You don’t get anywhere without hard work. The earlier you understand that, the better.” Bayern Munich centre-back Jerome Boateng certainly grasped the concept at an early age, and the mantra has served him well throughout his career.
Look past his trophies, glitz, glamour and growing cult of celebrity and you find a humble, determined man who plays the game in the same way today as he did on the gritty streets of Berlin as a child.
It is an attitude and worldview that has taken Boateng to the landmark of 300 Bundesliga appearances in the Matchday 17 fixture in Augsburg, 215 of which have come across 10 silverware-laden seasons at Bayern Munich.
“I grew up in a different area of Berlin to my two brothers, but that made me change my game and become a bit harder, because we always played against older boys and we played on concrete,” Boateng told VICE Sports. “There was no such thing as a foul. You were younger and you weren’t as strong but you had to make the best out of it.”
The youngest of three siblings – Kevin-Prince, formerly of Borussia Dortmund, Schalke and Eintracht Frankfurt, and George, the eldest, are his half-brothers – Jerome was arguably the least talented footballer in the family growing up, but what he may have lacked in ability, he compensated for with application.
George was a precociously gifted forward whose performances in the youth sides at Hertha Berlin earned rave reviews, although was ultimately not able to make the grade professionally. The younger two brothers succeeded where the elder did not, but it is Jerome that has gone on to enjoy the most distinguished career of them all, and that owes much to his sheer hard work and determination.
They are just a year apart in age, but throughout their childhood, there existed a keen rivalry between Jerome and Kevin-Prince, who always seemed to be a step ahead in his development.
He won the gold Fritz-Walter-Medal for the best U-19 player in Germany in 2006, while Jerome won bronze in the same category a year later; Kevin-Prince played considerably more often in Hertha’s first team (42 Bundesliga appearances to 10); and in 2007, he made a high-profile transfer to Tottenham Hotspur, while Jerome moved to Hamburg for a significantly smaller fee.
Yet the latter made it his mission to learn from his brothers and turn his weaknesses into strengths. “They could play with their left foot too but I couldn’t, so I just started training with that foot. And it paid off.”
And how. right side or left, short passes or long, Boateng’s use of the ball – with either foot – is now impeccable. He has worked so hard, in fact, that aside from injury misfortune, he arguably has no weakness these days.
That will to graft and his never-say-die attitude not only helped Boateng improve to the level where he could make it as a professional, it has also been vital to him staying at the top. For despite the trophies – and there have been plenty – there have been setbacks too.
Niklas Süle’s arrival at Bayern pushed Boateng down the centre-back pecking order, with former head coach Niko Kovic publicly admitting as much in the 2018/19 season. The subsequent arrivals of fellow defenders Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez were also thought to spell the end of his Bayern career, while his omission from the Germany national team was undoubtedly a blow.
And yet the 32-year-old is still going strong. This season only four players have had more Bundesliga action than Boateng (Manuel Neuer, Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Müller and David Alaba), while he has been in the club’s top 11 players for minutes played in each of the last three campaigns.
Longevity and mental toughness aside, the Bayern No.17 has plenty of other attributes. Being comfortably two-footed is one of the key assets top-level centre-back needs in the modern game, and when it comes to Spielaufbau – bringing the ball out from the back and starting an attack – few players in world football do it better.
“It’s incredible to be able to open up the game like that as a centre-back,” is how teammate Müller once put it, while former coach Pep Guardiola said: “When it comes to build-up play, Jerome is one of the best around.”
Without the ball, Boateng is just as tough. Wrongly criticised for a lack of pace by some observers, his top speed in 2020/21 of 21.34 mph (34.39 km/h) is the sixth-fastest by a centre-back in the Bundesliga this season, and 38th overall.
Athletic and as strong as an ox, he is almost unbeatable in one-on-one situations, and his concentration, which was an issue in younger years, has improved no end. “Bayern have the ball a lot. We’re only really challenged a few times per game sometimes, and then you just really have to be awake. And I used to be a striker so I know what they want to do,” he said.
After eight Bundesliga titles, five DFB Cups, two UEFA Champions League titles – including two treble-winning seasons – and, of course, the 2014 FIFA World Cup, there is little remaining that he is yet to win. So perhaps it therefore makes sense that he is just as focused on his main off-field passions – fashion and music – as he is on it.
Boateng was named Best Dressed Man by Germany’s GQ magazine in 2015, has rubbed shoulders with musicians such as Ice Cube and Drake and is even signed to Roc Nation in the United States, a talent agency run by rap star Jay Z. He also takes an active interest in charitable causes, supporting his brother George in raising awareness of Down’s syndrome.
Yet for all his extra-curricular interests, it is playing football that he does best.
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