He may have four Premier League titles to his name and holds the honour of being his country’s youngest-ever captain, but Oleksandr Zinchenko has done it the hard way.
The career of our latest recruit is proof that you should never let setbacks stop you from reaching your dreams. Eight years ago, a 17-year-old Zinchenko found himself in a foreign land without a club, having fled a warzone and playing in the streets to keep fit. Now he’s a beacon of hope to many Ukrainians during much tougher times.
However, with resilience and a work ethic as strong as Zinchenko’s, he was destined to reach the top - one way or another. That destiny began in Radomyshl in northern Ukraine, when a scout spotted the 11-year-old’s talents, who defied his young age to make the first of many brave calls that would characterise his career and moved 350 miles south to Odessa.
It was there that he would represent Monolith for 18 months, before some of his country’s top clubs were competing for his signature and he opted for Shakhtar Donetsk. Things were looking rosy when he was handed the captaincy of their under-19 side, until in 2014 when Russian troops moved into the Donbas region. After his parents decided to flee to Moscow to escape the conflict, Zinchenko terminated his contract with Shakhtar, and had to start all over again.
Without a club in a new country, things were tough for the teenager. Initially forced to play in the streets or small amateur tournaments to keep fit, a trial with Rubin Kazan looked to be a lifeline. During a period of limbo, Zinchenko lived at their training ground as his determination to do whatever it took shone through, but legal issues stemming from his Shakhtar departure dragged on for months.
With no salary coming in, Kazan’s squad even chipped in financially to help him out, but eventually the deal, and potentially Zinchenko’s dream of making it to the top, broke down.
A first step back onto the ladder arrived in February 2015 when Russian side FC Ufa persuaded Shakhtar to let him go, and Zinchenko was quick to make up for lost time. After a switch from central or wide midfield to left-back proved to be an inspired move, just six months after making his professional debut he won his first Ukraine cap.
The summer of 2016 proved to be pivotal. He played twice at Euro 2016 before Manchester City came calling, with around £1.7m all it took to bring him to these shores. But another test of his strength of character during a season-long loan move to PSV Eindhoven, which yielded only six starts and a stint with their under-21s.
He returned to City with a point to prove, which would spur him on to catch Pep Guardiola’s eye. It started with a debut in a League Cup tie against Wolves, and ended with 14 appearances as well as Premier League and League Cup winners medals.
That first taste of success saw him opt against a switch to Wolves after City agreed to let him move to Molineux, such was his belief that he could become a regular in Guardiola’s star-studded side. His decision proved to be wise for both parties, as he played a key role in the City team that swept the boards with a domestic treble, including the full 90 in both cup finals.
Two further league titles and a couple more Carabao Cups have since been lifted, while at international level he took possession of the armband aged just 24 to guide his side at Euro 2020. He also nearly pulled off the impossible by rallying his side to reach this year’s World Cup, but Ukraine were pipped in the play-off final by Wales.
However, his efforts in galvanizing a squad rightly impacted by the horrors of war, as well as powerfully speaking out against the conflict have received praise from Ukrainians and football fans worldwide. The bravery, passion and resilience that he has shown in his nation’s time of need typify his career so far, and why he’ll fit right in at Emirates Stadium.
Find out more about Oleksandr with these seven obscure facts about his life on and off the pitch.
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