He’s a multimillionaire who captains one of the world’s wealthiest football clubs, but Vincent Kompany is grounded by the most important factor in his life – his family.
His father was a political refugee from Zaire, and his mother was a trade union leader, so there was no chance that the boy who would go on lead his country at the 2014 World Cup would ever fall for the trappings of fame on offer for soccer stars.
“I never thought I could enjoy all this wealth without putting it to good use,” the Manchester City and Belgium skipper tells CNN’s Human to Hero series.
“I always said to my mother, ‘The richer I get, the better it is for a lot of people, so don’t worry about it.’
“I’ve kept that since I was 17, I’ve always done it. I started looking after my family first and then I moved on to look after people in my neighborhood where I came from, and now I am happy to say that I put more than 1,000 kids out to play football every single week.”
Kompany spent most of his early career with Anderlecht, a Brussels-based team which is the most successful of any Belgian club.
But after securing his first overseas move, to German side Hamburg, the commanding central defender suffered what he describes as the pivotal moment in his life.
“Within my first year of moving abroad living on my own, my sister got ill – she got cancer – and at the same time my mum got cancer and she passed away,” he recalls.
“I think at that time it was a hard challenge for me to deal with it, but in a way I have always taken strength out of anything that has come at me.”
While his sister Christel’s treatment was successful, Kompany had to cope with the loss of the woman who had helped shape his life philosophy.
He says he gained perspective when he went to the African homeland of his father Pierre, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, as part of his charity work.
“It made me realize I had 20 years with my mum – some kids don’t even get to see their parents,” he says. “Everything they told me became even more important at that stage … all of a sudden, all the things they said started making sense.”
His parents’ ideals have kept him focused during his trophy-laden time at Manchester City, owned by oil-rich Abu Dhabi royals who pay him a reported £120,000 ($188,000) a week.
While many footballers seem to spend as much time being photographed in nightclubs as on the pitch, father-of-two Kompany is coming to the end of a part-time business administration course which has helped him in his off-field ventures.
“My mum was always more pushing me towards the academic side, she wasn’t really interested in me having a professional football career,” says Kompany.
A sports bar venture in Belgium proved short-lived – his two Good Kompany outlets shut this year – but he has become an international ambassador for the charity SOS Children’s Villages and bought a financially-struggling local lower-league club, installing his sister as chairwoman and renaming it BX Brussels.
“The most important thing I get out of it is that if I do succeed it gives me this belief that anything I want or I set my mind to, I can do it,” Kompany says of his studies.
“This is out of my comfort zone, it’s not something I have done because I thought I was good at it.”
This desire to challenge himself has been a constant theme of his career.
From his early days learning to play football with his father outside the tower block where they lived (“I wasn’t very good”) to proving his coaches wrong – and ultimately helping transform Manchester City from an also-ran to one of the top teams in Europe.
“I was extremely competitive, so for me becoming a footballer was not necessarily because it was about being the best – it was about winning,” Kompany says.
“I learned a lot really quickly. Coaches were telling me, ‘Stick to what you can do, stick to what you are good at,’ and I hated this.
“So every single time I would do what I can’t, and eventually I would catch up on players that were more advanced than me. I started becoming the best in my team and going into teams above … then you start believing.”
He describes his home municipality of Uccle in Brussels as “not an easy neighborhood.”
“We had to deal with a lot of racism when we were kids, but again it became part of our character – we deal with it, we fight it and we move on.”
While Kompany won two Belgian league titles with Anderlecht, his two Premier League crowns in England have helped him fulfill his childhood fantasies.
The first, in the 2011-12 season, ended City’s 44-year wait for a domestic championship.
Kompany headed a crucial winning goal against local rival and defending champion Manchester United two weeks beforehand, but the title was not clinched until the dying seconds of the final match when Sergio Aguero scored a last-gasp winner against Queen’s Park Rangers to deny Alex Ferguson’s team by the narrowest of margins.
“When ‘Kun’ Aguero scored the goal it was probably the most defining moment in my career,” Kompany says. “I am forever grateful to him and it’s something I will never forget.”
Kompany shared that special moment on the pitch with his wife Carla and young daughter Sienna. Their son Kai was born in October 2013 – and several months later Kompany would be celebrating another Premier League title.
“My kids have given me so much joy and stability – all the things I was hoping for in my life have only come true when my kids were there,” he says.
“Everything I do is to set an example for them. It’s hard – nobody’s perfect, and certainly not me – but there’s good things I do in my life and I want them to pick up on it and take it in their lives as well.”
His outlook might be humble, but his success on the pitch has earned him lofty nicknames such as “Vince the Prince” and “King Kompany” – while City’s fans pay tribute to him with a chant that appropriates Simon and Garfunkel’s song “Mrs. Robinson.”
“Football is my life. It’s a game to some, but to me it’s my life,” says Kompany, whose younger brother Francois played for Belgian second division team Seraing last season.
“I don’t take it too serious but at the same time I know what an opportunity it can be to a lot of people. When I started this football club in Belgium, it’s been about creating something for kids to put their minds off their daily routine – it’s not a hobby.
“I don’t really feel as if I have to give back, but I naturally want to do it because it’s part of my DNA, I suppose.
“It’s allowed me to support a lot of good causes, so it’s something that I just felt was compulsory to me. If I had earned a lot less money, I still would’ve done it.”