to join Stoke, who were in a transitional period at the time, but it paid off. In his debut season, the club won every game he scored in until he suffered a serious knee injury in an FA Cup win against Rochdale in January 2015.
"It was one of the biggest decisions of my career and I was proud to play for them. I've played at big clubs and smaller clubs but after Barcelona, I can say my second home is Stoke. It was where I was most happy.
"I believe that I played my best level of football there. The fans are incredible and even now, they send me messages. They will forever be in my heart."
With a huge grin on his face, the 31-year-old continues to wax lyrically about the Potters. "I'm still a Stoke fan. I will always be a Stoke fan because they deserve it," he continues. "They showed me all the love. I will always be grateful."
Bojan spent five seasons with the Staffordshire-based team before leaving by mutual consent at the end of the 2018/19 campaign.
In a spell full of great memories, this was the only blot in an otherwise happy stay.
"The last season at Stoke was in the Championship and it was not a good season for the team. We had two coaches... I don't even want to say their name, but they destroyed our recent history a little bit. There weren't many good memories in that final year.
"I spoke with the club and I said listen; because I love the fans, I want to go. It's not the ideal situation but I prefer to leave like this. I didn't want to damage that relationship with them. I believe it was the best moment as a professional to step away."
Would he consider going back to Stoke one day? "Of course. Stoke, for me, is my second home. For me, the fans will always be in my heart. I want to be involved in football when I retire and why not go back to Stoke? If that is possible - to help the club and fans - then I will do it."
Now, after spending last season at MLS side Montreal Impact under former teammate and mentor Thierry Henry, the well-travelled forward has joined Japanese J1 League side Vissel Kobe alongside some familiar faces, including Andres Iniesta; another former Barcelona player who helped Bojan during his teenage years.
"It's a country that I always wanted to come to as a tourist. I love the culture. I love the people," he explains.
"For me, when Andres [Iniesta] came here, I was thinking wow, that is a good thing for him. And when David Villa arrived, I was still playing in Europe. I admired him as a person because as a player, he played in Europe, in America, in Japan.
"I said I would love to do that as well. When I finished my experience in America, one of my priorities was to go to Japan. I was so happy when the opportunity arrived."
It hasn't taken the 31-year-old long to hit the ground running at his new club. He has already featured in several games for Kobe since arriving on a free transfer and earlier this month, he found the net with an accomplished finish in their 5-1 victory against Urawa Reds.
"I'm in a good place right now," he adds. "I am living in the moment and enjoying everything."
Bojan Krkic's first goal for Vissel Kobe in Japan :flag_jp::clap:#J1League @BoKrkic
- Sacha Pisani (@Sachk0) October 2, 2021
At 31, Bojan is certainly embracing life in Japan but does he look back on his career with a hint of regret? Absolutely not.
"If you want, you can have regrets. For sure," he says. "Everyone has them. The thing is, you can accept it.
"You have to see see the positives as well. I mean, there are regrets that you can have. If I look back at myself, I see a young lad not stopping but I always found a solution. I always tried to find the best way with the experience that I had.
"Of course, if you look back with hindsight and with the experience you have now, of course you would change things. But you have to accept when you are 18, or around that age, things are different.
"I wouldn't change anything."
Featured Image Credit: PA/Bojan Krkic - Instagram
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