Vincent Kompany: ‘You never learn as much as when you get your arse kicked’ | Football


“Every chapter in my life has started with a setback and a struggle,” Vincent Kompany says, “but there has been success or glory at the end. That doesn’t come by doubting yourself. It doesn’t come by giving up in difficult circumstances. Quite the opposite. It’s learning and staying calm in adversity. There is such a beautiful side to adversity.”

Kompany’s eloquence and intelligence light up a drab Monday morning in Manchester as we begin an interview that is unlike any other I’ve done with a footballer. The former Belgium and Manchester City captain, who now works as a player-manager at his boyhood club, Anderlecht, addresses systemic racism and the bleak rise of populism. He talks about Brexit, the lessons of vulnerability in his last season at City and the spatial awareness of Pep Guardiola.

His identity – “100% Congolese, 100% Belgian, 100% Manc” – seeps through every subject and allows him to speak so personally and openly. “I don’t struggle with enduring adversity,” he continues. “I embrace it. The beautiful side to adversity is you will never learn as much as when you get your arse kicked. It’s the best moment to learn. If you’re able to stare it in the face – rather than shedding tears or closing your eyes – you can try and solve the problems. And if you have a problem-solving mind, what can stop you?

“My mum and dad instilled this in me. My mum was a [white Belgian] union leader fighting for the rights of the deprived. Justice was crucial to her. And when we talk about justice, we need to remember my dad fought the regime of Mobutu [Sese Seko who ruled Zaire, which became the Democratic Republic of Congo, from 1965 to 1997]. My dad protested in the streets of Kinshasa which saw him lose lots of his fellow students. He had to go to a labour camp for fighting for what he believed in.”

The 33-year-old pauses. “So what right do I have to sit quiet? My world is easy in comparison. I just try to do the right thing. If you draw the comparison with the project at Anderlecht, I feel it’s the right path to follow. I’ve analysed and cross-checked and made sure the plan is entirely achievable. So, from that moment, nothing will change my mind. I won’t compromise.”

Six months ago, only days after Kompany had lifted both the Premier League trophy and the FA Cup to complete City’s unique treble-winning season, Anderlecht announced a coup that thrilled their disillusioned supporters. They had just endured a dismal season which meant the Brussels club, the traditional powerhouse of Belgian football, had failed to qualify for Europe for the first time in 56 years. But their embattled owner, Marc Coucke, the sporting director, Michael Verschueren, and technical director, Frank Arnesen, confirmed Kompany’s return to Anderlecht, whose academy he had joined 19 years before. That Kompany had decided to come home, rather than seek another season with a club as lavish as City and a manager as renowned as Guardiola, led to wild celebrations.

“With Vincent’s return we have achieved something that everyone thought was impossible,” Verschueren said. “Vincent is the child of the house and the person to give a new impulse to the club. Vincent has purple blood. The fans understand that he is a part of our past but at the same time guarantees our future.”

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At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, more than a third of the Belgian squad which reached the semi-finals had emerged at Anderlecht. Kompany was joined by Romelu Lukaku, Youri Tielemans, Dries Mertens, Marouane Fellaini, Leander Dendoncker, Michy Batshuayi and Adnan Januzaj. It was just one example of Anderlecht’s traditional supremacy which had seen the club win 34 Belgian league titles and three major European trophies.

Last season they finished sixth and this campaign, with Kompany experiencing the setback that seems to mark the start of each new stage of his life, began badly. After nine matches they were 13th out of 16 teams, winning only one game and drawing three. They have since risen to 10th.

“We’ve just gone seven games unbeaten,” Kompany says. “Four wins, three draws – and one of those should have been another win. There’s some misconception about my role. The classical role of the manager, and the short-term aspect of that, is not what I do. I’m a player as well. But we have set out a vision, and a plan, of how the club could recover its identity and be closer to what the fans want. At the same time, we want to try and compete in the future with the big teams around us, like Ajax and Brugge.

“To help people understand I could compare us to other clubs going through a transition. Manchester United, unfortunately, is a very good example. Glasgow Rangers until they got [Steven] Gerrard. And Milan. Even such a big club has to be careful or else they could end up in limbo if they don’t fully commit to a vision and a plan. We’ve spent a lot of time setting out the parameters of that plan. Now we just have to stay calm and work through the process.”

Vincent Kompany at an Anderlecht game against KV Mechelen earlier this season.

Vincent Kompany at an Anderlecht game against KV Mechelen earlier this season. Photograph: MB Media/Getty Images

Patience could run out when a billionaire owner has to understand that short-term success cannot be bought and fans do not appreciate that a chaotic mess needs time to be untangled. “That’s why my role is slightly different,” Kompany says. “Patience is not a virtue in football. But, in reality, it’s needed. It takes patience in terms of governance and results.”

The introduction of Frank Vercauteren, the former Anderlecht manager, as head coach in early October marked a turning point. Was this Kompany’s decision? “It’s a bit of a tricky one to answer. We’ve always been consulting as a group and it’s important to have the consent of everyone. Frank has a wealth of experience internationally and nationally. He’s an emblematic figure of the club and he won European titles with us as a player. He played a World Cup semi-final with that great Belgium generation of 1986. So to bring back a person of such authority was really important in terms of protecting our long-term approach.”

There was some controversy in Belgium when Kompany was announced, wrongly, as head coach of Anderlecht. “First of all I have to finalise my badges and I have a passion for doing this. Secondly, my role is slightly different to how people portray it. I’m still a player, the captain, who has played in a big league and studied for a master’s degree as well. It would be criminal if I didn’t share that knowledge in the Belgian league. The long-term future of Anderlecht will at all times be protected by myself. Right now I am still playing and there is no better place than being on the football pitch. But I am concentrating on helping the club understand how they can realise their full potential.”

Kompany is in Manchester to promote his new book which is an entertaining diary of City’s 2018-19 season. The book is crammed with treble glory, with Kompany scoring the screamer against Leicester that in effect sealed the title for City close to the end of his final home game for the club after 11 seasons. But it is striking how Kompany details his own struggles last season. Guardiola never allowed him to feel settled and Kompany always felt under pressure to prove himself. The uncertainty prompted his decision to leave City.

“In hindsight I wouldn’t have had it any different,” Kompany says. “It got the best out of me. I talk about this pressure at Anderlecht. It doesn’t matter if Belgium is small. We experience a lot of external pressure. But internally the pressure’s nowhere near what it could be. City is the opposite. The external pressure at City – no matter how big it is – is nothing. We don’t live with other people’s expectations. But the internal pressure to perform at City is like nothing I’ve experienced before.

“I was one of the guys who put more fuel on that fire. If I was in a losing position – meaning I was injured, on the bench, sometimes not even in the squad – I would go in the next morning and work harder. If anybody wanted to complain about his personal situation I’d point out the obvious: I’ve achieved probably a lot more at the club and yet I’m not complaining.”

In the book he discusses how he needed to boost Riyad Mahrez who, after his £60m transfer from Leicester, struggled to start regularly for City. That situation continues this season. “The price tag doesn’t give you any advantages at City. This wouldn’t be the case at any other club. Riyad felt unconfident and I reminded him to keep calm. We need to look at the bigger picture – the fact he can have an impact even in the last minute of the season because of his exceptional talent. You share a similar journey with people who spend a lot of time on the bench. People forget I was on the bench. But I got the goal against Leicester and then, in the last match of the season, Riyad got us back in the game with an assist and a goal against Brighton. He did it when it mattered the most.”

Vincent Kompany, photographed at Old Trafford cricket ground in Manchester.

Vincent Kompany, photographed at Old Trafford cricket ground in Manchester. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

We meet on the morning after City have lost at Anfield – a defeat that leaves them nine points behind Liverpool. Guardiola, with his defence decimated, must have yearned for the presence of Kompany, but did the City talisman himself wish he could have played instead of watching a pulsating match? “No. I loved watching it. Of course, I would’ve loved to be a part of it but, really, my time is done.

“I’m not someone to live with regret. I’m committed to a new path with Anderlecht. But it was a beautiful game. I felt privileged to watch it and, also, take a step back and think: ‘Wow, I was part of this kind of game. The level is incredible.’” Did he speak to Guardiola afterwards? “No. I was on the other side [working for Sky Sports] but I could feel his pain.”

Kompany compares the experience of playing under Guardiola to going to university. What did he learn most under Pep? “Football tactics. Space. The utilisation of space and the effect it has on the overall game. Managing space is the biggest thing I’ve learned with Pep.”

Kompany is married to a Mancunian and his love for Manchester is obvious. But he grew up in Brussels. Do the divisions in Belgian society seem less bruising now that he is back? “Cities like Brussels are always complex. It’s too easy to say everything’s got better or worse. But there’s still a lot to work on. My father becoming the first black mayor [of Brussels’ Ganshoren district] in the history of Belgium is a step forward. But the same divisions you expect in England are maybe more systemic. Every organisation of authority is massively undiversified.”

He suffered monkey chants when he played football as a boy and his mother would react with righteous anger, but Kompany is more interested in talking about the underlying racism of white boardrooms. “When we debate racism it’s like punching the air. We focus on the surface but in those rooms where the big decisions are made there is no diversity. It’s the same in private corporations and news corporations. If the boardrooms are completely shut off from diversity, the only discussion there is about how can we do something that will make us look good? That will make this thing go away?”

Is there more diversity in Anderlecht’s boardroom? “No. But the fact I’ve come into the club with a certain authority will bring more balance to the environment. People now naturally cross-check themselves to see that they are saying or doing the right thing. People will feel more on edge if an act of discrimination happens. It doesn’t mean I have to go and beat the drum about it every day. I don’t come in, and say: ‘Guys, don’t be racist.’ No. We just want to do right by society. By doing this you’re already fighting racism.

“But the fight for equal rights is not just about race. It’s also a gender issue. A lot of victories have been won since my father came to Europe. But is it enough? Definitely not. We have to reach a stage where there is no glass ceiling for anyone. We need to be judged on our competence and our desire to succeed rather than where we’re from, or our gender.

“That’s why I’ve been so unenthusiastic in talking about acts of racism individually. Have the people in governance and in charge of policy been checked to make sure that their backgrounds are diverse enough? We have these figures making public decisions in the shadows. It’s very comfortable for them. But if you and me are in the same boardroom, I can hold you accountable. You can hold me accountable. It has a direct impact. Rather than safeguarding our image we can actually tackle the issues.”

Kompany celebrates winning the Premier League title with Pep Guardiola last season.

Kompany celebrates winning the Premier League title with Pep Guardiola last season. Photograph: Manchester City FC via Getty Images

Brexit is another source of pain. Kompany must feel the divide even more acutely when he looks at Britain now from a distance. “I’m from Brussels,” he says with a wry smile, “the capital of European institutions. So I don’t need to sell [the EU]. But one thing I do understand is unity. I always feel the more you can make us interdependent economically and socially, the higher the barrier to war and conflict. This is especially important with the rise of populism. The fact Brexit is so difficult couldn’t be a more powerful sign that European unity works.

“I know some people want to break away and form their own systems. I know the EU is complex. It’s difficult. I know sometimes it’s unfair. But guess what? You have to sit down and solve the problem together. There’s a lot of value in that. And I tell you what – war is more expensive. Conflict is more expensive. And selfish behaviour, which is entirely promoted by the populistic and reality TV characters we have today, is exploiting a weakness of our modern age. We need to see right through it.

“I dislike anybody that makes use of propaganda to simplify very important and complex issues. Historically it’s been proven to be a dangerous game. But it’s an easy game to play. You could easily exploit the fears of people for your self-interest. What happens if we go the way of the populist leaders and break away and do our own little thing? At some stage you forget about history.

“But at this time of year you look back at images of what world war two was really like. Forget about the politics behind it. It was young men sent on planes, paratroopers, getting shot in the air, boats of them not even making it to shore, machine guns mowing them down. Families being destroyed. That’s world war two. And it happened because of a succession of acts from very dangerous individuals. Populist leaders.”

‘We should all appreciate Vincent Kompany’s legacy for English football’ – video report

Kompany pauses. “Everything should be brought back to that essence. OK, it’s annoying to be part of Europe. I understand. Sometimes it’s unfair. Yes, I understand. But, in reality, I feel safer in that environment where we are in one union.”

What does he think when he hears empty catchphrases like “taking back control”? “It’s criminal. It’s absolutely playing on the darker side of human nature. I wonder how much the population’s really able to, at this moment, make a well-informed decision?”

He looks out the window at a sombre Mancunian sky. Suddenly, his face softens. “But my association to Manchester is total. I came here 11 years ago and arriving back here today I feel I’ve come home. I love Brussels equally. I feel at home in Brussels, too. It’s 100% for both. A perfect union.”

Treble Triumph by Vincent Kompany is published by Simon & Schuster


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