Jerome Boateng: the world’s best defender invites FFT over
Five years after leaving Manchester City a Misfit, Bayern Munich's Jerome Boateng is arguably the world's best centre-back. FFT pops round for a cuppa to talk trainers, trophies and tips from Jay Z
Grunwald is a sleepy sort of place. Nestled on the banks of the River Isar, its tree-lined streets are a world far removed from central Munich, which lies eight miles to the north. Everything here moves along at a sedate pace. Even local dog-walkers only break into a trot to shelter in a nearby coffee shop when one of the frequent rain showers gets a bit too heavy.
In this most stylish of suburban idylls, Jerome Boateng’s house fizzes in total contrast to the surrounding tranquility. Delivery vans come and go. An odd-job man attends to the front hedge, and then, toolbox in hand, dives into the house – a white, low-level building that’d have Grand Designs’ Kevin Mccloud purring.
Inside, the family dog Cassius – a nine-year-old Boxer who ignores the garden trampoline that so enchants Buster in this year’s John Lewis Christmas ad – bounds around, as do Boateng’s daughters, Soley and Lamia. Jerome’s dad, Prince, sticks to more of a shuffle while the defender’s partner, Sherin, talks to a friend. Soon, the Bayern Munich lynchpin pulls up in his matte club Audi. “I’m sorry, I hate being late,” he says breathlessly, arriving straight from the airport after the previous evening’s Champions League win at PSV. “We’ve just moved into this house, so I haven’t invited anyone over. You’re pretty much the first. Sorry for the mess!”
Boateng’s year has been nearly as busy as his household is today. Apart from the move – and his idea of ‘mess’ differs wildly from our own, because this house is immaculate – the World Cup winner has claimed a fourth consecutive Bundesliga title, reached yet another Champions League semi and the last four of Euro 2016.
Germany’s journalists voted him Player of the Year in August and his consistent excellence has ensured Boateng is the best defender in FFT’S latest rundown of the world’s Top 100 players.
All of which is why the Berlin-born 28-year-old has invited us over for coffee and a chat. And where better than Jerome Boateng’s very own house to talk about his stellar 2016, right?
Dressed in a low-slung black hoodie, jogging bottoms and some white high-top trainers, Boateng wears the relaxed demeanour of someone who is entirely comfortable in his own skin. With life in general. He is
an unfailingly polite and attentive host across the 90 minutes that we spend in this teak-tough defender’s engaging company.
Settling down next to the pool table that will eventually form the centrepiece of Boateng’s trophy room once the odd stray wire and stepladder are spirited away, the Bayern central defender begins to outline why 2016 has been such a standout year for him.
Yes, there was a knee injury at the beginning of it, but it was without Boateng that Bayern came unstuck against Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final. With Boateng imperious in the return, only away goals denied Die Roten. It’s no coincidence that at Euro 2016, Germany lost to France once he’d succumbed to injury in the semi-final. His teams miss him when he’s not there.
“You just need to be comfortable about your game,” Boateng tells FFT, scratching his chin. “Sometimes a game is all about the feeling. You have to make big decisions. Of course, sometimes you make the wrong one, but it’s a feeling and you do what’s natural.
“You see that with the style Pep Guardiola played at Barcelona – you play out from the back no matter the pressure. He didn’t care if you make a mistake; he just wanted you to keep playing.”
Continuity is another crucial factor. “Here, we have the basis of the Germany team’s defence, with Manuel Neuer in goal, Mats Hummels now alongside me at centre-back and Philipp Lahm as the captain,” says Boateng. “That stability is massive because we’ve been playing together for quite a while. I’ve played with Philipp, for example, since 2009, when I broke into the German team. Further forward, we have Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski, who’s been our striker for two years. We’ve been building this team for some time.”
Boateng has been building, too. So often, footballers talk in bland generalities about improvement; Boateng, however, is different. His prodigious physical gifts have always been at the root of his potential – in person, he resembles a sprinter more than a footballer – but he can pinpoint the exact match that changed his career.
“In December 2012, I was sent off at home to BATE Borisov in the Champions League,” he recalls, adjusting the black-rimmed glasses on the bridge of his nose. “I was criticised a lot. People said I was giving away too many silly fouls and making too many mistakes. After Christmas, I was replaced by Daniel Van Buyten.
“That was a key moment for me, because I knew then that I had to concentrate more during matches, be calmer with the ball at my feet and work harder in training, working with the coaches on my passing, technique of my tackles and the timing of my headers.
“From that point on, I felt completely different. I thought a lot more about my football; about waiting to win the ball back and not diving in or giving away dumb fouls. My game changed, and week by week I continued to improve. I started to find my rhythm.”
By the end of the 2012-13 season, Boateng had won back his place and secured a historic Treble, which included beating rivals Borussia Dortmund to win the Champions League at Wembley.
“Sometimes you have to accept that you cannot always go up and up,” he adds. “That’s why these awards are nice to win.”
This philosophical outlook also informed how he adapted to Carlo Ancelotti’s methods after three years under Pep Guardiola. “It’s part of life that when a new coach comes in, things can’t be 100 per cent from the beginning,” says Boateng. That Bayern have lost only once in 2016-17 when he says this – 1-0 to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League group stage – speaks volumes for his will to win.
“Ancelotti is a bit older and calmer during matches than Guardiola,” Boateng continues. “Maybe he’s a little bit more relaxed, too. Tactically, I don’t think we press as much in games. Sometimes we say, ‘OK, you can have the ball.’ That means we can drop deeper, creating space we can counter-attack into. That’s a big change to our old mentality.
“It’s always different when a new coach comes in. It takes some time. Bayern fans want to see us win, play well, score plenty of goals and not concede many.” Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Boateng’s obsession with winning is long since established. “I hate losing – it was the same as a kid,” he laughs, almost embarrassed at how he feels. “I started very early! It’s still the same now, even in training. Being a winner is something I have had to work at, but something I’ve always wanted to be. Other players may have won more trophies, but I’ve done quite well for my age.”
“JAY Z KNOWS A FAIR BIT ABOUT FOOTBALL. HE’S WATCHED A FEW ARSENAL GAMES, AMONG OTHERS”
Behind him as we talk is a handful of the 19 team and individual honours the successful stopper has collected already, including a replica of the World Cup he won in Brazil two and a half years ago, as well as his most recent Player of the Year award from the German press. But there’s one that stands out above all others. Older, less shiny and with a generic plastic image of two players about to tackle each other, it looks like the sort of memento millions of young players around the world pick up at the end of a hard-fought amateur season.
“That’s from my first club, Tennis Borussia Berlin, when I was very young,” says Boateng, a proud grin enveloping his face. It’s not by chance that of all his medals and trophies, most of which are still in their boxes, this one has made it straight onto the shelf.
“That trophy links me to my early days and where everything began,” he adds. “My mum and dad kept all of those trophies. They’re so important to me.”
Family, in general, is of paramount importance to Boateng. On the bookcase opposite us, beside a biography of Sigmund Freud, are some more of his childhood memories and presents from Ghana, the homeland of his father, Prince.
It was with Prince that a three-year-old Boateng kicked his first football on the streets of Berlin’s Wilmersdorf neighbourhood, not far from the Kurfurstendamm, the city’s shopping Mecca. Prince and Boateng’s mother, Martina, split up when he was just five, but the 28-year-old remains close to both of his parents.
His half-brother, the former Spurs, Portsmouth and Milan midfielder Kevin-prince, who is now playing in La Liga with Las Palmas, lived across town. The pair saw each other frequently at weekends. Jerome was the quiet reserved sibling – he prefaces many answers during our interview with the words, “Ooh, that’s a good question”, as if eager to always respond to the best of his ability – while Kevin-prince, 18 months his senior, was the more rebellious of the brothers. “Mum and Dad used to get up at 6am on Sundays to drive me east of Berlin, which wasn’t the nicest part of Germany, for matches that would begin at 9am,” recalls Jerome. “Their support was amazing. Whenever I have moved on to a new place, my dad has always come with me to check out the area. I’d go to a new restaurant and they’d already know him – ‘Oh, say hi to your dad!’ I’m like: ‘He’s already been here?!’” Boateng has always been driven by the desire to make those closest to him proud by challenging himself. “I didn’t recognise how determined Jerome was,” mum Martina said before the 2010 World Cup. “Now I have to say: kudos!” He was soon signed by Hertha Berlin and later Hamburg. Then, in the summer of 2010, a 21-year-old Boateng moved to Manchester City for a £10.4 million fee. “That was a hugely important experience for me as I really wanted to play in the Premier League,” he explains, before anticipating FFT’S next question of why things did not work out for him in his solitary season at the Etihad prior to a transfer to Bayern Munich in 2011. “They’d promised me that I’d be playing as a central defender, but when I arrived I was mainly at right-back. “As a young player you can get upset about it, but I took it as well as I could. I also picked up two different knee injuries just as I was starting to play more often, the second of which required surgery.
“I JUST DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO PROCESS THAT CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL DEFEAT TO CHELSEA. I DIDN’T EAT FOR TWO DAYS AFTERWARDS”
“I learned from some great players like Emmanuel Adebayor and Patrick Vieira. They all took great care of me – on Champions League evenings the whole squad would go round to someone’s house to watch all of the games. It was great to be part of that.
“That’s something I try to do here for new players. It teaches you that responsibility, because I know what it’s like to be the new guy in a new country with a different language. I try to make everyone comfortable. I think of Bayern as like a little family.”
The togetherness of Bayern’s squad was perfectly demonstrated in the wake of their agonising penalty shootout defeat to Chelsea in the 2012 Champions League Final, in Munich. In the denouement to his first season with the club, Boateng lost Didier Drogba for the Blues’ 88th-minute equaliser, which brought extra time, penalties and a dramatic win for Chelsea at the Allianz Arena.
“I didn’t know how to process that defeat, and I didn’t eat for two days,” says Boateng. He scratches his head, still in apparent disbelief. “Then, on the third day, Thomas Muller sent a message to the team that read: ‘I know it’s hard, but f**k it, we have to get over it now. Next year we’re going to win the title.’
“You could see how focused we were as a squad to do just that. That whole season, no one was even a little bit late for anything because we were so motivated and focused on avenging that defeat – which is exactly what we did.”
The nucleus of that squad still remains, existing as one of three European superclubs alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona. The Bayern players regularly get together for pool evenings, with Thomas Muller often the winner.
While Die Roten team-mate Franck Ribery happens to live next door, should there ever be a need for any late-night tactical discussions, the secret to Boateng’s continued success is his ability to disconnect from football.
“I play a bit of tennis and basketball, even if Cassius has eaten my latest ball!” he laughs, pointing out the destroyed shell beneath a hoop in the garden. “I went to watch the NBA Finals when Miami Heat beat the San Antonio Spurs in 2013, which was an amazing experience. Going to watch matches live, when I am able to, is a thrill for me.
“If we have a couple of days off between games, I like to travel to other cities and try to switch off completely from football for a little while. We will often go to the town where my mum and other brother live, in order to see them as a family.”
There’s that word again: family. Later, Boateng reveals he’s the proudest of dads by introducing FFT to his children.
If 2016 was the year Boateng definitively joined European football’s elite, what next? Global fame? After all, this is someone represented by the Roc Nation Sports group of US rap royalty Jay Z. “I’ve met him twice,” says a smiling Boateng, his black earrings glinting under our camera light. “The first time, he invited me to his house in Los Angeles and we chatted for two or three hours. It was really interesting. He’s brilliant, and it’s a big honour to be part of his work. I grew up listening to his music as a kid. “He knows a fair bit about football. He’s watched a few Arsenal games, among others. His schedule means it isn’t easy to come to Europe for matches. Is he a Bayern fan? I hope he is now!” The partnership isn’t as unusual as it looks at first sight. For a start, both Boateng and Jay Z are inveterate trainer collectors. “I must have about 600 different pairs,” says Boateng as he shows us downstairs to a special room, home to his most treasured shoes. Every pair is immaculately set out (“There’s a bit of OCD to me,” he laughs) and has a story, including a cupboard reserved exclusively for red limited editions. He adds: “I started collecting when I was 13 with a pair of Converse – they’re full of holes but I’ve still got them! I want trainers in different colours and styles no one else has. “To begin with, I went to shops, but I’m lucky now to have friends around the world to help. I have someone in Paris and someone in New York who can get specialist shoes for me. It’s all about contacts!” It’s improbable that Boateng will ever be satisfied with the size of his trainer collection, and the same goes for silverware. “Right now, I want to focus on the future and be the best player I can possibly be,” says Boateng firmly as we return upstairs to the pool room and its trophies, passing a cavernous wet room bigger than some people’s flats. “Having a World Cup replica at home reminds me of the victory, the biggest thing you can win as a player, but I haven’t really looked back at it all. It’s only when I retire that I will do that.” Long before then, however, there is the small matter of this season’s Champions League campaign, culminating in Cardiff. “My biggest football desire for 2017 is to win it again,” says Boateng with certainty. “Carlo Ancelotti has a lot of experience in it, so I hope he can help. Every team wants to win the Champions League, but you can see how hard that is because no team has ever defended it. “It’s the small details sometimes. One second and one goal, and you’re out. Everything has to come together at the right time when it matters most. If there’s any tiny thing you are missing, you lose. Again. We’ve made the semi-finals three years in a row – so now it’s time to get back into the final.” Boateng is due back at the Bayern Munich training ground for a physio appointment, but he has time for a couple of photos, which he attacks with a trademark keenness to meet expectations. Before he leaves, he saves a pat on the head for Cassius, says cheerio to Sherin and kisses goodbye to his daughters, Soley and Lamia, who have been helping the housekeeper to wash their dad’s countless No.17 Bayern shirts. Boateng clearly can’t wait to come back to this hive of activity in the sleepy Bavarian suburbia that he calls his home. “There’s no better feeling than getting back after a long day’s training and then collapsing on this sofa,” he says, tearing himself away from its impossibly soft cushions after crashing onto them for our snapper. “It’s so comfortable, it’s like a bed.” Everyone needs their sea of tranquility, and the world’s best defender is no different.
Above As a defender he’ll never win a Golden Boot, but these will do instead
Above Winning another Champions League title is at the top of his to-do list
Below Boateng wonders if his pool room has space to fit in FFT’S Defender of the Year trophy for 2016