Arsen Zakharyan: Meet the teenage magician taking Russia by storm

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As 18th birthday presents go, bacterial tonsillitis would be low down the list of ideal gifts.

For Arsen Zakharyan, though, it not only ruined any personal celebrations he may have been planning, it also ended any hope he had of going to Euro 2020.

The teenage midfielder had been named in Russia's preliminary squad for the tournament, with coach Stanislav Cherchesov keen to see the youngster in action before naming his final roster after Zakharyan's remarkable breakout season at Dynamo Moscow.

But following his illness, the youngster's wait for what will be an inevitable international debut will have to wait.

Fans across Russia are mightily disappointed with the misfortune, because their team desperately need an injection of youthful energy.

Alan Dzagoev provided it for them at Euro 2012, and Dmitry Sychev famously made a name for himself at the 2002 World Cup after just a handful of performances for Spartak Moscow beforehand. 

Sychev was 18 years and 222 days when he became the youngest Russia international ever. Zakharyan is even younger, but it was obvious why tens of pundits begged Cherchesov to give him a chance this summer.

His meteoric rise has been absolutely stunning, with his displays having lit the imagination of supporters across the country almost inmediately.

During the final months of 2020, Zakharyan was still playing for Dynamo Moscow's reserve team, earning a monthly salary of about £300.

Former Mainz coach Sandro Schwartz, who took over as first-team manager in October, watched him closely and decided to gamble on his talents in 2021 having seen him score eight goals and lay on five assists in just 15 appearances for the second string.

The midfielder signed his first professional contract in January, and the result was sensational, to put it mildly.

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Despite starting just 10 matches for Dynamo, the club's fans voted him as their Player of the Season in an online vote in May. Clearly they realise just how special the talent they are witnessing emerge in the capital.

In his 11 matches first-team outings, Zakharyan scored three goals and provided five assists. Those are phenomenal stats for a 17-year-old, but they do not tell the whole story, as the midfielder enlightented games with his presence.

By gliding effortlessly past opponents as though they did not exist and playing magnificent through balls thanks to his remarkable vision and technical skills, the two-footed magician was a joy to watch.

Armenian football lovers immediately made comparisons to Henrikh Mkhitaryan, their greatest player of the post-Soviet era.

Zakharyan himself was born to Armenian parents in Samara, with his family having fled the Nagorno Karabakh region in the middle of the 1990s, after the lengthy and bloody regional war with Azerbaijan. They rebuilt their lives in Russia and enabled their children to grow up without fear, yet Armenian fans naturally nurture hopes of luring Zakharyan to their national team.

Those wishes are set to be in vain, however. Zakharyan represented Russia at different youth levels since 2018, and in March became the youngest player to score at the Under-21 European Championship after netting on his debut against Iceland.

Two months later, Cherchesov and the senior squad came calling, leaving Zenit extremely disappointed with the decision they made four years ago.

When Zakharyan was 13, he was invited to join the St Petersburg giants' academy. "They told us that he would be signed without trials, but that turned out to be false, his father, Norayr, told Sport24.ru.

"The whole story dragged on and on, and in the end they just let him go. It was probably for the best. That negative experience made Arsen stronger."

His first coach, Samara football legend Vladimir Korolyov, was delighted to get him back, because an early move could, in his opinion, have been damaging. 

"Arsen stood out since the age of six," he told Sport24.ru. "He never had problems with dribbling past defenders, but enjoyed more when able to provide assists.

"He has an interesting style, because there is an illusion that the ball is too far from him when he is running with it. In reality, he is in full control thanks to his long stride.

"But his most important quality is his intelligence. He always reads the game better than others, and is also very serious and disciplined in training."

One might say that Zakharyan tries to imitate the attitude of his childhood idol Cristiano Ronaldo.

"I admire him as a footballer and a person," the teenager said of the five-time Ballon d'Or winner in a recent interview. "I love his self belief, his audacity and his motivation to improve."

That love of Ronaldo is the reason he supports Real Madrid, and Zakharyan has recently focused on studying the styles of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, who are more similar to his position on the pitch.

His favourite Russian player, meanwhile, is Andrey Arshavin, while Korolyov compares his former protégé to Antoine Griezmann.

That is a vast array of potential role models, and it is obvious that Zakharyan is far from the finished article. Modest by nature, he is not overwhelmed with the sudden media attention and continues his fast development without losing touch with reality.

He is not in hurry to leave Dynamo, either, with the belief of his coach, Schwarz, the most important thing in his career at the moment.

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"Zakharyan definitely deserved to be called up to the national team. I am delighted for him," Schwarz said when the provisional squad was announced. His teen star is certain to be his main man during the 2021-22 campaign.

And so while it is a shame that illness prevented Zakharyan from going to Euro 2020, he at least should be well rested ahead of the upcoming season.

His time in the national team will come in the near future. Future tournaments are sure to be lit up by Arsen Zakharyan.