Armenian pride, father's memory shape rise of Shakhtar's Mkhitaryan

Posted by James Horncastle

Whenever Shakhtar scores, the club plays a song from the player's country of origin. Fans have had to get used to hearing a lot of Armenian music at the Donbass Arena. Last season it felt as if the whirling timpani and strings of Aram Khachaturian's famously exhilarating "Sabre Dance" was on repeat.

Shakhtar's top scorer was Henrikh Mkhitaryan with 25 league goals. By amassing that number he changed his tune. Or, rather, should that be the club's tune? Gaitana, the Ukrainian pop star, had promised to sing Shakhtar's anthem in Armenian if Mkhitaryan managed to reach that total.

Mike Hewitt/Getty ImagesHenrikh Mkhitaryan is in demand after scoring 25 goals for Shakhtar this season.

Whether Liverpool would arrange for "You Never Walk Alone" to be performed that way at Anfield were he to join the club and then score the same number of goals is unknown. But for Shakhtar to do so was a great source of pride for Mkhitaryan, as was his inclusion in a list compiled by the Guardian of the 100 best footballers in the world last year, an inaugural list yet to gain in prestige but an honor to be recognised nonetheless.

When told of it, Mkhitaryan said: "I'm happy about it, not only because I'm young [he's 24] but also because I'm Armenian. It's not easy for someone from my country to get onto one of these lists."

While that's true, Mkhitaryan had pedigree. His father, Hamlet, was a footballer of some distinction, a prolific striker. Rather than read lines as his Shakespearean name might suggest, he instead led one in the late '80s and very well too for Ararat Yerevan, Armenia's most successful club during the Soviet era and European Cup quarterfinalists in 1975.

As the Berlin wall fell, the USSR broke up and Armenia descended into war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, the older Mkhitaryan went to play in France. His young family followed and watched him turn out for ASOA Valence, then ASA Issy, clubs formed by local Armenian communities who had fled their country in the diaspora. Hamlet would twice represent newly independent Armenia.

"I have many memories of that time and all of them are beautiful because my father was with me and he no longer is," Henrikh recalled in an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport before Shakhtar's group stage match against Juventus in the Champions League last season. "He took me to training with him. I remember I'd go stand by the door and wait for him to come down and give the signal that we were leaving."

It was while in France that Hamlet fell seriously ill. The diagnosis was bleak. He had developed a brain tumour. And so in 1996 the Mkhitaryans returned to Armenia. A year later, Hamlet died. He was just 33, his son only 7 at the time.

"I watched his videos; he scored a lot in the Soviet Supreme League and in France," Henrikh recalled. "Friends tell me he was a great player, beautiful to watch, and those who spent time with him tell me that it was a pleasure to have known him."

Henrikh wanted to become a footballer too. It was natural. He'd been brought up in and around the game and had found inspiration in his father's memory. But the path he followed was by no means straightforward or orthodox.

After France and Armenia came a brief spell in Brazil. He attended a camp in Sao Paulo.

"Yes, I went to train there," Mkhitaryan revealed. "The work is different with respect to Europe. It's all based on technique. I improved my dribbling and [after French] learned Portuguese, a wonderful language." That would certainly prove useful when later playing for Shakhtar, a team featuring several Brazilians.

Mkhitaryan would first come to his current club's attention in 2007. He was 18 and had already been a member of the Pyunik Yerevan first team for a year when they played Shakhtar in a Champions League qualifier. Mircea Lucescu was said to have been impressed with what he saw. It was even described as love at first sight.

The relationship would have to wait, though. Not Donetsk-bound for another couple of years when the move to Ukraine did eventually come in 2009, Mkhitaryan, a winner of four consecutive league titles at Pyunik and Armenia's Player of the Year on departure, joined rivals Metalurg rather than Shakhtar.

Claudio Villa/Getty ImagesLiverpool supporters are relentlessly tracking the team's pursuit of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, illustrating the absurdity of the modern transfer market.

Their coach Nikolay Kostov had been aware of Mkhitaryan from his time at Banants Yerevan and, knowing how much potential he had, was more insistent and managed to get him first. Lucescu wasn't about to give up on him, though. "He made me understand that he wanted me at all costs," Mkhitaryan explained. So after one season at Metalurg, he crossed town to Shakhtar.

Lucescu was enchanted by him. "I am trying to think of who he resembles because I know you're going to ask me," he said, "but I can't find the right comparison. I have trained many players but I've never had one like him." Perhaps Mkhitaryan is what the great Dynamo Kyiv manager Valeri Lobanovskyi would have called "a universal player." For there's something total about his football.

Lucescu first used him as a deep-lying midfield player. It was a stopgap while Fernandinho recovered from a leg break. "His talent was wasted in midfield," Lucescu admits. But this was also "a fundamental rite of passage because [Mkhitaryan] learned how to recover the ball and to play the field when out of possession."

Once Jadson, the hero of Shakhtar's 2009 UEFA Cup triumph, left to return to Brazil, Lucescu advanced Mkhitaryan to a position behind striker Luiz Adriano. "I freed him," the Shakhtar coach said. And Mkhitaryan exploded for 10 goals in his first season playing the role, then 25 the next.

How did he explain the transformation?

"Before when I played up front," Mkhitaryan said, "I had many chances but often missed. Now I'm calmer, more patient and I score a lot more." His season as a holder had helped. "I learned how to defend there," he said. "I got to know the weight of responsibility because in that role you have a lot more of it and I learned how to make runs from deep."

Classifying exactly what kind of player Mkhitaryan is -- a trequartista or a second striker? -- has only added to the sense that he defies classification. "He's a cross between the two," Lucescu argued, "perhaps more of a trequartista, although playing the final ball isn't his specialty. He's an atypical, special player, strong in acceleration." Like Ricky Kaka? "He has the same stride but the difference is he participates in the defensive phase of play." And scores tens of goals.

As you might expect after the year he's had, Mkhitaryan has found himself in demand. "We refused an offer from Zenit," Lucescu claimed last year. "Shakhtar needs him. Sure, as you say, everyone has a price. He's young and will have a great career. ... Mkhitaryan is the typical cosmopolitan Armenian. The Armenians are everywhere, a little like him on the pitch."

Until recently Mkhitaryan's mother, who works for the Armenian football federation, was his agent. "Everytime I ask him something," Lucescu said, "he responds: 'I have to talk with my mother.'" She remains a trusted adviser but is no longer the only one in Mkhitaryan's life. He is now a client of Mino Raiola, the agent of a select elite band of footballers, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mario Balotelli, Robinho and Paul Pogba.

Raiola has said Mkhitaryan "is a player to bring to Italy." The question is: Does that rule out Liverpool? Not at all. While several of his clients are or have been at clubs like Milan, Inter and Juventus, they've also played for Barcelona, City, Paris Saint-Germain and so on. You suspect, though, that negotiating with him and a club as rich as Shakhtar will make for an interesting roundtable discussion.

The player himself seems open-minded. Asked by La Gazzetta dello Sport which kind of football he likes to watch the most, Mkhitaryan replied: "The Premier League. They play quick [football] but at a very high level. Then Barca and Real Madrid, technically they're incredible. And I devour Bayern, Juve and Milan's matches. I love the big games, those that teach you something through watching them."

For now, Mkhitaryan is studying his next move. And many are eager to learn just what it will be.

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