Man City's Vincent Kompany is grasping every opportunity
Vincent Kompany aims to be a winner in all aspects of his life, writes Amy Lawrence
Arriving at the Etihad for this Premier League finale, it is impossible not to be assailed by memories. So recent, so fresh, so emotionally dizzying.
Vincent Kompany recalls with startling clarity what he felt last time. Just thinking about it, the Manchester City captain appears to drift back to the moment, with time ticking down on the season two summers ago, when Queens Park Rangers looked like inflicting the worst case of City-itis on the club that invented this condition.
"First of all, I was saying to myself, make sure you put on a brave face when you actually lose the title in the last game of the season," says Kompany. "It wasn't in our hands for a while so we had time to think of doomsday scenarios unfortunately."
It's a remarkable insight. It's typically candid of this most thoughtful of high-calibre footballers to reveal that during the intensity of a tumultuous 90 minutes (plus heart-shaking stoppage time) he allowed himself a moment to prepare himself, mentally, to react with as much dignity as he could muster if the worst happened. It is reasonable to imagine the instinct to cave in to panic or extreme tension in such a situation, or to simply be too stunned to think of anything at all, would be overpowering.
Kompany, however, endeavoured to be clear-headed so that he would feel able to show some captain's strength if the boat went under. That was important to him.
What was happening was barely credible. New and powerful City, with the chance to win the Premier League title on home turf, were chucking it all away against opponents with the worst away record in the league and a man down after Joey Barton's red card. Kompany can now afford a wry smile. "It made me age," he says. "That's how stressful it was, but it still remains my best memory in football."
The end is enshrined in folklore. Everyone, including Kompany, piled forward. "It was a game for the strikers at that moment," he recalls. "Us defenders were just taking the ball and giving it back. In the last few minutes when everything happened I had to go forward. I still think with the dummy run I did something." There's that self-deprecating smile again.
Two drama-soaked stoppage-time goals from Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero turned devastation into elation and conjured the Premier League trophy like the most inexplicable of magic spells.
As a reference point, the QPR experience clearly serves a useful purpose as City approach another Premier League climax against a team all logic suggests they will dismiss. That was QPR, this is West Ham. Yet Kompany takes even more motivation from another match in which City were favourites for a trophy, only to finish without a miraculous riposte. Last season's FA Cup final defeat by Wigan is as much on his mind as anything else. It remains a powerful antidote for complacency. "If there is any moment I don't want to experience again in my life it is that," he says. "With a league of 38 games, last year we were well beaten, so I can live with that. But if you throw something away that is a lot harder to live with."
There seems to be more equilibrium about City's 2014 vintage compared to 2012. The influence of the more steady and serene Manuel Pellegrini, compared to the more overtly emotional Roberto Mancini, gives this run-in a different flavour. Kompany recalls more extremes in the mood last time, and suggests the calmness, and the experience under their belts, underpins a more straightforward ride this time. "We were favourites, and then we were completely out of it," he says of 2012. "With six games left I think we were eight points behind. From that moment on it was a case of let's finish the season in style, and we ended up winning every game, and all of a sudden we were back in the middle of it. We had two or three weeks of great pressure. Whereas now we have been playing catch-up, just because of all the games in hand. The one thing is: we know what to do. We have done it before." He looks exceptionally self-possessed as he says that.
The other contrast is stylistic, and it chimes with Kompany that City are trying to create something greater than just a team capable of winning.
He welcomes the idea that they want to promote a philosophy, a positive approach that stands out from the crowd and means something to the club.
"We were well organised under Roberto Mancini, but more importantly we were a successful team," he says. "It's become about more now. Being a successful team is maybe not enough. It's about setting a standard, not just for ourselves but also for the youth that is coming through at Manchester City. Hopefully, we will be recognised in future as a team that plays a certain style of football. That's hard to do, but that is the target we have set for ourselves.
"It's not just about us. You can see the pleasure and joy that teams like Liverpool bring to their fans, and teams like ourselves. And ultimately if you can win playing a certain way, then why not do it?"
Kompany, by nature, is a believer in big ideas, proud principles and encouraging people to aim high. That is part of the motivation behind his other football club. As well as being City's captain, Kompany is the owner and ambassador of BX Brussels, a club from his home town. It is a family business in that his sister, Christel, runs the show. "She's the only female chairman in Belgian football I believe. She is a woman with very strong opinions," he says, grinning.
The club is the brainchild of the Kompany family and it is a way of bringing together two shared passions – sport and a social conscience. Last year, they bought the FC Bleid, a run-of-the-mill, lower-league club, and instigated a rebrand. There was an internet poll to choose a name (BX is the local slang for Brussels) and the wheels were set in motion to become the most progressive and inclusive place for kids who love football and want to better themselves. Kompany calls it a "social project/sports movement" and the motivation is more about personal victories than winning matches.
"The main thing for me is to consider sport at an equal level as you would consider mathematics or poetry at school," he explains. "It's another place where you can send your kids, they can have fun but you can expect them to have good teachers and you can expect them to progress.
"In Brussels, we have a very particular situation where we have a lot of poverty and we have a lot of children who don't find a job easily. So for me to consider football as a means to release the mind and spirit is not enough. It should be there to give them an extra opportunity. Its importance shouldn't be diminished. Everyone has a talent somewhere and if we can find it in our organisation we will develop it and we will help.
"I am passionate about talent. So it was very easy for me to do it. The project grew very rapidly. The first team is not doing great, the youth, though, is incredible and what we can provide for them is incredible."
The intention is to branch out to include other sports – athletics and basketball are in the pipeline to start with. Facilities-wise, they are finding new pitches and courts to use all the time, to give a wide range of kids the chance to join the club. "Brussels is sort of a mini London in the sense that if you think about putting a football pitch in London people laugh at you," he says. "There is just no space. In a year we have gone from having maybe half the available pitches we need to maybe 11, and we are still growing rapidly. They are spread around the city.
When Kompany returns home from Manchester to see a bunch of kids playing under this ethical flag it makes him feel hopeful.
"I am extremely proud. Especially because I never forget where I came from. If you came and told me this when I grew up, I would have thought you are crazy. It means anything is possible. Brussels has always been seen as the strongest place in Belgium economically but socially we are seen as the weak child of Belgium. I love my city. I love the fact it is not perfect. I love the fact it has so many cultures and is difficult to understand. I just want to be there to give people the opportunity to grow together if one day it really takes off."
A visit to Congo in 2007 – he is the son of a Congolese father and a Belgian mother – inspired him to make social causes a priority in his life. He was recently made the International Ambassador for SOS Children's Villages. "If you are an orphan in Africa, your life expectancy becomes very low. But you turn from that situation to a child having education, a loving home, healthcare, and you realise we are basically all the same. We depend on the opportunities we get. I feel very strongly about it.
"I can go back to my own life. Of course it's a different level what I experienced. I came from a neighbourhood where I never felt it was going to be easy to get a job. I never really felt I could tell people where I was from in my own country. The reality is my parents could
put me into football, into scouts, into a Dutch-speaking school. So the opportunities were there, although it was harder for me than the average. I was lucky where I grew up. When you go over there, there are no such things."
Fulfilling potential is a motivating force for Kompany. He is 28 years old and firmly established as a footballer with unusually strong political and humanitarian outlook. When he mulls over his future, the options are manifold. He could be a manager, owner, or, aiming to the top, a hugely refreshing president of Fifa.
Outside of football, there are some Belgians who like to quip he could run their country.
With his national colours on, Kompany is tremendously excited to take part in the World Cup. "I have been waiting 10 years," he says.
"Realistically, we are not the favourites but every game I play, every competition I enter, I want to win it. Until it's proven otherwise I don't believe any other team is stronger than my team. On paper it is, but I try not to be realistic. Belgium thinks we are going to be world champion so the pressure is not too bad."
Kompany suggests there is no magic formula to explain why Belgium have produced such a promising group.
"Luck to start with," he says. "It is not normal for such a small country who never really had a performing youth system to have so many young players come through at the same time. What it has created is the belief in the country that if we keep working in the same way we can have more players coming through."
For Belgium, for City, and for the causes he believes in, Kompany is all about seizing opportunities. Today, he does not intend to let anything slip through.
Vincent Kompany is the international ambassador for SOS Children's Villages which, in 133 countries, prevent children from ending up alone by helping families to stay together. SOS Children's Villages provides orphaned children with a loving family home in an SOS village. More information at www.soschildren.org
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