Look at all 368 players at Euro 2012, and it will be very difficult to find one whose fortunes changed more dramatically since the previous tournament than those of Roman Shirokov. His is the most unusual story, an ultimate tale of a late-bloomer, whose career took an extremely unexpected turn.
For quite a few years, since being kicked out of CSKA Moscow without playing a single second, Shirokov was considered an undisciplined alcohol-loving below-average midfielder. Then, in the beginning of 2008, Dick Advocaat surprisingly signed him at Zenit, thanks to a couple of good games at tiny Khimki. Not only that – the Dutchman decided to move the player into central defence. Impressive in the UEFA Cup, including the win against Rangers in the final at City of Manchester Stadium, he was surprisingly included by Guus Hiddink into his Euro squad, and even more astonishingly given the responsibility against Spain in the opener in Innsbruck.
That’s where it all went terribly wrong. Not only Shirokov proved incapable of stopping David Villa who bagged a hat-trick, he also allegedly claimed in a post-game interview that nobody told him the Valencia star is supposed to start for La Roja. That was way too much for Hiddink to swallow. The sorry newcomer was benched for the rest of the tournament, watching his teammates excel on their way to semi-finals, and never called again by the Dutchman. Some Russian pundits openly said he is simply not good enough for such a high level, and the awful Villa quote made so many headlines that Shirokov was basically thought to be nothing less than a village idiot. At 27, his career was apparently over before it really started.
Then two extremely significant events occurred. Firstly, Zenit sold Anatoliy Tymoshchuk to Bayern Munich in the summer of 2009. Six months later, Luciano Spalletti was signed as the next coach at the Gazprom-sponsored club. With Igor Denisov moved into Tymoshchuk’s holding position, there was a place in the more offensive midfield role up for grabs. The Italian coach put Shirokov into that spot. The results were imminent. Roman improved with every month, his game became more and more intelligent as his understanding with fellow midfielders, especially Denisov and Konstantin Zyryanov, became better. Suddenly, he looked like one of the best performers in the league. Even more importantly, it turned out he is not stupid at all. Quite the contrary – Shirokov’s outspoken remarks on Twitter showed an intelligent person who is brave enough to share his often provocative thoughts with everyone. Finally, he has come of age, both on and off the field.
2010 was great for Shirokov, and when Advocaat replaced Hiddink as Russia coach he immediately recalled his former protégé into the squad. 2011/12 record-long Russian season proved to be even better. Apart from playing a vital part in an extremely fluid and eye-pleasing Zenit midfield, Shirokov developed an uncanny habit of popping up in scoring positions when the opponents least expect that, in a manner not dis-similar to that of Frank Lampard. That was especially evident in the Champions League, when Roman scored braces against Portuguese giants, both in a crucial 3-1 win over Porto in the group stage and in a 3-2 triumph versus Benfica in the last 16, even though Zenit spectacularly failed to protect that lead in Lisbon.
He does that for the national team as well, and it is no surprise he feels at home in what is basically a Zenit line-up, with Denisov, Zyryanov, Andrey Arshavin and Aleksandr Kerzhakov all important starters for Advocaat. Shirokov scored the winner in Greece in November, was on target in Denmark in February, and last week netted twice versus Italy in Zurich. That counts for four of his six international goals. There is little doubt he arrived to Poland in a very rich form, and at 31 this might be his only chance to shine on the big stage, finally putting the 2008 ghost to rest.
Watch out for Shirokov’s clever movement on Friday versus the heavy Czech defence. You will see some exquisite through balls to Kerzhakov, endless interchanges with Zyryanov, and several perfectly timed sneaks into the penalty area. There will be a lot to tweet about.
Previously on the blog: The painful goalkeeping dilemma