“You don't get anywhere without hard work. The earlier you understand that, the better.” It may come as a slight surprise to hear these words were spoken by Bayern Munich and Germany defender Jerome Boateng, but it shouldn’t.
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 kid.
“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,” Jerome recently 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, of 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 he did not 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 recent injury misfortune, he arguably has no weakness these days.
Being comfortably two-footed is one of the key assets a 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 team-mate Thomas Müller put it, while former coach Pep Guardiola said: “When it comes to build-up play, Jerome is one of the best around.” An impressive total of 27 Bundesliga assists attests to that further.
Watch: Boateng provided two brilliant long-range assists in a 5-1 Klassiker victory against Borussia Dortmund back in 2015
Without the ball, Boateng is just as tough. Fast, athletic and as strong as an ox, he is almost unbeatable in one-on-one situations, and his concentration, which he was criticised as lacking in the past, 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 five Bundesliga titles, three DFB Cups, the UEFA Champions League 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 syndrome.
Yet for all his extra-curricular interests, it is playing football that he does best, and for now, 29-year-old Boateng has plenty of years left at the highest level to ensure that his trophy collection grows far more in the future. “I don’t want any regrets when my career is over. I want to give everything until the day I stop playing,” he said in 2014.
Is he the best all-round defender in the world? Very possibly. Is he a role model whose example is to be followed on and off the pitch? Without a doubt.