- 26 Jun 08, 07:00 AM
Everyone's talking about Andrei Arshavin, how he's lighting up Euro 2008 with skills that have earned praise from the great man himself, Zinedine Zidane. Yet Arshavin is not some boy wonder. He's 27 and made his international debut on 17 May, 2002,
So why has it taken six years for the Russian 'Ronaldinho' to show the world just how good he is? It's a fair question, one that I put to Konstantin Kleshchev, a man who knows a bit about the burgeoning star of Euro 2008.
"We've always known he's a very good player," said Kleshchev, a reporter on Russian football for 25 years. "But not everyone has believed in him and could see what he was capable of."
Crucially, those people with the doubts have been the ones who mattered most. Previous coaches at both club and international level wanted Arshavin to fulfil a specific - and perhaps restrictive - role on the pitch, one that didn't suit him at all.
Kleshchev admits that Arshavin is something of a free spirit and not easily dictated to. "He is a strong character," he said. "He is a person who says what he thinks. Sometimes he's a bit crazy."
Like when he kicked an Andorran player towards the end of Russia's final Euro 2008 qualifier, a moment of madness that ensured he missed the first two matches of the Finals.
According to Kleshchev, Arshavin is not a big fan of journalists either, although he is more than happy for his face to be splashed across the front and inside pages of Russia's glossy magazines. This is a man who, after all, has a diploma in fashion design.
And he can expect even more interest in his life following his dazzling exploits in Austria and Switzerland. But how did he suddenly become football's hottest property? Well, according to Kleshchev, the catalyst was the arrival on the Russian football scene of two Dutchmen, Guus Hiddink and Dick Advocaat.
Hiddink became national coach in April 2006, with Advocaat taking over at Zenit St Petersburg just three months later. Both men quickly made their presence felt, although Advocaat's influence was initially more telling in respect of Arshavin.
Recognising he was a rough diamond in need of a little polishing, Advocaat made sure Arshavin got the TLC he required. Then he let Hiddink know just how good Arshavin was, too.
"Hiddink has a close relationship with Advocaat, and Advocaat told him Arshavin was the best," said Kleshchev. "Hiddink, who we call the magician in Russia, trusts Advocaat."
With the backing of Advocaat and Hiddink, Arshavin began doing what he does best - terrorising defences. It's not quite a licence to roam but he certainly pops up in all kinds of places, his close control and quick feet making any defender wary of diving in.
It's not only Arshavin who has benefitted from the nurturing instincts of Advoccat and Hiddink. Konstantin Zyryanov has also flourished under the Dutch duo's guidance. "He spent six years at Torpedo Moscow without showing any promise, but Adocaat saw Zyryanov as a star," said Kleshchev.
Zyryanov was named Russian Football of the Year in 2007 and scored the second goal in the 2-0 win over Rangers in the Uefa Cup final back in May. He also scored the only goal in Russia's crucial 1-0 win over Group D rivals Greece.
It's a remarkable turnaround, especially when you consider he has had to cope with tragedy too many times in his life. A couple of years after losing his father and brother, his wife and four-year-old daughter were killed after they fell from the eighth floor of their apartment block. The coroner returned a verdict of suicide.
While Zyryanov has won plaudits for the way he has rebuilt his life and his career, it's Arshavin who has grabbed most of the headlines. He is also attracting the interest of Europe's top clubs, with talk of Barcelona leading the race for his services.
Kleshchev thinks any potential suitor, including the Spanish giants, may have to wait another year before getting their man. "For Zenit, the big thing now is the Champions League," he said. "They have already won the Russian Premier League and the Uefa Cup, so I think they will hold on to Arshavin for one more season."
Even then, Zenit might not want to sell. They certainly don't have to. Gazprom, who own a majority stake in the club, have already pumped in £80m and, as Russia's largest company, have many more millions at their disposal.
In the end, it will probably come down to what Arshavin wants. He currently earns £2m a year, so he's already a wealthy man. But if he can inspire Russia to Euro 2008 success, he will probably be able to command at least twice that.
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