The complexity of Kevin-Prince Boateng
A man of many complexities and a remarkable talent on the football pitch, Kevin-Prince Boateng is, for the most part, a controversial figure in his personal and professional life.
Set to be Ghana’s next midfield anchor, Boateng was already a promising star at the tender age of six when he started his club career with Reinickendorfer Fuchse in early 1994 before signing for Hertha BSC in July of the same year at the age of seven.
Thirteen years later and the German-born Ghanaian professional whose brother Jerome Boateng plays for Germany became a central part of Hertha BSC, earning him a promotion to its first team squad in the 2005-06 season.
The 29-year-old’s career sparked off from there and earned him a move to the English Premier League in a four-year contract with Tottenham Hotspurs in July 2007 for a reported £5.4 million. But his stay was short lived and was later loaned to Borussia Dortmund in January 2009.
Facing the Whip
For a young Boateng, the chance out of poverty was only realized by the true potential of his natural talent and “intelligence” which opened a window of opportunity for a life outside of a rough upbringing.
However, his undeniable talent was always clouded by personality issues. Many times, his personality coupled with his tough play inspired mixed feelings towards his character which got him into a lot of trouble.
Boateng grew up in Wedding, a neighborhood where survival was the only hope as he tells the Guardian, “people were shot and police didn’t even enter.”
The street next to his was ranked in the “top 10” most dangerous and the “rules” according to Boateng were, “if you don’t die, I die.”
Notably, his major step out of hardship did not blossom into your typical fairytale success story.
On the downside, the possibility of a breakthrough career at Tottenham was quickly squandered by his recklessly lavish lifestyle, much to the disappointment of also being told he was not needed after only a month with the club.
Relying on talent and intelligence as Boateng realized, was just not enough and it is from there that his promising star was reduced to a mere glimmer. The alternative, party hard and spend harder.
“I looked old,” he says of his Tottenham days at the age of 20. “Every night I was out until six. I was like 95 kilos, swollen from the drinking and bad food.
“I said, ‘This can’t be me, I don’t want to be that guy. I have something inside – I’m a football player.’
“I called my friends, two real friends, and they came. Together, we cleaned out my fridge and the house. That day, I said, ‘No! Stop it.’
“I didn’t drink; I didn’t go out. I started cooking – I wanted to eat healthily. From one day to the next.
“If I didn’t do it slowly, maybe, maybe I wouldn’t do it. I needed a clean break.”
On being rejected by then Tottenham manager, Martin Jol, the midfielder took out his frustration on all that money could buy and completely strayed from the objective – building a football career.
“Martin Jol told me he didn’t want me after a month. So, it became me against the world. You know when you shut off? That was me. ‘You don’t want me? I’ll enjoy life.’
“I realize now how bad it was – six days a week nightclubbing, drinking for almost a year. But I was only 20.
“You don’t think things are going wrong. You see money coming in. ‘OK, I get my fun somewhere else.’ Girls, nightclubs, friends … Fake friends.”
Boateng’s potential nevertheless was undoubtable but his misguided path wasn’t without mentorship and advice which, unfortunately, he turned a deaf ear towards.
In his biography released in February 2016, the former AC Milan midfielder mentions the positive change former Chelsea star, Didier Drogba tried to impact on his life because the latter, took him “like a little brother” even though they played for different clubs but he “did not listen to his advice.”
“He said, ‘Focus on football. There are 1,000 coaches, and only 999 of them will not like you. I had to fight for my place when I (Drogba) came from France.’ But I was not ready to listen to him.”
On several occasions, indiscipline always followed Boateng, off and on the pitch.
In Dortmund, his infamous rough challenge and “no-nonsense flying kick” to the head of Vfl Wolfsburg’s Makoto Hasebe, led to a four-match ban by the German Football Association.
While at Schalke, he was suspended by the Royal Blues for disciplinary reasons and was not allowed to train with the first team forcing him to improvise ways of staying fit.
Termed as the “toughest time of his career,” Boateng was close to proving critics right by pre-maturely walking away from the game.
“It was the toughest time of my career because, before then, I had always had the luxury of being part of a club where I was playing, and I was one of the most important players in that team.
“I would ask a lot of questions of myself and wonder what it was that I had done wrong in the two years.
“I cannot think of anything so bad to justify throwing me out. Of course, I made mistakes, (but not such) that a club who had spent €10 million on me would then suspend me.”
Schalke terminated his contract, but there was huge solace to be found in his return to AC Milan.
Of the Boateng brothers, Prince maintained a closer attachment to his African roots and chose to play for Ghana regardless of his impressive time with the Germany national youth team.
His time with Ghana changed the midfield presence of the Black Stars. In 2010 and 2014, South Africa and Brazil World Cup finals respectively, the player known for his strength, quick foot work, and ball-juggling skills made a statement not just for himself, but for Ghana.
But his role was once again overshadowed by a disciplinary action in which he was sent home following a suspension at the 2014 World Cup for allegedly hurling verbal abuse towards the former coach, James Kwesi Appiah during a team talk.
The Unconventional Hero and Ambassador
Though controversial, Boateng’s career has seen its positives. At Portsmouth, during a three-year contract in 2009 – he was named Portsmouth’s Joint Player of the Month. However, his impressive return to the EPL was foiled by a controversial challenge on Chelsea midfielder at the time, Micheal Ballack which ruled him out of the 2010 World Cup.
For many Germans, it was as if Boateng was the Grinch who stole Christmas. Surprisingly, however, some German players were relieved:
“The irony of it all, I received several messages from German internationals in which the tone was, ‘It’s good that he (Ballack) is not part of it.’
“His standing in the team wasn’t all that good. Nobody was happy that he sustained an injury, least of all me, but many believed being without Ballack was the better option.”
But the major turning point is his intolerance for unfair treatment and myopic behavior which made Boateng actually stand out as an ambassador for equality in football.
In 2013, two years after first joining AC Milan on a permanent deal from Genoa, Boateng and three other players walked off the pitch during a mid-season friendly with Pro Patria in protest against racist chants from a section of the Pro Patria crowd. This time, he was universally applauded.
“It was an automatic reaction,” he says. “Thinking about it, maybe I wouldn’t do it again. Maybe I’d speak to the referee or get the stadium announcer to say something.
“Walking isn’t always the best response: we have a responsibility. But I couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t keep my emotions inside.
“I thought, ‘Why do we still have to go through this?'”
Boateng would become FIFA’s anti-racism task force ambassador and was invited by the UN to Geneva where he gave a captivating speech alongside Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights.
“It was very emotional, but I can’t tell you it was only beautiful. Personally, it was unbelievable to get the chance to say what I feel, what I’d seen, what I’d experienced in my life. But I was there for a very, very negative thing, so I was torn. It was difficult to go and speak,” Boateng said.
As much as FIFA disbanded its task force in September of 2016, racism is still an issue in football and Boateng with undeterred conviction is still determined to fight against the unjustly act.
“For them, maybe the work is done, but this work can’t be done,” he says.
“We’ve seen it with Balotelli (subjected to monkey chants) at Bastia. He’s a close friend; he said it’s incredible. He doesn’t know what to do. ‘What can I do? Put something on Instagram, Twitter?’
“There is nothing else. He can’t fight racism alone. We should fight harder, stronger. We can’t say the work is done….
“We had something to do. Racism goes beyond football, but football gives you the platform (but) then they close (the task force) for I-don’t-know-what reason. All I know is I read it one day, and I was shocked.”
Meeting an Icon – the Dream Come True
Boateng speaks proudly of his time as a UN ambassador but not in comparison to meeting the iconic Nelson Mandela. It wasn’t just an ordinary meet and greet; it was unusually normal than one would expect with Mandela jokingly admitting his daughter’s desire to marry Boateng. Or maybe it wasn’t either way, from the Ghanaian’s narration, their interaction was as fluid and as it was humorous.
“There were three people I always wanted to meet – Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela,” he says. “I only met one, and it’s hard to describe. It’s just joy.
“Mandela was in prison for 27 years just because he stood up for his rights and he sits there and has no anger inside. … He makes you feel calm. He was shining. It’s like a movie. It’s like an angel sitting there.”
Mandela’s widely known humility turned into a lighthearted moment for Boateng.
“… Luckily he broke the ice because you just stand there. It was the World Cup; people were calling me ‘David Black-ham,’ going crazy for me. I was kind of like a star.
“We go into the room, ‘Hello … hello … hello.’ He shook my hand, pulled me towards him and said, ‘My daughter wants to marry you.’
“I said, ‘Sorry I already have a girlfriend.’ He said, ‘No, no but I have others, more beautiful.’ Everyone was laughing. The pity is we couldn’t take pictures because the flash hurt his eyes, so I only have one.”
A Nostalgic Period
Boateng’s loan spell at Dortmund may not have ended as hoped due to limited financial capacity, but the midfielder holds its former coach, Jurgen Klopp in the highest regard referring to him as “the best coach in the whole world.”
“He knows exactly what every player needs and gives them time. There were players at Dortmund who played five minutes in six months, but they were happy – happy to come to training, happy to work because he made you feel important.
“Not necessarily as a player – maybe he doesn’t need you – but as a person. That’s why he’s successful everywhere. And Liverpool’s perfect; just watching his presentation, you see it. ‘The normal one’: people there love that. If he’d gone to Paris, it would have been best suit, [different message]. He knows how to grab people.”
Life on an Island and Leading by Example
Settling in at Las Palmas, Boateng’s free transfer move was received with much skepticism by many of the view that the Ghanaian was simply looking for a new breeding ground for a good time.
However, Boateng has put the past behind him and is a reformed man on a mission to repair an almost defunct career while helping to mentor young upcoming talent.
He said in an interview with Marca. “When I was younger I didn’t work hard because I could rely on my talent.
“That’s not the right way. I wish I’d worked harder, but it was normal then because I was the boss of my town and had money and fame.”
The capital of the Canary Islands, Las Palmas is now home to the midfielder whose impressive performance so far is in part, credited to Boateng’s quality of play backed by his experience playing in top tier leagues.
“They talk a lot. Many people said that I came to party. If I wanted to party, I would have gone to cities like London and Milan. In my life, there’s been a lot of partying.
“I came here to show people what sort of player I am. This is why I work every day. In football, things change quickly. In just a month everyone talks of me only as a footballer.”
As much as there is a better man on the field, there is also a teacher in the 29-year-old whose career clock is winding down.
Nevertheless, he intends to play a leadership and mentorship role for younger players – considering his past mistakes.
“My world is football, my vision is helping young players – where to put their money, which physic to see, getting them on the right path,” he tells the Guardian.
“There are young players here with so much talent. It can be difficult to live here (Las Palmas) – beautiful place, beautiful weather, you train two hours a day, you can go to the beach.
“To be focused on this island is difficult but I’m experienced, so I help, advise. If they listen, that’s up to them, but at least I can say I tried.
“I don’t want them to waste their talent. I’ve given them examples of things I did really wrong. I made mistakes in my life. I’m OK with that now, but I don’t want them to do the same stupid things that leave a mark forever – ‘bad boy,’ ‘drinker,’ ‘party guy.’
Some newspapers still have that image of me. Whatever. Come on, I spoke in front of the UN. Tell me another player who’s done that.”
Photo Credit: Frankbauer.com