WORDS: ROB DILLON
The ups and downs of Aleksandr Kerzhakov’s career could fill a Russian novel, but he popped up when it mattered in this World Cup to salvage a point from an opening game to forget against South Korea. Yet that record-equalling goal was just the latest episode in his long-running international saga…
Image: Мельников Александр, via Wikimedia Commons
Late into the Moscow night on Tuesday, June 17, with half the country having given up hope and drifted off to sleep, Aleksandr Kerzhakov became a hero, and not for the first time.
With Russia trailing unfancied South Korea by a goal to nil and Igor Akinfeev’s goalkeeping howler guaranteed to make the back pages across the vast nation, the man they call Sasha stepped off the bench in the 71st minute.
Until the appointment of Fabio Capello, ‘Kerzh’ had been first choice for Russia for as long as you care to remember. Having led the line at Zenit for the majority of the past decade – barring a brief spell in Spain and a couple of years at Dinamo Moscow – and been a consistent provider of goals, he has been the go-to guy at the head of the Russian attack.
However, in recent months, with Kerzhakov reaching the twilight of his career at 31, a new great hope has emerged for the Russian nation. Aleksandr Kokorin, just 23 years old, has become something of a sensation for Dinamo, and over the course of qualification for the 2014 World Cup became Capello’s preferred choice in the lone striker role. Talk of Kokorin starting from the left and Kerzhakov remaining up front abounded in the build-up to the tournament, but when Russia took to the field for their opening game, the elder statesman of the side was nowhere to be seen.
After Akinfeev’s nightmare moment, Capello decided it was time. Off came the ineffectual Yuri Zhirkov on the left wing, and on came Kerzhakov to join his rival up front. The introduction of Alan Dzagoev had already injected a much-needed sense of urgency into Russia, but they needed a finisher. In typical Capello fashion, both his moves worked – a shot from Dzagoev was only parried by the Korean goalkeeper, full-back Andrei Eshchenko somehow found himself in the way of a clearance, and the ball dropped for Kerzhakov. He still had some work to do but, calling on all his years of experience, was able to twist and fire the ball low into the gaping goal.
It was enough to earn Russia a point from a game they should have won, but for Kerzhakov himself the significance was much greater. After 82 appearances, some crucial goals and some vital misses, the Zenit striker finally got the goal that drew him level with the former Spartak Moscow winger Vladimir Beschastnykh at the top of the all-time Russian scoring charts. It was a record a long time in the making.
Kerzhakov has not always been a national hero. Having burst onto the scene in quite spectacular fashion in 2001, by 2002 he was partnering Andrei Arshavin up front for his club, earning a call-up to Russia’s 2002 World Cup squad – the last time the great nation reaches the tournament finals. He made a single appearance from the bench as Russia crashed out early.
By 2006, he was the first choice for his nation, but Dick Advocaat’s appointment to the top job at Zenit changed everything. The Dutchman seemingly did not rate Kerzhakov’s predatory instincts, and restricted his appearances despite an impressive UEFA Cup campaign the previous year. In a relative rarity for Russian footballers, Kerzhakov looked abroad.
It was Sevilla that came calling, but while the Russian made great contributions to the UEFA Cup-winning campaign of 2007, he was never fully ably to work his way past Frederic Kanoute and Luis Fabiano. Only 14 months after leaving his homeland, Kerzh was back, this time with Dinamo, and in two seasons topped the club’s scoring charts with relative ease. A poor team effort in the second – dropping to eighth place in the league from third the previous year – saw him on the way again, and the only logical destination was Zenit and new manager Luciano Spalletti.
By 2010, Kerzhakov’s relationship with the Russian fans was turning into something of a love-hate caricature. There can be little doubt that he has been the pre-eminent Russian goalscorer of the last decade – an argument can be made for Arshavin in terms of forwards, and certainly in raw talent – and there can be no doubting his work rate.
Even when he is not scoring goals, he is a man who knows exactly where to be at each moment, pulling defenders out of position to allow team-mates to make runs, drifting between centre-backs to receive through balls, and using his strength to good effect in the penalty area. His game has never relied solely on pace, meaning his goalscoring record into his thirties has not suffered too dramatically.
But, with the national side on the verge of the World Cup in 2010, all Guus Hiddink’s men had to do was negotiate the seemingly comfortable opposition of Slovenia in the play-off – a nation of just two million inhabitants and with little footballing pedigree. Kerzhakov sat out the first leg on the bench in a 2-1 win, but entered the field of play at half-time in the second with Slovenia clinging to a 1-0 victory and progress on away goals. Instead of seal the game in Russia’s favour, a petulant kick at the Slovenian goalkeeper earned him a red card after just 20 minutes on the pitch, and Russia tumbled out of the World Cup before ever arriving.
Two years later, Russia came into Euro 2012 into arguably the weakest group in the competition – alongside hosts Poland, Greece and a poor Czech team – with Kerzhakov scoring two critical goals in qualification, the opening strike in a 3-2 win over Ireland and the sole goal in a scrappy 1-0 victory over FYR Macedonia. Although the layout of the tournament looked against them, Dick Advocaat’s men were favourites to at least get out of the group.
In the first match, Russia were sublime, tearing the Czechs apart with some superb passing football, Alan Dzagoev in particular the key to their success. Kerzhakov failed to get on the scoresheet, but the victory masked his misses. Next up, Poland, and the Zenit striker endured a torrid time, failing to convert a number of chances as Russia were forced to settle for a 1-1 draw. That left them needing something against Greece to guarantee progression, and Kerzhakov again was guilty of wasting gilt-edged opportunities, barely registering a shot on target as his nation crashed out at the first hurdle, spelling the end of Advocaat’s reign. Kerzhakov was once again the scapegoat.
Nevertheless, despite occasional goal droughts which see fans call for his replacement, both Zenit and Russia have so far failed to find a man who can match Kerzhakov’s obvious abilities. A hard worker who gives his all for the team, his style is unspectacular and, at its best, ruthlessly efficient. He has survived the challenge of Roman Pavlyuchenko, Pavel Pogrebnyak, Artem Dzyuba – who wasn’t picked for the World cup despite being the top Russian scorer last season – as well as Kokorin, who is still occasionally deployed on the wing, and even Fedor Smolov, whose inclusion in the national side makes little sense to anyone. At Zenit, Aleksandr Bukharov flopped in his place, and even star signing Hulk is forced to share the goalscoring burden.
In all likelihood, the current World cup is likely to be Kerzhakov’s swansong with the national team – it is unlikely he will be around for the next European Championships, and by 2018 he will be 35 years old, in position to lead the line for a host nation. By then, however, he is almost certain to be Russia’s leading scorer of all time, and will leave a legacy difficult to follow.
For a nation which has provided the world with so many great attacking midfielders and wide forwards, the art of the out-and-out striker is not one which Russia has truly mastered. Kerzhakov is as close as they have come in recent years, and he will no doubt be remembered fondly for it.