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'It was clear he'd become a top-level footballer' - How Zinchenko went from concrete pitches to Ukraine superstar

11:00 GMT+4 09/06/2021
Oleks Zinchenko
The Manchester City player left his homeland as a teenager when war broke out in the Donbas region but will now captain his country at Euro 2020

On Sunday, Oleksandr Zinchenko will lead Ukraine out for their Euro 2020 opener against Netherlands in Amsterdam.

Captaining his country at a major international tournament will cap a remarkable rise to the top for the versatile Manchester City midfielder, who is coming off the back of his first appearance in a Champions League final.

However, Shakhtar Donetsk defender Mykola Matviyenko, who is likely to line up alongside Zinchenko at the Johan Cruyff Arena, always felt that the 24-year-old was destined to play at the very highest level.

“I remember Oleksandr when he arrived at the Shakhtar academy at age 15 or so," Matviyenko tells Goal. "Initially, he was a little bit shy and even reserved, but then he opened up more.

"That said, it was clear what he wanted on the football field from day one. Oleksandr showed perseverance and determination on the football pitch. Even back then, it was clear that he’d become a top-level footballer.”

Zinchenko's journey has been anything but straightforward, though. 

Indeed, just seven years ago, he was without a club and playing football on the streets of Moscow, wondering whether his career had been derailed before it had really got going. 

Zinchenko was only 13 when left his hometown in Radomyshl in northern Ukraine to join Shakhtar's academy, which was located some 500 miles away.

He progressed rapidly through the youth-team ranks, establishing himself as an attacking midfielder of enormous potential.

As captain of the Under-19s, it looked like only a matter of time before he was added to a senior squad that featured Douglas Costa, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and future City team-mate Fernandinho.

However, when war broke out in the Donbas region of Ukraine in 2014, his mother Irina decided that the family should leave for Russia.

Zinchenko's professional career was put on hold and he was forced to play for amateur teams on concrete pitches in Moscow.

While there was interest from leading Russian clubs, including Rubin Kazan, a contractual dispute with Shakhtar meant that he was without a club for 18 months before he eventually moved to unheralded Ufa in 2015.

Zinchenko excelled at the Neftyanik Stadium and was handed his Ukraine debut just a few weeks before his 19th birthday, in October 2015, in a 1-0 defeat to Spain.

His call-up had caused some controversy, though. Not only was Zinchenko inexperienced, he was also playing his football in Russia, which didn't sit well with some Ukrainains given the conflict between the two nations.

There had also been rumours that Russia had tried to convince him to switch allegiances, which would explain his rapid promotion to the Ukraine senior squad. 

However, Zinchenko has always stated that he only ever wanted to represent the land of his birth. 

His team-mates certainly never had any doubts over his commitment to the cause. Zinchenko has always tried to pass on everything he has learned working under Pep Guardiola at City in the hope of turning Ukraine into a major force at international level.

"Oleksandr is really important for the team, both on the pitch and in the dressing room," Matvienko reveals. "Oleksandr always asks us to talk to one another. He saw every process in England as the insider and always tells us that good communication is a key practice.

"He has the qualities of a leader and he influences the team a lot. As he told us, 'In England, you just can't have a poor attitude as a member of the squad.' So, he tries to introduce the same principles in the national team."

Zinchenko certainly played a pivotal role in Ukraine's qualification for the Euros and he is now a national hero.

"The majority of people tend to put Oleksandr's past aside and value him as the national team and global football star he is today," Andrew Todos from Ukraine football website Zorya Londonsk tells Goal.

"Since his move to City, Zinchenko has maintained an unmistakable Ukrainian image, regularly wearing the Ukrainian flag during title celebrations and promoting the country through other means, such as visits to the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Manchester.

"Getting married to prominent football journalist Vlada Sedan has also led to them becoming the super-couple of Ukrainian sport."

Vlada is presently expecting their first child and Zinchenko celebrated his goal in Ukraine's final warm-up game for the Euros, against Cyprus, by putting the ball under his shirt and sucking his thumb.

As it stands, then, Zinchenko seemingly has it all. But there is no chance of him taking anything in life for granted. He has always fought for each and every opportunity that has come his way.

A £1.7 million ($2.4m) switch to the Etihad Stadium in the summer of 2016 represented a dream move for Zinchenko but it was only the start of a battle to get into Guardiola's first team.

City's extensive scouting network sees them pick up a number of promising players from across the globe each year. Some are sent on loan to clubs in the City Football Group or smaller sides around Europe. Others get an opportunity to train with the senior squad, while a select few are given game time in the first team.

Zinchenko, though, is the only low-key arrival to become a regular under Guardiola. He had been sent out on loan himself, to PSV in 2016, but he made just six starts during his season in Eindhoven.

He refused to give up, though. Zinchenko was convinced he could be a success at City and, after appearing in pre-season matches in the summer of 2017, he made his debut that October in the Carabao Cup victory over Wolves.

With Guardiola having a problem at left-back, because of serious injuries to Benjamin Mendy and the struggles of Brazilian back-up Danilo, Zinchenko dropped back from an attacking midfield role to make the position his own.

Now with exactly 100 appearances for the club, he has become a key member of the squad and an important part of this season's Premier League success and run to the Champions League final.

“To be a part of this club is an amazing feeling and every year here is special," he said ahead of the 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in Lisbon. "We always try to achieve every title and that is why every season is special.

"I cannot tell you that this season is completely different to the others because the way we are working hard, the way we play, the feeling inside the dressing room is the same during all these years.”

He's also a much-loved member of a tightly-knit squad and is regularly made fun of because of his resemblance to team-mate Kevin de Bruyne.

There were persistent rumours that he would leave the Etihad last summer, with Napoli and Wolves both interested, but Zinchenko was determined to stay and fight for his place.

It proved the right decision. Mendy, Fabian Delph and Joao Cancelo have all tried to claim the left-back position permanently, but Guardiola can't help but keep returning to the reliability of Zinchenko.

"He's so special because of his temperament," BBC Sport pundit Micah Richards tells Goal. "When you've got a big squad and you know you're not going to play every single week, you've got to be able to keep positive and be a good influence around the changing room.

"And he's a good player. He came on in the [Champions League semi-final] win against Paris Saint-Germain and absolutely changed the game.

"He can play as a full-back but he can come inside and play that midfield role because that's where he used to play. A lot of people don't know that; they just assume he's a left-back and not that great.

"But he's a great squad player to have and has got way more quality than people give him credit for. He's shown he can do it at the highest level."

His club campaign ended in tears, with a distraught Zinchenko left lying face down in the turf after City's loss to Chelsea at the Estadio do Dragao last month.

However, he responded brilliantly to adversity before and Ukraine are counting on him to do so again.

As Matviyenko says, "We’ve waited for this tournament for a long while and, of course, everyone wants to prove themselves."

Zinchenko, though, has already proven time and time again that he has what it takes to overcome whatever obstacle is placed in front of him.