Kevin Prince Boateng won the respect of the world today when he walked off during a friendly following racist abuse from the crowd. I'm reminded of the time prior to the World Cup when after piling on to the Black Stars' coach he gave me a interview in return for a bag of contraband McDonalds.
“We’re going to kill Germany!” belllows Ghanaian midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng as I board the Ghana World Cup team bus. “We’re going to kill Australia! We’re going to kill Serbia!” This is fighting talk from a player that is not known for his diplomacy skills.
The Portsmouth midfielder was responsible for denying the German World Cup team its captain Michael Ballack when he dived in on the Chelsea player during the FA Cup final. Whether there was intent or not has been a bone of contention ever since – take a look here to decide for yourselves – but many Germans believe there was malice intended. After all, The Prince has a little previous with Germany and Ballack himself.
Born in Wedding, a poor district of Berlin to a German mother and Ghanaian father, ‘The Ghetto Kid’ (as he has been known to call himself) started off playing his international football for the country of his birth and reputedly only chose to switch to Ghana after he realised he wasn’t going to make it into Germany’s senior team.
He broke into the Hertha Berlin side in 1995 when he was just 18 and made an immediate impact on the Bundesliga. It was just one year later when he had a run in with Ballack that may well have been the root cause of the problems, according to Boateng’s father.
He told a German newspaper: “You have to look at the whole story. [In 2006] Kevin had just scored his first goal for Hertha [Berlin]. Then they played against Bayern Munich. He had an argument with Ballack. Ballack said to him. 'You've scored one goal, and you think you are the best'. Kevin has never forgotten that. Unfortunately, Kevin isn't very diplomatic. But I am sure, even if he did foul Ballack, he didn't mean to injure him."
The matter is further complicated by the fact that his brother, new Manchester City signing Jerome Boateng plays for Germany. As Kevin explains in this honest and revealing interview, the repercussions of the incident have been extremely personal involving death threats not only to him but to his family as well.
On the team coach, Boateng is full of bravado – showing off to the journalist on board. When I ask him how he thinks Ghana will fair at the World Cup in such a tough group he flexes his tattoed muscles and says ‘Look at us’ and gestures to his similarly built team-mates that includes Champions League winner Sulley Muntari, Stephen Appiah and deadly striker Asamoah Gyan. (Keep an eye on the latter – he’s strong, fast and ruthless in front of goal so expect him to arrive in the Premier League some time very soon.)
I ask if I can take photos of the players and they agree. Giant headphones propped on their head they throw gang signs and laugh when I point the lens at a shy player who doesn’t want his photo taken.
As we bump along the road back to the team’s palatial hotel set in the beautiful countryside outside Paris, there’s more giggling as Wigan Goalkeeper Richard Kingson attempts to make a cup of hot tea. His team-mates howl with laughter at the slapstick unfolding before them but miraculously the keeper manages to stay upright and keeps from spilling a drop of drink. Safe hands, it seems.
As the coach pulls up, I ask former Spurs midfielder Boateng for a sit down interview. He thinks for a moment and then agrees but only, he explains in hushed tones, if I smuggle him some McDonalds. With two cheeseburgers, a Big Mac, large fries and 24 McNuggets stinking up my rucksack, I meet him in his untidy hotel room after the team have their dinner and hand over the contraband. He decides to talk first and eat later.
You received some horrendous criticism in Germany for the tackle you made on Michael Ballack during the FA Cup final that has kept him out of the World Cup. Did you read any of it – how hard was it for you to deal with?
The first days I didn’t read anything because I didn’t want to get into it or get angry about it but after that I was reading some nasty, nasty stuff about me and my family. It went too far when people talk about my family and race. They said ‘we have to kill that nigger’ and ‘five grand if someone shoots him in the head’. But I can’t change it. I gave my statement and i said i was sorry for it. I didn’t feel safe because people would see me and throw stones at my car. It wasn’t funny anymore. And this was because of a tackle. People get killed and raped and nobody cares but if somebody gets tackled in football then people go mad.
Are you worried about the game against Germany?
Not at all. I like to be in the position where people don’t want you to win. I like to be the underdog. At Portsmouth nearly every game we were the underdog but I like it because it means you can prove people wrong. It’s good for the Black Stars if we’re the underdogs because then we can’t lose – we can only surprise people and show them how good you are.
You played for all the youth teams for Germany – why the switch to Ghana?
Yeah i played for the under-15, 16s, 17, 21s, and it was written that I’d play for the senior team but I don’t want to say anything bad about Germany but it didn’t work out for me and for them.
But you’re lucky to still get the chance to play at the World Cup...
It’s unbelievable. When I was 16 Ghana’s Anthony buffer used to call me the whole time to get me to play for Ghana but it was never a question for me because I was born in Germany, my mum was German and all my friends were German – so I would play for Germany. But then it didn’t work so I decided to leave Germany and talked to my dad and some friends and after that it happened very quickly.
You could come up against against your half-brother Jerome Boateng who plays for Germany. Were you always competitive when you were younger?
We didn’t grow up together because we have a different mum but when we got older we got very close so we’ve spoken about the game. Now for me it’s a big game for me – I want to win against Germany! But when I walk on the pitch it will be just another game and I always want to win. We used to play table-tennis and basketball against each other and he was much better than me at table tennis but I was much better at basketball – even though he was taller. In football it’s different because he’s a defender and I’m a midfielder so you can’t say who’s better. Even if he played in the same position as me I’d always say my brother’s better because that’s how it is.
Your brother is going to join Manchester City next season from Hamburg. Did he discuss this with you before making his decision?
Yes, I think it’s all done. We spoke about how good the Premier League is and I think it’s a big, big step for him but I think it’s a good move from him.
Michael Essien’s out of the World Cup – how will Ghana cope?
It’s a big hit for the team. I knew it was going to happen because he didn’t feel great. I spoke to him at the FA Cup final and he said he would try his best to come and join us but I heard in his voice that he didn’t feel very confident. I think he tried his best but he didn’t want to risk his career for that and you have to respect that.
Have you spoken to Michael?
No I haven’t. I said sorry to him twice on the pitch but i don’t think he wants to speak to me because its football. It could be me. No one would say anything if it was me. They’d never be anything in the newspapers it would just say ‘Boateng’s injured’. I can understand it because he’s Germany’s captain and a big player but i didn’t do it on purpose so I can only say sorry.
Ghana did very well at the Cup of Nations without many of their Europe based players. Can some of Ghana’s World Under-20 champions fill that void?
First of all no one can replace Michael Essien but we have a lot of good young players on the team with myself and Ayew plus a lot of experience with Stephen Appiah and Hans Sarpei. I’ve just been here 5 days but I already can see we have the perfect mix.
So many injuries to big name players do you feel that Ghana is cursed?
No, I think this happens in football. We don’t have the time to think about it. We have to forget about it and think what we can do it.
Does the way Ghanaians play football – with such commitment - lead to these injuries?
Everyone knows in training what can happen because we are all aggressive and that’s what makes Ghanaian football but we’re technical as well.
Does Essien’s absence help open the door to you to the first team?
I don’t know if the coach sees me in that position he plays but if he did I can say I would try my best. I can play any position in midfield ad would try to fill that hole.
What is your ideal position?
These days you can have a position you’d love to play but it might not happen. I’m an attacking midfielder – left, right or in the middle I don’t care I just want to go and attack.
How have you found training with Ghana?
It’s different from what I’m used to in club football but I can see what the coach is trying to do. He wants a block of defence but then he will give us the freedom to go forward but first he wants to think about the defence because you win the game when the defence is good. We have the quality to create chances and score goals but he wants to build on the foundation of a tough defence.
Ghana received a lot of praise for their Cup of Nations performances but the one criticism was that it wasn’t the most entertaining? How important is it for Ghana to entertain at the World Cup?
A big part of football is entertainment that’s why people come to the stadium but you can’t blame us if you don’t get entertainment but you get success. If you look at Mourinho, Inter Milan don’t play the best football but they successful so you can’t say anything. Different cultures have different tactics. He’s the coach and if he wants to play deeper and more compact then you have to do it. It’s not about the supporters it’s about the players and the success you get.
How far can Ghana go in the World Cup realistically?
First of all we know that we can beat all of the other nations in our group. But we have to think game to game so we have to prepare 100 percent for the game against Serbia and after that we have to focus on Australia and then Germany. I don’t want to say we can qualify because in the World Cup anything can happen. They are all big teams and anyone can have the game of their lives.
Ghana’s manager is a Serbian. Has he been able to give you some insight into the way his countrymen will play?
He knows how they will play and he will tell us closer to the game how to defend against them and who is a good player to watch out for. We will just wait until we get that close. All of us just can’t wait until the tournament starts.
What does it mean to you that the World Cup is in Africa?
Because I was born in Germany it’s different for me. For all the other lads it’s a really big thing and I ca understand that because it’s never been in Africa. So everyone’s really excited even the people that say ‘maybe it’s not secure’. I think the organiser will focus 100 percent on security and then it’s a big chance for Africa to show what they can do – what they can give back to the world and I think they will take it.
You have a couple of fellow Africans in that Portsmouth side – the two Algerians Nadir Belhadj and Hassan Yebda. Have you chatted about the World Cup much between you?
Of course, they have got a tough group with England and David James is always taking the piss out of them.
How much did you enjoy getting to play regular Premier League football for Portsmouth?
It was very important for me because when I came to Tottenham it didn’t work because I made some mistakes and they didn’t treat me very fair. I took a step back at Portsmouth because it’s a smaller club but it was very good for me. I had the support and trust and belief of the club and my team mates and it was fantastic.
So what actually went wrong at Tottenham?
When I came from Hertha Berlin I was playing every game. I didn’t even train sometimes I just though ‘yeah, I’m a big player now’. I took everything easy and didn’t work hard and then I did the same when I got to spurs. I thought they’ve paid £8million for me so of course they’re going to play me. After two weeks the then Spurs manager Martin Jol told me ‘I didn’t want you’ and that was like a punch in my face. It was the sporting director. So after that I didn’t train hard because i thought you didn’t want me here so you don’t need me. I was just happy to get out of there and so Portsmouth really helped me.
So what now?
I’ve still got a two year contract at Portsmouth but they want to sell me because they have money problem but I haven’t thought where I want to go I’m just happy to come here and focus on the World Cup first. Then after that I’ll see what happens.
What will playing a World Cup in their home continent do for the African teams?
First of all, they’ll get respect when people see how crazy Africans are about football and how much love and fun they bring to the game. Every World Cup people say that an African team will do well but it’s never happened but I think at this World Cup it can because you’ve got the crowd in the bag. I think all the African teams can surprise the whole world.
You play in the Unity Kit. What does that mean to you to have African countries all playing for the same shirt?
It’s unbelievable that Puma made this happen because it’s never happened before. It just shows the whole of Africa are. We’re all rivals – us and Ivory Coast and Algeria but at the end of the day we’re all together. We’re all Africa and that’s what the Unity Kit shows.
The Africa Unity kit - the world's first continental strip - was the third strip of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Algeria and Cameroon at the World Cup.
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