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

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Words An­drew Mur­ray Pho­tog­ra­phy Ste­fan hob­maier

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.

50

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

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