Andrey Arshavin was a nine-year-old prospect making his way through the Smena football academy in St Petersburg when one of his compatriots blazed the trail into English football.
Andrei Kanchelskis joined Manchester United and soon became one of only 13 players from outside Britain and Ireland to take part in the first weekend of the newly-formed Premier League.
Even as the imports boomed, Russians remained a rarity. In 1996, to universal astonishment, Sergei Yuran and Vasili Kulkov, both internationals with pedigree honed at Benfica, Porto and Spartak Moscow, suddenly turned up at Millwall, who were struggling in England's second tier.
"Obviously we have played for some of the great clubs in Europe but this is the pinnacle of our careers," announced Yuran at his official unveiling, before he and his friend flopped spectacularly. Millwall's manager Jimmy Nicholl gave a succinct assessment of Yuran's efforts: "The only thing the other players could have possibly learned from him while he was here was how to steal a living."
With the benefit of a little hindsight, Yuran, whose spell in England is recalled as a drunken blur as he arrived intent to continue his recent wedding celebrations for as long as possible, could not even disagree.
"Jimmy Nicholl even said that I was the most unprofessional player he'd ever met," he says. "And that was true. I gave in to my weaknesses. My honeymoon lasted for six months. I forgot about football. I'd turn up for training after yet another wild night at a disco with my beloved new wife." Yuran and Kulkov lasted six months.
For some reason Russian players who arrive with qualities seemingly perfect for Premier League football tend to lose their powers in England. Roman Pavlyuchenko has never quite lived up to expectation at Tottenham. Yuri Zhirkov came and went at Chelsea. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov has just returned to the Russian league after an unconvincing spell at Everton. But none are quite as puzzling as Arshavin.
When Arsenal signed him in snowbound London at the end of the January transfer window three years ago, the sense of anticipation was palpable.
Here was a player with originality and technique who possessed the kind of talent you could build a team around. Zenit St Petersburg had done that and been brilliantly rewarded with trophies. Russia had done that and captured the imagination at the 2008 European Championship. Arsenal fans had not been so excited by a transfer since Dennis Bergkamp arrived from Italy. "I am Gooner," said Arshavin with that meerkat voice and funny owlish expression. They were smitten.
Fast forward to last weekend and Arshavin was the collateral damage when Arsene Wenger was vilified by Arsenal fans for substituting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Arshavin looked visibly shocked as the boos cascaded down.
Wenger was right to point out later that the opprobrium was not so much directed at Arshavin coming on, but at the hooking of a player who had lit up the game. But when Arshavin went home to reflect upon what had happened, he should have been asking himself this: I have been here for three seasons and am at the age I should be at my peak. I am captain of Russia. I am the club's record signing. Shouldn't I be the one they don't want to see leaving the pitch having played like a dream? Arshavin has for some time looked like a shadow of the player who threatened to dazzle, but now the memory of a luminescent night at Anfield when he scored four goals is a reminder of what might have been.
His body language -- and some might argue his body shape -- has changed considerably. Wenger reiterated how much he "loves" Arshavin as a player and also as a person in the build-up to an FA Cup meeting with Aston Villa, but it must be frustrating to feel that he has not been able to spark the mercurial Russian into a consistent run of form.
Wenger's reluctance to play him in his preferred position, as a classic No 10, is confusing. While it is easy to criticise Arshavin, and he has too easily appeared defeatist, the requirements of a modern winger -- the ability to track back, the stamina to patrol his flank, the pace to beat a full-back -- have never been his major assets. Imagine if Bergkamp, who was a terrible tackler and relied on speed of thought rather than movement, had been asked to play wide left for three seasons. It probably would not have inspired the best from him, either.
Wenger's history of moulding efficient wide attacking midfield players who scored and assisted, which he did to
brilliant effect with Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires, is something he has strained to recreate in recent years with the likes of Tomas Rosicky, Theo Walcott and Arshavin.
Ironically, Arshavin's best performance this season came as a playmaker, roaming from a central position behind the strikers, in a Carling Cup win against Bolton Wanderers.
As an unhappy, under-confident player, a return to Russia is probably best. But with Arsenal's squad so stretched, with attacking options so limited, and with the club unlikely to ring the changes in what's left of this winter window, that's not realistic for now.
The mystery of Arshavin's struggle in England is destined to go on. Observer
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