When is it reasonable for the next global superstar to be the first name on a teamsheet? Can one goal define a career? Bojan Krkić, still waiting to make that final step up, must be hoping it cannot. Alex Dimond wonders whether momentum is slowing.
If there was ever a coming of age moment, then this was it.
Injury time ticking down, Barca just one last-gasp goal from a dramatic away goals triumph and the ball bobbling around Inter’s box amid an atmosphere thick with desperation. Suddenly, the ball spilt into the path of Bojan, who was, not for the first time, the quickest to react.
In that moment he was back at La Masia, or back on the artificial pitch that sits comfortably in the shadow of Camp Nou; where kids work on their dream of reaching the tantalising stage that dominates their horizon, and where he used to score for fun.
Without even a hint of hesitation, he met the ball, nudged it on with his right foot and then rifled it towards the top corner in one seamless movement.
The opposition goalkeeper, Julio Cesar, could only watch as the ball flew past him and into the roof of the net. Before the Brazilian could take in the magnitude of what had happened, his vanquisher was off in celebration.
However, before Bojan could even begin to revel in his moment, it was taken away from him. As the Barca prodigy turned to great the fans, referee Frank de Bleeckere blew the whistle for a second time in as many seconds, as he had already adjudged Yaya Toure to have handballed prior to the pass that provided Bojan with his opportunity — a decision perhaps harsh by the standards of FIFA’s ‘deliberate’ guidelines on such ball-to-hand contact, but one that stood nonetheless.
Three tense minutes later, with added time completed, it was Inter who progressed to the final. Twenty minutes later, Barca turned on the Nou Camp sprinklers to end their rival’s celebrations. The next morning the headlines — fleetingly destined for a 19-year-old who was still really a boy — were instead devoted to a man: Jose Mourinho.
Can one goal define a career, even if it is disallowed? Bojan Krkić must be hoping it cannot.
For a youngster, still only 20, who scored hundreds of goals as a youth star tipped for the very top, it seems harsh to suggest that his still-fledgling career may yet be defined by the one shot that didn’t count.
But that is the scenario that seems to face Barcelona’s forever delayed next superstar.
It feels like the Barcelona forward has been on the footballing radar for so long — breaking into the club’s first team squad at 16, after a record-breaking 895 goals in the academy and a whirlwind rite of passage through Barcelona B — that it is tempting to believe that he should have progressed more in the last four years than he ultimately has. That timeframe would usually considered long enough to judge a more senior player, after all, but then again perhaps the tender years of the diminutive sharpshooter lend him a bit more slack.
On the other hand, perhaps that’s just the pressure that comes with playing for one of the world’s biggest clubs, regardless of age or experience.
Either way, the Linyola-born player — the son of a Serbian professional footballer and Spanish nurse — has struggled to meet the expectations put on him since becoming the youngest player ever to appear for Los Cules just 26 days after his 16th birthday.
He would have become Spain’s youngest ever player, too, had it not been for an untimely illness — suggested in some quarters to be an anxiety attack — that ended up postponing his international bow until after his 18th birthday.
And that seems to be Bojan the professional’s major problem, coping with the pressures and difficulties of being a star. “Overnight, I couldn’t even walk down the street,” he noted shortly after making his breakthrough, before subsequently ruling himself out of possible selection for Spain’s ultimately triumphant Euro 2008 campaign because he was “physically and emotionally shattered.”
Since his early arrival on the scene, he has struggled for balance and consistency at the top level, seemingly left perplexed by his inability to dominate opponents like he had done at every other stage of his career. Indeed, his first season remains his most successful, in terms of both total appearances (48) and goals (12).
Such difficulties are clearly something manager Pep Guardiola is still attempting to overcome, as seen by his overly encouraging response to questions about the youngster after he notched twice as a substitute in November’s 8-0 hammering of Almeria.
“He never lost his confidence, and neither did we lose faith in him," Guardiola was quick to state. "He was a vital part of the league championship last year. He made the two goals he scored.
“We know he’s there when we need him.”
But do they, though? For that matter, does he? The one time Bojan was given the chance to make a defining impact on a game of major significance, against Inter in the semi-finals of the Champions League, he saw his moment stolen from him in the most desperate of circumstances (a moment now rendered so insignificant to others it is not even mentioned in his Wikipedia page). Where the main benefactor from that night is now only serves to highlight its potential significance.
Jose Mourinho, off the back of that famous triumph, finds himself manager of Real Madrid, a posting he earned no doubt in part because of that success in the Nou Camp and partly due to his subsequent win in the final at the Santiago Bernabeu. His reputation, and managerial record, turned once again on that game, elevating his status to that of a modern great. Bojan, meanwhile, continues to struggle along within the same old confines.
Guardiola was another who learned from that night. The thoughtful manager saw that his Plan B of playing ‘small ball’ in the final third (he withdrew Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to no small amount of criticism, with the score at 0-1 to make way for a vertically challenged but effective frontline of Bojan, Messi and Pedro) could be effective — it just needed better exponents. Ibrahimovic was thus shipped off to Milan in the summer, with David Villa brought in; a sharpshooter to fill the role Bojan had long been expected to make his own.
Would that goal, on that stage, have changed opinions on the youngster? Would it have changed his opinion of himself? Almost certainly. It would have provided him with a game-changing moment to add to his career CV, a calling card with which to earn him time and more opportunities. As it is, he is still struggling to prove himself.
The suspicion lingers in some quarters that Bojan is an ‘unnatural’ Masia graduate — someone groomed in the same tiki-taka ethos as others before him, yet remaining a player who continues to prosper as more of a poacher, disjointed from what Barca’s idealistic 4-3-3 is intended to be about.
More significantly, with the club suffering a financial hangover from the extravagant excesses of the previous presidential regime, he knows the club are still in a window where they can profit on his yet-to-be-fulfilled potential (as they previously did, to an extent, with Giovani dos Santos).
Juventus, Chelsea, Spurs — a number of big clubs have been linked with significant bids — but for now Bojan continues to be involved in the first team (coming up for 150 senior appearances) and continues to score goals (36 to date). But they are not all important starts, and they are rarely important goals.
The odd strike in a multi-goal thrashing — as was the case against Real Sociedad last weekend and with the other three of his strikes this season— may boost his personal record, but they ultimately convince no one of his long-term ability to be a world-class performer.
Only once in his career, against Schalke in April 2008, has he scored a game-winning goal of major significance.
“Bojan will not leave. The club would not accept it,” his agent, Zoran Vekic, nevertheless insisted this week, just weeks after hinting an exit could be on the cards. “Next summer we will analyse the situation again and we will see, but for now he is happy at Barcelona.
“He is not getting many minutes but every time he gets an opportunity he has played very well.”
Perhaps what he really needs is another moment like last May, a chance to show once and for all he can be a game-changer. Fortunately, for the young tyro, he plays for Barcelona — a club where the next visit to the biggest stage is never far away and a game-defining, nay, career-defining moment is always within potential grasp.
Last time, his was stolen away by the referee. Next time, however, it might well be left all down to him. Bojan will likely need to take the chance — just as he has done thousands of times in the past — if he wants his career, and his talent, to reach the heights always ascribed for him.
You can see Bojan's non-goal here and You can follow Alex on Twitter @alexdimond