Russian whiz kid turning heads

Russia's Alan Dzagoev celebrates after scoring a goal against Poland during their Group A Euro 2012...

Russia's Alan Dzagoev celebrates after scoring a goal against Poland during their Group A Euro 2012 soccer match at the National stadium in Warsaw June 12, 2012. (Kai Pfaffenbach/REUTERS)

James Lawton, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:10 PM ET

KIEV, UKRAINE - When that small war was going on between Poland and Russia at the stadium and on the streets of Warsaw this week it was entirely predictable that Alan Dzagoev remained rooted, gloriously, on planet football.

His life and priorities may start to change this January with a transfer window that opens on the day the Russian star -- who turns 22 Sunday -- reaches the end of his contract with CSKA Moscow. But for the moment this may be the game's most focused and exuberant young player.

His three goals in two games against the Czech Republic and Poland have not only sent him into first place in the race for the Golden Boot but also highlighted a nature filled with a fiery but (so it seems) an essentially innocent passion.

A leading Russian youth coach, Igor Rodkin, some time ago anticipated Dzagoev's impact on the big soccer stage when he said, "The first thing you know about this kid, apart from his talent, is that he doesn't play football for fame or money but because it is his life. He lives to win, he lives to play."

It is an ambition -- and plainly a joy -- that his parents, Tariel and Lyana, for a brief but unforgettably terrible time eight years ago believed might be wiped away when terrorists launched the events that led to the death of 300 schoolchildren in their hometown of Beslan in the shadow of the Caucasus. The first report said the besieged students were at No.4 school -- Dzagoev's -- but then a later report said it was No. 1 Middle School.

Over the past few days it has been tempting to believe that Dzagoev's dramatically unfolding career has been nothing so much as a celebration of his escape.

It is not just the biting touch that the attacking midfielder brings to his work around the goal but the bone-deep exhilaration and despair which greets success and failure. This is not so much the plying of a trade -- waged successfully enough to bring him close to $5 million a year -- as a journey of personal faith.

Teammate Andriy Arshavin -- who made a similar impact in this tournament four years ago before seeing so much of that promise die on the Arsenal vine -- believes his compatriot is not only the Russian player of his generation but potentially one of the world's greatest.

"He breathes confidence, he plays without fear," Arshavin said.

Recently there have been intrusions of luxury if not hedonism in the Dzagoev lifestyle. They now live in a luxury apartment and Dzagoev recently took possession of a Lexus, driving it with a relish understandable enough in a young millionaire whose father had finally granted him permission to drive his own car. Previously, he had been ordered to take a bus to the training ground.

Recently Dzagoev made an eye-popping trip to Las Vegas but was restive soon enough at being away from the soccer field.

Rodkin is confident the boy is safely beyond the seductions of the football celebrity lifestyle despite being earmarked as the "new Beckham" by the Spanish football newspaper Marca. This was in reaction to a dazzling Champions League debut against Deportivo La Coruna. In fact Dzagoev is a different kind of player, quicker, more penetrating along with some of the Englishman's dead-ball and passing brilliance. The coach says, "You see the way Dzagoev handles his football medals and you know that he values them more than anything he will ever get in prize money."

The heaviest endorsement has come from steely old Guus Hiddink, who as Russian coach gave Dzagoev his first taste of international soccer, against Germany no less, in a World Cup qualifier. The Dutchman was impressed by the youngster's ability to make a "killer pass." He also cracked a shot against the German crossbar as the Russians, outplayed at one point, threatened to make an unexpected away draw. Dzagoev was, however, inconsolable. "I was flop," he announced.

Dzagoev may be hard on himself but already considers himself the best judge of his performance. When his CSKA coach, Leonid Slutskiy, a combative old goalkeeper with the rugged profile of a former light-heavyweight, pulled him from a Russian Cup final, the player reacted so strongly he was banished to the reserves for a week.

There were some serious overtures before Dzagoev's eruptions against the Czech and the Poles. Zenit St Petersburg, where Arshavin blossomed, made one bid, Fiorentina another.

Now, surely, the heavyweights come into play. After pole-axing the Czechs and scoring a brilliant, intuitive header against Poland, Dzagoev insisted, "This isn't about me, it is about the team ... we are comrades and no player can survive without the help of his teammates. We are all dependent on each other."

If he sounds too good to be true, there may be limits on this remarkable altruism of one of soccer's hottest properties. He has let it be known that a move to the Premier League might be an interesting career development -- and to where precisely? Chelsea, he suggested. Perhaps he was just thinking of the medals.

James Lawton writes for The Independent in the UK


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