As Arsenal prepare to face CSKA Moscow in the NextGen Series, Andrey Arshavin recalls his days growing up in Russia.

I was born in St Petersburg. Well, when I was born - in 1981, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet Union - the city was called Leningrad.

I was too young to really understand the importance of the things that were going on in my country at the time but, watching it happen on telly, when I was about 10, I can remember feeling happy. I’m in favour of democracy and liberty.

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At around that age, I also went abroad for the first time, to Italy with my football team. In the past, when it was the Soviet Union, organising something like that would have been very difficult with a lot of forms to fill in and red tape. But, because we were now Russia, it was already much easier: we got passports, visas and we went.

We played a tournament in Italy and, of course, we won. Up to the age of 10, Russian teams will always win any tournaments they enter.

It’s to do with our system for developing players. In other countries, with young boys, I think the coach will just throw you a ball and let you have fun. Proper training starts later. In Russia, it’s not like that. Coaches take quite a serious tactical approach with boys, even from a very young age. It’s still fun, but we have to win every game!

That trip to Italy felt like the best time of my life. Twenty of us went, from the Smena academy which is connected to Zenit. I went with one bag. And I came back with seven! I had clothes, shoes, sweets, presents for all my family. And all of us did the same. It felt like an amazing thing to travel abroad and my experience then means Italy is probably still my favourite country in Europe now.

I grew up on one of St Petersburg’s historic islands, an old neighbourhood, about half a mile from the Hermitage, called Vasilevsky Ostrov. Ostrov means ‘island’, so it’s Vasilii’s Island’. It was a very typical St Petersburg area, I think, with houses all close together.

I used to play football in my bedroom, kicking a ball against the wall of the apartment. And those walls were about as thick as a piece of cardboard, so it was bang-bang-bang for everyone else!

Andrey Arshavin

Our apartment block was built in a square, like a box around a central open space where we could play. Everybody could look out of their window and across into their neighbours’ flats! The apartments were communal: we shared a toilet and a bathroom and a kitchen with other families.

On some corridors there would be 20 families, but we were lucky. We shared with just two other families and our neighbours were nice and quiet. I was the only problem. I used to play football in my bedroom, kicking a ball against the wall of the apartment. And those walls were about as thick as a piece of cardboard, so it was bang-bang-bang for everyone else!

My parents both worked. My dad worked in a piano factory and my mum did clothes mending and alterations. Dad played football but not as a professional; that wasn’t possible, really, until the mid-1990s in Russia. People who saw him play say that he was a better player than me, but the level of football I play at wasn’t open to him then. From when I was very young, he used to take me to his games to watch him play and I would end up behind one of the goals, kicking a ball around.

I think my father was keen for me to play football but he never pushed me into it. It was something that just came naturally for me. My parents tell me that I wasn’t really interested in any toys. I just wanted to have a ball all the time. I can see it in photos from my childhood: I’m always with a ball.

Andrey Arshavin in action for Zenit St Petersburg in 2000
Andrey Arshavin in action for Zenit St Petersburg in 2000

I remember I had a box of toy soldiers that I used to line up like soldiers on military parades. But, apart from that, it was just football for me. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I discovered computer games and, even then, I would just play the football manager ones.

BACK STORY

Born in St Petersburg on May 29, 1981, Andrey played all his football for hometown club Zenit until moving to London to join Arsenal on February 3, 2009. He has captained the Russia national team, and has won more than 70 senior caps

We used to play football in the open space in the middle of the apartment block, but it wasn’t big enough for a proper match so we’d make up our own games with our own rules. I think it’s a very typical thing in Russia, playing football in those little squares and kicking the ball against a window. It’s a scene you see in so many movies in Russia and it happened to us, too: the window breaking and us all running away! We used to call that patch of ground the Dvor and, until I was about 10, we used to play there a lot.

I started at the Zenit academy when I was seven but, even then, it wasn’t as if I was pushed into going. It was the natural thing for me. My school was about an hour away and the academy was right next door, so that became where I spent the whole of every day. I’d get home tired out and not feeling like going out to play in our Dvor. From then on, football was everything and all my friends were my team-mates or other boys I got to know through playing the game.

Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 22 Mar 2013