Meet the Boatengs

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Jem quotes her father Atticus Finch, saying ‘…you can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family’. And Germany’s Group D match against Ghana at the 2010 World Cup there were two family members who were not exactly on speaking terms – good job then, that they were lining up for different teams. Those in question were half-brothers Jérôme and Kevin-Prince Boateng, of Germany and Ghana respectively.

Recent football history has been littered with professional siblings, from the World-Cup-winning Charlton brothers, the Laudrups, De Boers, Nevilles to more contemporary examples – and twins – Rafael and Fabio Da Silva and Germany’s Sven and Lars Bender. However, there may not be a more intriguing brotherhood than the three boys from the Boateng household – George, Kevin-Prince, and Jerome.

Around six weeks before the clash in Johannesburg the elder of the two, Kevin-Prince, had, although a Ghana player, made a substantial contribution to Germany’s World Cup plans. His rash challenge on Michael Ballack in the FA Cup Final cost the then-German-captain his place at the World Cup in South Africa. What’s more Boateng’s tackle and the ensuing injury effectively lit the touch paper on a protracted and acrimonious end to Ballack’s career with the national team. At the time of the cup final incident, Ballack was not only the German captain, but an iconic figure, and the in the immediate aftermath Kevin-Prince was Staatsfeind Nr. 1 in Germany. However, those bridges had already been well and truly burnt.

A talented forward, Kevin-Prince had been an ever-present fixture in the German youth set up, totting up 45 appearances from under 15 level to the under 21 outfit. He was a key member of the Germany Under 21 team that went on to lift the U-21 European Championship – a team that included the likes of Mesut Özil, Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira, Manuel Neuer, and his half-brother Jérôme. However, while those stars of today were getting their first taste of international glory, Kevin-Prince was watching on at home.

Shortly before the squad was due to leave for the tournament in Sweden, Boateng and a fellow teammate made an ill-advised visit to a nightclub and were thrown out the squad. A war of words with Matthias Sammer – then DFB Sport Director – ensued and the door to the national side was firmly shut in his face. In response, Boateng turned his back on his country of birth and instead opted to represent Ghana, from where his father originates.

Along with their elder brother George, the Boateng’s grew up in Berlin – George and Kevin-Prince with their mother in Wedding, one of the city’s poorer areas, and Jérôme with the boys’ father and his mother in a more affluent area. Although they lived apart, the three brothers were close and would meet at weekends and in school holidays to play football together. Despite the subsequent success of Jérôme and Kevin-Prince, it was George who was thought to be the most talented of the three. However, his own footballing career was restricted to a handful of appearances for a local amateur outfit. After a spell in prison he has now turned his attention to a career in hip hop.

In the meantime, whilst George’s time as a footballer was over before it had even began, his two younger siblings were just getting started. Both got their break at Hertha Berlin, coming through the ranks, into the reserves and eventually the first team. Being the eldest of the two, Kevin-Prince was the first to make his mark.

After impressing at Hertha, Martin Jol brought the promising young forward – and Germany’s best young player of 2006 – to Spurs in the summer of 2007. Despite his potential it was to be a false dawn as he made just 14 appearances over two disappointing seasons, the last six months of which he was shipped out to Borussia Dortmund on loan, in what was incidentally a certain Jürgen Klopp’s first season at the healm. Although BVB’s glory years were a couple of seasons away, the team was heading in the right direction and but for external forces Kevin-Prince Boateng’s career may have followed an altogether different trajectory. Klopp was apparently keen to seal a permanent deal, but had his hands tied by financial constraints.

Instead Boateng returned to North London to be shown the door by Harry Redknapp, who sold him to ex-club Portsmouth. In spite of reaching the FA Cup final, the wheels had fallen off on the south coast and the club was relegated amidst financial disarray. As with countless others, Boateng left the sinking ship and set sail for Serie A. Although initially signing for Genoa he was immediately loaned out to A.C. Milan for the entirety of the 2010-2011 season. It turned out to be a good move for both Boateng and Milan as they lifted the league title. At the end of the season, Boateng was signed on a permanent deal and after suffering false starts and relegation in England, he now found himself playing regularly alongside the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Robinho and Alexander Pato at the top of the park. Now in this third country, and still in his early twenties, Kevin-Prince Boateng was finally living up to the potential shown in Berlin. He remained a fixture in the Milan team and once came on as a half-time substitute to score a remarkable 14 minute hat-trick, singlehandedly overturning a 3-0 deficit. The flamboyant forward was thought of so highly at the San Siro that he inherited the much-coveted number 10 shirt from the retiring legend Clarence Seedorf. In his last game for the club – a Champion’s League qualifier against PSV Eindhoven – he notched a brace in a 3-0 victory and thus helped to ensure Milan’s place in the competition proper.

Despite his goals and flamboyant character – which included some very silky Michael Jackson moves at Milan’s title-winning celebrations – he was most widely revered for an incident that occurred in a mid-season friendly on 3rd January 2013. Throughout the early stages of the match at Italian fourth-division outfit Aurora Pro Patria, Milan’s black players were subject to vile racist abuse from the home fans. Despite Boateng’s constant complaints to the referee, the officials did not act – leaving the player to take matters into his own hands. In the 26th minute Boateng stopped mid-dribble, picked up the ball and kicked it angrily towards the fans in question, before storming off the pitch, demonstratively removing his shirt. Only slowing to applaud his own fans, he strode on past opposing players, receiving support and consolation from his teammates – all in front of a stunned stadium.

His actions sent shockwaves throughout Italian football and far beyond and Boateng was flooded with messages of support and respect from figures in and outside of the game. His brave and decisive downing of tools in that manner has been one of the most visual actions against racism in football in memory and at the very least made it impossible for the issue to be swept under the rug by the game’s governing bodies.

That was to be Kevin-Prince’s last season for the Rossoneri and he returned to the Bundesliga with Schalke 04 at the start of the 2013-2014 season.

Jérôme broke into the Hertha Berlin team in the second half of the 2006-2007 season, becoming a first-team regular at 18 – even playing twice alongside his half-brother. Like Kevin-Prince, Jérôme also left Berlin at the end of the season, moving north to join Hamburger SV. The calm and versatile young defender blossomed in a team regularly challenging for the Bundesliga and reaching latter stages of European competition. His consistent performances were rewarded when Joachim Löw called him up for the national squad in 2009 and later nominated him to be part of Germany’s 2010 World Cup squad.

It was in South Africa that the Boatengs met, at Johannesburg’s Soccer City. Leading up to the game, the apparent non-existent relationship of the two was widely reported and many speculated as to what extent the tension would be discernible on the pitch. Following the Ballack incident and his defection to Ghana, Kevin-Prince was something of a pantomime villain for many Germans. And despite once being close, the incident and the fallout had severed the brothers’ relationship. On the pitch however, hands were shaken and Meszut Özil gave Löw’s team a 1-0 victory, setting up that game with England.

Following the tournament which saw Germany finish third, Jérôme was heading for England – having been snapped up by nouveau riche Manchester City – just as Kevin-Prince was leaving the same shores to reignite his career in Italy. Boateng’s time at City was bookended by injuries. The first occurred on the eve of the new season and delayed his introduction into Roberto Mancini’s team. Just as he was beginning to get some game time following his league debut in late September a knee-injury ended his season, and his career, with the club.

Still, this particular cloud certainly had a silver lining and he was signed in the summer by Bayern Munich. Since joining, Boateng has established himself as one of Europe’s top defenders and was a stalwart in Jupp Heynckes’ treble-winning side of 2013. Munich was of course then the destination of choice for the much-coveted Pep Guardiola, who has continued to trust the youngest Boateng in a starting role as the team strives to reach new heights.

Following the treble of 2013 and being part of the Bayern team to tie up the league earlier than any other in Bundesliga history, in 2014, Jérôme travelled to Brazil and was part of the German team that became the first European outfit to win a World Cup on South American soil. In the tournament Germany and Ghana were again drawn in the same group, pitting the two against one another. However, having also previously met in the Bundesliga and the Ballack incident a distant memory, there was less furor surrounding their latest get together.

With both Jérôme and Kevin-Prince important players in their respective teams in Germany they will undoubtedly face one another on a regular basis, the narrative of each encounter becoming increasingly diluted. Still, the four years in between their encounters with the national team saw both experience success and setbacks. One has prospered abroad whereas the other returned home to find glory. While Jérôme has reached the pinnacle of international football with Germany and is a part of one of the world’s most exciting crop of players, Kevin-Prince’s relationship with his adopted nation has been fractious at best.

Despite being related, the two appear to be chalk and cheese. Kevin-Prince looks, plays and speaks like a street footballer – aggressive, committed and unafraid to say or do what he feels is right. Conversely, the softly-spoken Jérôme comes across calm and considered on and off the pitch.

Wherever their careers take them they have both made an impact for club and country. But in spite of Jérôme’s increasing collection of medals and caps, it was arguably his elder brother’s actions in front of a few thousand that have made the biggest waves in football.

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