Arsenal's maverick playmaker will lead Russian charge at the Aviva with his unique brand of creativity
RECENTLY, Andrey Arshavin was asked why he opted for life as a professional footballer. "I did not choose football," he replied. "Football chose me."
You have to be good to get away with such a statement. Arshavin is, and knows it. The Arsenal playmaker has star quality and breathtaking ability, which will keep Giovanni Trapattoni and his defenders busy as they plot a strategy ahead of Friday's highly significant European Championship qualifier in the Aviva Stadium.
Arshavin has never been short of confidence. Tempering it is one of the reasons why he only made his real breakthrough onto the global stage in his late twenties; the diminutive 29-year-old had a lot of growing up to do before he took his place at the top table.
Now, the fate of the Russian national team revolves around his well-being. Ireland's Euro 2012 opponents have been going through a bout of soul searching since their defeat to Slovakia last month, with new coach Dick Advocaat accused of favouring old stagers rather than blooding youth. His argument is that there's a dearth of quality coming through. The bottom line is that nobody is sure where the next Arshavin is coming from.
Luckily for the Russians, the original model still has plenty of mileage left in him and is determined to bring his country back to the stage that effectively made his name.
He was already hot property before his appearance at Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland, after a man-of-the-match display in Zenit St Petersburg's UEFA Cup final win a couple of weeks before. However, he was propelled onto another level with starring performances against Sweden and Holland as Guus Hiddink's charges thrilled their way into the last four before Spain -- with Marcos Senna silencing Arshavin -- triumphed comfortably in that semi.
Nevertheless, the rosy cheeked trickster had made his mark, although the story of his finals in many ways encapsulates the complexity of his character. He missed the first two games of the tournament through suspension, punishment for a ridiculous sending-off in their final qualifying game with Andorra. A daft act, but one which didn't exactly surprise those who had watched him from a young age.
He grew up in St Petersburg, inspired by his late father Sergey, an amateur footballer who failed to deliver on his talents.
Sergey's son was a talented and smart individual with a seriously temperamental streak, even managing to get himself expelled from school for an over-the-top reaction to some test results.
Football was his passion and he came through the ranks at Zenit, his local club, where he broke into the first-team squad as a teenager. He won his first Russian cap at the age of 20 in 2002 yet, when they made it to Euro finals in 2004, Arshavin wasn't in the squad, dogged by the suggestion that he was a messer with a high opinion of himself.
Ex-Zenit coach Vlastimil Petrzela described Arshavin as a "lazy know-it-all child who may never grow up".
The influence of two Dutch coaches would get him back on the right track. Advocaat arrived at Zenit in 2006 and realised that his most capable player was an idiosyncratic type.
Along with a couple of his pals in the dressing-room, Arshavin was disciplined for going clubbing on the night before a league game.
But he was soon displaying all the attributes which earmarked him as a special talent, a goalscoring attacking midfielder with devastating ability and a certain amount of versatility. Zenit won the league in 2007, and he was instrumental in delivering that title.
By then, Hiddink was in charge of the national team. Again, he encountered the quirks, with that sending-off against Andorra a classic example.
But while it cost Arshavin the captaincy, it wasn't going to cost him an opportunity to star at those finals, with Hiddink correctly gambling that his availability for one group game was enough to prolong their involvement in the competition. He noticed a growing maturity.
"In my three years with the Russian team, I changed my opinion of Andrey," said Hiddink last year.
"At first, I thought he was not fully committed to the game for 90 minutes. Now, he is everywhere. It is impossible to lose sight of him -- both on the field and off it.
"He is sociable with his colleagues. I have always regarded him as a good player but Andrey became a better all-round footballer and it appears not only in the game. Due to his intelligence, he understood what is needed to break through at the highest football level."
Arshavin also understands how to capitalise on his fame. In conjunction with his pal Igor Moiseev, he has produced three books.
One contains 555 questions and answers, another is about the UEFA Cup triumph while the third effort was a diary of Euro 2008. He also has a website where he deals with a variety of queries from fans, frequently throwing up a number of forthright opinions.
When he arrived in England, the papers had a field day with Arshavin's frank comments in relation to women -- he said he doesn't believe they should be allowed to either smoke or drive.
Rather than opting for political correctness when pressed, the married father of two stood by his opinions.
"I'm not afraid of going against the grain," he said, when asked about his habit of delving into areas where other footballers are advised not to go.
"I've learned to speak my mind. I'm different. But I'm trying not to be eccentric. I'm always doing what my inner voice tells me."
It took Arshavin a while to settle into London, but he is now an established fixture at the Emirates, evidence that he is able to cope with the consistent pressure in the higher echelons of the game.
Not that everyone is convinced he is a reformed character. In August, Russian agent Vladimir Abramov hit the headlines in his native land by suggesting that Advocaat, who replaced Hiddink, was struggling to cope with a cabal of senior players led by Arshavin, who had reclaimed the captaincy.
"Those are arrogant guys, who love themselves and do not respect the view of elders. They believe they that they have the right to act as they want. Advocaat's hands are itching to get rid of them, but they are damn good football players," he said.
It's been a troubled few months for the Dutchman, and the reverse at home to Slovakia proved a real challenge. After that game in Moscow, the first question from the floor was related to a lack of team spirit. "Nothing we did today suggested we are not a unit," he snapped.
Arshavin promised a swift response from his team. "Now I can say only one thing. We are going to play two more games this year, we will win them and everything will come back to square."
Strong words, which illustrate the importance of this trip to Ireland for the Russians. If they are to accomplish that mission, they will need a big contribution from the fashion design graduate who is capable of delivering his own creative masterclass.