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Zhirkov reaps harvest of hard work

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

MOSCOW - Sports people are by nature hungry for success but the word hunger was one that Russia's most expensive player Yuri Zhirkov learnt from an early age — such was the poverty he grew up in.

The 30-year-old, who can play left back or left wing though the latter position suits his offensive style better — risked missing out on a soccer career because he had to miss training so he could help his father Valentin, who died in 2007 aged 53, grow the vegetables that sustained him his parents and his three siblings through the freezing Russian winter.

However, when he was able to finally train properly, showing the natural talent that has since brought him not only 60 caps but also the trophies and riches he could only have fantasised about back then, he knew that if he were to succeed he would be able to ensure his family never went hungry again.

"Very early on I started thinking how to bring my family a better living. When I was a boy, if I came home late I would find the fridge empty," he said.

"They had eaten dinner without me and nothing was left. Then I would quietly lie on my Tsar's Bed (what he called his camp bed), close my eyes and dream of how one day all this was going to change."

However, all that changed once he was signed by CSKA Moscow from his local club Spartak Tambov in 2003. There he sparkled in what was a golden era for the Russian club.

They won the domestic double twice, the Russian Cup on another two occasions and a superb win in the now defunct UEFA Cup in 2005, where he scored the second goal in the 3-1 victory over Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon.

This success followed by eyecatching performances for Russia in Euro 2008 where they reached the semi-finals under Guus Hiddink earned him the STG18 million ($A32.86 million) move to Chelsea owned by Zhirkov's compatriot Roman Abramovich in 2009.

Despite Chelsea winning the domestic double in his first season there Zhirkov was never able to command a regular place in the starting line-up — he was not alone as several of his compatriots did not last long in England after failing to adjust to life there.

Thus after only 49 appearances over two years and one goal he was sold to the then ambitious Russian club Anzhi Machakala, allowing him to join up once again with Hiddink.

However, the dream of oil and metals oligarch Suleiman Kerimov for the club to become challengers on a European scale quickly soured and in August last year he put the whole squad up for sale.

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