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'I am who I am' - Bojan embraces all that has led to him to MLS and Thierry Henry reunion

3:00 AM MYT 21/01/2020
Bojan Montreal Impact
After years of debate and discussion, the former Barcelona star has found happiness in his career after taking a winding road to MLS

Bojan Krkic has been many things throughout his career. He's been the next Lionel Messi, a player with immeasurable skill backed by Barcelona's La Masia machine. He's been Spanish soccer's next great hope, a record-breaker, the next megastar poised to make his mark on the sport for good.

And he's been labeled a failure, a letdown. He's been a nomad, a wanderer, a cautionary tale of what can happen when uncontrollable hype is derailed by injuries, anxiety and all the wrong bounces.

In some ways, Bojan is all of those things. He's embarked on a career unlike any other, joining some of the world's biggest clubs along the way. He's achieved things that most players in this sport would be jealous of. He's also experienced a unique kind of criticism and scorn. At age 29, it feels like Bojan has already played the game for a lifetime.

His most recent adventure comes far away from Camp Nou, the stadium where he emerged as Barcelona's youngest ever debutant by beating Messi's mark. It's a journey that has seen him move through Barcelona, Rome, Milan, Amsterdam and Stoke, with plenty of false starts along the way. He now features for the Montreal Impact, as Bojan is now one of the biggest names in MLS, at an age when many expected him to be racking up La Liga records and Ballon d'Or nominations.

Bojan understands all that has been said about him and the player he has become. He knows that Bojan the player has had missteps along the winding path to Montreal. But, these days, Bojan the player is secondary as the Spanish star has come to terms with being Bojan the man and all that comes with it.

"I see it different," Bojan told reporters in Los Angeles. "Everything now is different from what I had when I was 17 years old. All of the bad things [that have happened], they are not bad things. It's helping you to do big steps to grow. I learned a lot from all of those steps that I did. I'm really happy to have lived those mistakes because now I am who I am."

Calling them "mistakes" is a bit harsh  At age 17, Bojan's life rapidly changed as he was thrust into a spotlight experienced by few in the sport's history. He was the heir apparent, the next big thing, at a time when the current big thing was just starting to discover what he could do on the field. Comparisons to Messi were immediate as the Argentine started to blossom from star to legend, and those comparisons have followed Bojan throughout his career. 

Soon, the anxiety hit, and Bojan's national team career was derailed because of it. The winger was forced to back out of several call-ups from Spain as mental health issues made him dread playing in that sort of environment. Perhaps the most promising and prolific youth product the country had ever produced, Bojan made only one senior appearance for Spain.

Shortly after, he departed Barcelona in search of a first-team place. At Barcelona, he struggled to beat out the likes of Messi, David Villa and Pedro for a spot in the lineup as he couldn't find a way to make the leap from talented youngster to first-team regular. It was a near-impossible task, but one that was expected of him.

His time in Italy was relatively anonymous. A stay with Ajax brought an Eredivisie title but little else. His years with Stoke were back and forth as he battled injuries while falling out of favor with manager after manager. Loan spells proved to be little more than bandaids that needed to be ripped off when the time came. That journey, ultimately, led him to Montreal and a new beginning with a team also in search of a new identity.

And now, that journey, in a way, has come full circle. As he gets set for his first full season in MLS, Bojan will be joined by a man that rapidly went from icon to teammate when the winger first broke through at Barcelona. For years, Thierry Henry was a role model for teenage Bojan. Then he became his colleague and a mentor. Now, he's his coach.

Bojan and Henry joined Barcelona's first team the same season, the former a highly-touted academy product and the latter a game-changing signing following a legendary career at Arsenal. According to Bojan, when playing in that Barcelona team "every day was a dream". He was a kid playing under Pep Guardiola and alongside the likes of Messi, Henry, Villa, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Carles Puyol as part of perhaps the best team this sport has seen. It doesn't get much brighter than that.

Henry, an MLS veteran himself having spent the latter years of his career with the New York Red Bulls, was unveiled as the Impact's new manager this winter as he too comes to Canada in search of a fresh start. It presented an unlikely reunion for the two former Barcelona stars, one that gives Bojan a chance to, in a weird way, reconnect with what was no doubt the highest point of his career.

"It's difficult to see when you play with someone. But he's someone that I always had respect for as a player," Bojan said of Henry, "and, for me, as a young player when I started with him, I tried to always be with him in the dressing room, to listen to what he had to say. It's good to have him."

He added: "The important thing for the players when sometimes we don't play, we say, 'It's the coach! The coach is not playing me!' But I think if we think about ourselves, you need to help your coach, especially now at the beginning of preseason. In my case with Thierry, I will not think about Thierry. I will think about me being in good condition physically, doing good things to play good and then Thierry can help me to grow and play better. I know that if I give this to him, he can help me."

Bojan will be the on-field face of the Impact, and that's a role he embraces. In his eight appearances for the club during his brief foray into MLS last campaign, the Spanish star scored three goals and added a little bit of energy to a club that very much needed it. The skill that earned him the hype are still there and Bojan is still an incredible dribbler and a fine creator. Class is permanent, as they say.

But, with Henry's arrival, some of the spotlight does shift towards a coach that will dominate headlines all over the world. Bojan will be a leader for the Impact on the field, for sure, but Henry is ready and willing to command attention as well.

In truth, all three parties need each other. Henry, fresh off a difficult spell at Monaco, needs to rebuild his reputation as a manager and prove that he is capable of more than what he showed during that brief stay in Ligue 1. The Impact, who have missed the playoffs each of the last three seasons, need to avoid falling further and further behind the MLS' elite. And Bojan is just looking to find happiness as both a player and a man, a task that has been difficult throughout his career.

But Bojan isn't the teenage version of himself anymore, though he isn't past his prime either. This is a period where he's old enough to understand everything that comes with being him but young enough to be able to act on it.  Montreal may have seemed an unlikely chapter just a few short years ago, but it's one he feels is right. Stade Saputo may not be Camp Nou and Bojan may not be Messi but, to his mind, that's just fine.

"Sometimes you think about football and most of the time you think about personal life," he said. "To come away from your town, from your home, sometimes it's not easy to make that decision, but when you do it and you do this step, it helps you to grow as a man. I'm very happy with the decision I made in August to come to Montreal and play football in Montreal in this league.

"From the first day when I came to Montreal, I felt that it was a special city, a nice city with nice people," he added. "I'm happy to be there."