Por: Inside The World Cup
The former Chelsea midfielder may not have always impressed in England, but is ready to fight for his country
This article is part of the Guardian’s World Cup 2014 Experts’ Network, a co-operation between 32 of the best media organisations from the countries who have qualified for the finals in Brazil. theguardian.com is running previews from four countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 12 June.
“Zhirkoooooov!” – shouted all the football commentators on the night of the 19t October 2010. A crazy goal against Spartak Moscow , the team that rejected him in 2003, was his first and only for Chelsea. The interesting part is how the commentators managed to pronounce his last name in the right way, taking into account the way it sounds to English-speaking people.
Zhirkov waited for a year to score his debut goal for the London club. It felt like he was waiting to do it to a Russian team, particularly the one that means so much to him.
It`s a strong belief that there`s only one “sleeping giant” in Russian football, Roman Pavlyuchenko. But it’s wrong. Yes, Guus Hiddink did call the former Tottenham forward that, but our country gives birth to this kind of monster permanently, producing them in secret laboratories from Siberia to Tambov. It`s in Tambov, where Zhirkov, our rarely awoken (especially after his move to England) giant was born, only showing his true skill in Russia, at the stadium in which he always reigned.
He grew up in a small town with a starving family, playing football not for his own pleasure, but for the sake of not coming back home.
He played for food at youth tournaments, preventing his parents and younger brother from dying of starvation. While playing for Spartak Tombov, Yuri attracted the attention of several top Russian clubs. But one of the gurus of Russian coaching, Oleg Romantsev, prohibited Zhirkov’s transfer to Spartak Moscow. Romantsev didn’t like the boy who was too skinny and feeble. The one, who will play in the most physically demanding league in the world in six years time …
As a result, Zhirkov was recruited by CSKA Moscow, where he rapidly transformed into a star and Spartak supporters were constantly biting their elbows. Imagine: Liverpool fans suddenly finding out that their board of directors rejected buying Rooney in his early teens, Real Madrid didn’t see anything special in Messi or Tottenham saw no potential in Henry. Not the best feeling in the world, is it?
For several years Zhirkov demonstrated phenomenal abilities on the football pitch: crosses, super-precise passes, solid defending – he had it all in his arsenal
From an early age it was clear that he was destined for a move to a foreign club. Especially after Yuri’s international masterclasses: the winning goal in 2005 Uefa Cup final, brilliant performances in the champions League and Euro 2008.
Chelsea got him, although Yuri had a great offer from Bayern Munich and was close to accepting it. “German football and the country itself fit me better” – he claimed. Nevetheless, two Russian businessmen, Evgenyi Giner and Roman Abramovich decided everything for him and sent him to London.
Zhirkov has always been a hard worker. His distinctive feature has always been to work not only for himself, but also the team. It seemed that his CV was perfect for England: young workaholic with spectacular European experience and Brazilian technique. The best South American football player in the history of Russian football, former CSKA striker Wagner Love described him as follows: “I’ve got serious doubts Zhirkov was truly born in Russia, I’d rather think he spent his entire childhood at the Copacobana beaches. Only this can explain what he can do with the ball.”
André Villas-Boas, when Chelsea manager, was saying very similar things when Zhirkov was sold by the club. But this time Yuri decided it all for himself already. It was time to go back to Russia.
Definitely, Zhirkov had his moments of glory in England. Flashes of greatness. Matches that you can proudly show to your grandchildren. But a timid fellow from Tambow just wasn`t prepared for the competition in the team , for an excessive attention and pressure from everyone, from fans to journalists, and , as a result, was only looking for excuses, sincerely thinking that he wasn’t given a single chance on the pitch.
Zhirkov didn’t go to a different European club to prove his point, but simply picked the easiest route possible, going to the very ambitious Dagestan club Anzhi Makhachkala where money for players was trickling from every mountain brook. For picking the unpopular team amongst Russian football fans he was booed while playing for the national team. But this was soon forgotten, although some of them still call him a Magomed, an typical Dagestan first name.
Today Zhirkov has another opulent contract, this time with Dynamo Moscow, the latest Russian nouveau-riche. In his homeland Yuri is happy again: wife, a former beauty-queen, whose scandalous TV interview shocked every person whose IQ is higher than 10; kids who publicly smoke shisha at the age of 10 and seven and a job at a near-empty stadium outside Moscow, where a bunch of fans watch 11 millionaires play a primitive defensive football.
It is not, however, all that gloomy. Zhirkov had a couple of decent games recently after Dynamo replaced their manager. Zhirkov will go to the World Cup in Brazil given how keen Fabio Capello is for all-purpose players. And Yuri is still capable of playing in four positions: left defender, left midfielder, defensive midfielder and attacking central half-back.
For Zhirkov, who collects second world war artefacts, the Brazil World Cup will be his last serious combat. Already 30, his only chance to visit Euro 2016 will be as a tourist. But for now he has to be a true soldier. He has proved he can fight for his country, if nothing else.