Oleksandr Zinchenko: a brave rebel leading Ukraine to new heights
Today almost half the Ukraine national team play in one of Europe’s top leagues but five or six years ago, the Yellow and Blue were associated exclusively with clubs back home such as Dynamo, Shakhtar and Dnipro.
Yevhen Konoplyanka left Dnipro and his Ukrainian comfort zone at that time. Then Andriy Yarmolenko moved to the Bundesliga, but this story is not about them.
It is about a player whose first appearance for Ukraine caused a lot of controversy. He made his debut while playing in a foreign league but not one of the top European ones, the championship of neighbouring Russia at a time when relations were hostile. In 2015 Russia had been occupying Crimea for a year following the military conflict in Donbass. Back then Oleksandr Zinchenko played for the Russian Premier League’s little-known Ufa and was an inexperienced young man who became known as a rebel in his homeland. Therefore, his call-up to the national team for the Euro 2016 qualifier against Spain surprised fans. And his appearance on the field in the 88th minute of that match even more so.
In terms of his footballing ability Zinchenko was far from the top level even by Ukrainian standards. He was still only 18 and considered no more than a promising player but Ukrainian football officials decided to fast-track him into the national team when rumours spread about Russia’s desire to naturalise Zinchenko for their team. So on 10 October 2015 he became one of the Ukraine’s youngest debutants and on 29 May 2016 his goal against Romania earned him the record of the youngest ever scorer for Ukraine. In little more than five years he became the youngest captain in the history of the national team.
His path is one of perseverance, flexibility and bags of courage. Previously we called Zinchenko a rebel for good reason, as his escape from Shakhtar still irritates executives at the Donetsk club. Zinchenko never played for the first team of the 13-times champions of Ukraine but was the captain of their under-19s. But in 2014 he decided to leave.
Shakhtar considered the termination of their contract with Zinchenko a unilateral initiative of the player. They filed a lawsuit and Fifa fined him €8,000 but the club remained dissatisfied with this decision. Therefore, the case went to the court of arbitration for sport but there Zinchenko won. In February 2015, he signed a contract with Ufa and played there for almost a year and a half.
His decision to burn bridges with Shakhtar was a brave one. Zinchenko was unsure of his future and during the period after escaping from Shakhtar and before signing a contract with Ufa, he kept in shape by training with amateurs. The opportunity at Ufa came about by chance. He had plans to join Rubin Kazan but agents were unable to reverse the deal. With legal threats hanging over Zinchenko and potential employers it seemed more likely that Zinchenko would win the lottery than progress to a top club in Europe in a year or two.
However, the Ukrainian pulled out his lucky ticket. The story of how Zinchenko became a Manchester City player is fast becoming a folk tale in Ukraine. It is said that a video of Zinchenko in action was simply shown to Pep Guardiola and he said: “Let’s go!” Maybe he knew that there were talented players in Ukraine. At Barcelona, Guardiola lobbied for the transfer of the Ukrainian defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy. Maybe in Zinchenko he was just quick to see potential. Whatever the reason, the deal happened.
And a new journey began. An unsuccessful loan spell at PSV (he even played seven reserve games there), a long period as an unused Manchester City squad player, a refusal to move to Napoli and Wolves did not augur well for his future prospects but his breakthrough finally came. Now he is an important player in one of the best teams in the world. Zinchenko may not be the strongest left-back Guardiola has ever worked with but he is certainly one of his best students. One who absorbs coaching instructions and tactics like a sponge.
At City he switched from midfield to left-back. This fact speaks of Zinchenko’s flexibility. In the national team, he still plays as a central midfielder but here, as with City, Zinchenko is ready to play where he will be most useful for the team.
Ukraine, under the management of Andriy Shevchenko, are trying to play tactically diverse football. There are several basic principles: ball control, the use of short and medium passes, rapid advancement and pressure. The team reached their peak during the Euro 2020 qualifiers, when they destroyed a strong Serbia team 5-0 in Lviv. Then the European champions Portugal , led by Ronaldo, were defeated 2-1 in Kyiv. Ukraine topped their qualifying group and will play at Euro 2020 with great hope. Zinchenko is one of those who must bear the burden of expectations back home.
Zinchenko is a leader and engaging when speaking to the media. He’s also the symbol of a new generation of Ukrainian players. His emotional celebration after the victory against Portugal was replayed countless times on Ukrainian TV.. His regular presence on social media has also inspired other Ukrainian footballers to be more open to the public.
After all, he is one of those who will try to prove in the summer that Ukraine is now a very good football nation.