It's always the same when a top-class player is asked why he puts himself through the arduous life of a professional athlete: every player with ability chases success. However, there is one dream shared by practically all pros which has little to do with winning finals or topping tables. It is to appear at a FIFA World Cup™ on home soil.
“I can't imagine there's anything better," French superstar Zinédine Zidane once declared. And both Brazil starlet Neymar and Germany women's icon Fatmire Bajramaj told FIFA.com about “unbelievable delight" and “something really wonderful. respectively"
So it is completely understandable that Yuri Zhirkov is desperate to delight the home crowds at Russia 2018. “Obviously I'm dreaming of that," he told FIFA.com, before pausing a moment to consider. “How old will I be in 2018? 34. So why not? Russia absolutely deserves to stage this World Cup, and I can guarantee that the highest standards will apply to the hosting of the tournament."
However, there are still seven years to go until the historic kick-off in the east of Europe, and the 28-year-old’s current priority is a completely new challenge at club level. The man capped 43 times by his country left leading Premier League outfit Chelsea in early August to join Anzhi Makhachkala in his homeland.
He said: “I was officially unveiled immediately before the league meeting with FC Tom. The stadium was completely sold out and the atmosphere was unbelievable. The club had kept my arrival secret right until the last minute, so the fans were totally surprised when I appeared in front of them."
The player has signed a four-year contract with Makhachkala, who have also brought in the likes of Roberto Carlos in a big-money bid to challenge the dominant Moscow clubs and Zenit. But what happens once the four years are up? “Anything can happen in football, or as we say in Russia, 'never say never'," said Zhirkov. "But for now I'm delighted to be here with Anzhi."
The player agrees that the English Premier League generally rates as the world's top domestic competition, but he feels the Russian top flight is coming on very fast: “The main reason for coming here was the fact I was mainly warming the bench with Chelsea. I desperately wanted to play, and I hope I'll get that here with Anzhi. There was also the fact that my family really wanted to go back to Russia."
A happy and settled family environment and plenty of match practice should benefit the player as he steps up to the challenges ahead. In qualifying for UEFA EURO 2012, the nation that reached the semi-finals at EURO 2008 are currently second in Group B, level on points with leaders Republic of Ireland and third-placed Slovakia. Zhirkov remains convinced the Russians will ultimately claim a place at the finals in Poland and Ukraine. “We just have to play as well as we can, then there'll be no problem."
Giving it everything
Qualifying for EURO 2012 is one thing, but the player's principal focus at international level is on Brazil, venue for the next FIFA World Cup. Portugal, Israel, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan and Luxembourg are Russia's qualifying opponents: “Russia and Portugal are certainly favourites to win the group, and we'll do everything we can to finish top."
Russia missed out on South Africa 2010 after falling to a shock play-off defeat by Slovenia. “I can't guarantee it’ll be better this time, because no-one can guarantee that," said Zhirkov. "But one thing is certain: we'll give it our best shot in every match."