AT THE END OF THE SUBLIME, cinematically perfect 2008/09 season, Barcelona stood apart from their rivals. La Liga champions, Copa del Rey winners and Champions League conquerors, this was a team not often seen in football, regardless of time or place. Exhibiting an irrefutable blend of flair, craft and spirit, Barcelona had reached their Promised Land, and they had done it under the thrilling vision of one of their favourite sons, Pep Guardiola.
Yes, such was the magisterial, expectation-shattering nature of Guardiola’s debut season at the Camp Nou that he was practically given free rein to assault the transfer market in any way he saw fit. As it were, fit turned out to be Zlatan Ibrahimović, the club’s £59 million present to Guardiola for deposing Real Madrid as the kings of Spain and Manchester United as the kings of Europe.
What happened next needs no retelling. Ibrahimović and Guardiola’s notoriously uneasy relationship led to the Swedish striker’s exit from Catalonia just 12 months later, when he was loaned to AC Milan. Ibrahimović’s troubles and eventual departure from Barcelona sparked a level of debate and intrigue which made the equally curious story of Dmytro Chygrynskiy’s exit seem like a funny little footnote.
Chygrynskiy was Guardiola’s other transfer mishap that summer. He was the gangling Ukrainian centre-half who arrived at Barcelona for the tidy fee of £20 million during the same summer that saw Ibrahimović unveiled to more than 55,000 fans. But there was decidedly less fanfare for this long-haired, accentuated figure who arrived at the world’s best club with no shortage of hope and mystique, but left rather ignominiously, condemned to be an inclusion on ‘worst transfer’ lists for years to come.
But perhaps Chygrynskiy deserves more than that. He was far from a great defender, but he was also the victim of circumstance. Chygrynskiy, against Guardiola’s wishes, was sold back to Shakhtar Donetsk for £15 million having amassed only 851 minutes of playing time at Barcelona. Although Guardiola saw in Chygrynskiy a great deal of promise, the club’s president, Sandro Rosell, was unmoved by the Ukrainian and demanded his sale to alleviate the economic plight gripping the club at the time.
Returning to his native country with his reputation as an emerging defender besmirched, we were left to wonder how his career might have panned out had Guardiola been afforded the time to work closely with the player. Instead, we’re left with a Barcelona career that never was, and a career that never quite returned to being the same.
Chygrynskiy, a man with an enviable mane of hair and a surname loaded with typo potential for even the most adroit match reporter, established himself as an emerging talent at Shakhtar before he had reached his 20s. After making his debut aged 17, he embarked on a productive loan spell at Metalurh Zaporizhzhya, which helped hone his nascent skill set into something worthy of Shakhtar’s first-team.
Chygrynskiy had been thrown into the heat of battle at Shakhtar and – understandably – he found it tough going. His senior debut came in the Champions League, against Barcelona no less, in 2005 and following that game he admitted to feeling the nerves. Shakhtar manager Mircea Lucescu conceded that Chygrynskiy’s time was nigh, but both parties would have to exercise patience before the youngster developed. The loan move to Metalurh was the right move at the time, and it paid off.
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During the 2006/07 season, Chygrynskiy cemented his place at the heart of the defence in Lucescu’s side that also contained Fernandinho, Darijo Srna and Elano. Although Shakhtar couldn’t win the title that year, Chygrynskiy captained his team to the cup final, a 2-1 defeat to Dynamo Kyiv.
Following a string of impressive performances, Chygrynskiy’s name began popping up on European scouting reports more frequently. During the 2007/08 campaign, his influence continued to grow as Shakhtar won a league and cup double, the centre-back experiencing a sweet redemption with a cup final win over Dynamo, in which he was named man of the match.
In a Shakhtar team brimming with exciting Brazilian talent, Chygrynskiy continued to exude a sense of authority and reliability at the back, and duly continued to attract admiring glances from potential suitors. He rebuffed offers from around Europe to continue with Shakhtar for the 2008/09 season, recognising that it was not yet time to turn his back on regular starting football under Lucescu.
In his final season, Chygrynskiy helped Shakhtar to what was still the UEFA Cup, beating Werder Bremen in the final. However, it was in that competition’s illustrious big brother, the Champions League, that Chygrynskiy captured the attentions of his future employers at Barça. Shakhtar finished third in their Champions League group, behind Barcelona and Sporting CP, but Chygrynskiy impressed during both games against Guardiola’s men.
In the final group game, at Camp Nou, Barça fielded a weakened side having already been assured of progress to the last-16, as Shakhtar chased third spot and a berth in the UEFA Cup’s latter rounds. Chygrynskiy opportunistically treated the game as an audition. At that point, he was aware of increased interest in him and knew that a strong performance against a side of Barça’s clout would go a long way.
It did just that. Shakhtar won the game 3-2 but Chygrynskiy left an indelible impression on Guardiola, who earmarked the young defender as a prime transfer target for that summer. Guardiola instructed Barcelona’s sporting director, Txiki Begiristain, that he wanted back-up for Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol in defence, so the executive proceeded in the necessary fashion and began laying the groundwork for the transfer.
Chygrynskiy played against Barcelona in the 2009 European Super Cup, which was won by Pedro’s strike deep into extra-time, but that was to be his send-off. The 22-year-old’s transfer to the newly-crowned champions of Europe was agreed in advance of the match but, to allow Chygrynskiy one last match – or so he thought – in Shakhtar colours, it would not be finalised until after the game.
Having been given the appropriate Shakhtar swansong, Chygrynskiy’s transfer to Barcelona was announced. Guardiola had got his man. Considering the season the Blaugrana had just completed, they would have been entitled to pursue any defender, but their visionary leader had reaffirmed his desire to land Chygrynskiy.
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At the time it seemed as though the transfer was a great piece of business. An ageing Rafael Márquez was prone to injuries, making the centre of defence an area much in need of strengthening for Guardiola’s slick, all-conquering machine. Chygrynskiy appeared to fit Guardiola’s requirements, too; astute, technically sound and comfortable with the ball at his feet, the prospect of the pair working together seemed like it would bear fruit in the years to come. However, football is rarely that free of complications.
With hair extending below his shoulders and a slender frame, Barcelona fans would have been forgiven for thinking they had signed the leader singer in a Grand Funk Railroad tribute band, not the most expensive defender in the club’s history.
A colossus of a defender with socks hanging down around his calves and a Master’s degree in Intellectual Property, Chygrynskiy was an intriguing prospect for those unacquainted with his exploits up until that point. Guardiola wasn’t interested in his proclivity for liberal arts, though. The coach had instead studied the defender’s capacity to bring the ball out of defence, his positional awareness and a simple, unhurried style that was easy on the eye.
With Piqué and Puyol firmly established as the club’s first-choice defensive partnership, Chygrynskiy was a long way off usurping either of them when he arrived, but the idea was for him to progress steadily under Guardiola’s tutelage. He was ineligible for Barça’s Champions League defence, but that didn’t worry Guardiola as Chygrynskiy was a long-term prospect. He was not expecting the Ukraine international to explode onto the scene but to adapt to a new culture and way of playing with the ultimate goal of being a long-term successor to Puyol.
Chygrynskiy has been rumoured as a lover of jazz and, although his play at Barcelona failed to mirror the tones of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, his debut was encouraging, playing the full 90 minutes in a 2-0 victory away at Getafe. Following the match, Chygrynskiy offered an upbeat assessment on his first experience rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta: “I want to thank my teammates and coaches because they gave me confidence, which is very important for a player – I am very pleased.”
In that same interview, Chygrynskiy revealed a glimpse into one of the many problems he would encounter during his time at Barça – the language barrier: “Everyone speaks Spanish, and I expect that I will be able to learn it. It is difficult now, but it is a question of time. For now, Piqué and Yaya Touré speak to me in English, but I want to learn Spanish.”
In truth, it wasn’t so much the spoken word that tripped Chygrynskiy up as it was Barcelona’s football language, the way the players communicated Guardiola’s ideals and vision to the rest of the world. The sleight of foot, the intricate triangular passing, the precise one-twos – they were facets of Barça’s almighty footballing symphony Chygrynskiy found unintelligible.
Guardiola continued to work behind the scenes with Chygrynskiy. He afforded him precious few starts, which was not aided by niggling injuries, and while that was not enough to shatter the player’s confidence, the merciless whistles from his own supporters were. They arrived, like a cacophonous wave of daggers to the heart, during Barcelona’s 2-1 defeat to Sevilla in the Copa del Rey.
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With the score locked at 1-1, Chygrynskiy was caught out of position as Diego Capel raced past him. With the Sevilla attacker bearing down on goal, Chygrynskiy hauled him down in a professional foul, conceding a penalty, from which Álvaro Negredo converted. That sequence of events came as the nadir of a torrid evening for the out-of-sorts defender, who had misplaced passes and missed tackles on several occasions. As a result, the home supporters inside the Camp Nou expressed their frustrations in no uncertain terms, filling the arena with whistles towards their own struggling player.
Chygrynskiy’s head dropped as it looked as though the ground was about to swallow him up. Guardiola came out in defence of him following the game, saying: “Dima is a fantastic player and the more he gets whistled the more support we will give him because he has many years ahead of him here. It will cost him more than others (to settle in) because of where he has come from and the price we paid but if anyone is responsible it’s me not him.”
Guardiola was once again plain in his assessment of the “fantastic” Chygrynskiy, but the player’s own comments reflecting on his troubles at Barcelona painted a different picture entirely: “When I signed for Barça I didn’t think I was going to play without any problems immediately, but nor did I know it was going to be so hard. Here there’s more pressure from people and from the media and the style of play is also very different to Ukraine. One thing is desire, another is reality.”
He didn’t think playing for Barcelona would be so hard. That is, perhaps, a revealing nugget of self-assessment. Not treating a move to Barcelona as the mightiest challenge he’d ever faced was a fatal flaw from the outset, and he’d somewhat sheltered himself from facing up to the reality, as he put it. That’s certainly not to accuse Chygrynskiy of complacency or a lack of professionalism, but such insights into his mentality leave us with an inescapable conclusion that he was unprepared for the intense rigours of elite football.
Guardiola is not wired that way. He saw, somewhere beyond the lumbering performances, a good player in there. Unfortunately, he was never going to be given the chance to turn it around. A few months later, Chygrynskiy was gone, sold back to Shakhtar. Guardiola was less than thrilled but Sandro Rosell, the president who succeeded Joan Laporta, insisted that selling Chygrynskiy was essential to boost the club’s finances. Considering Chygrynskiy’s fractious relationship with the fans, Rosell knew there wouldn’t be many tears shed over the player’s departure.
And that was that. Chygrynskiy returned to Ukraine but never re-established himself quite in the same manner as his pre-Barça pomp. At the moment, he can be found at AEK Athens, and although he is only 30, the chances of him reappearing at a level equating to Barcelona seem slim at best.
Sometimes a big-money move to a dream club simply doesn’t work out, be it down to a lack of form, persistent injury woes or a sense of overwhelming sense of expectation. Of course, it’s also important to remember that not every player is Zlatan Ibrahimović. The Swede is blessed with an extraordinary work-rate and desire to remain at the top. He didn’t allow his disappointing spell at Barcelona hamper his stardom, but a different personality, like Chygrynskiy’s, will react differently.
It’s only one in an endless list of reminders of how cut-throat this game is at the highest level.
By Matt Gault @MattGault11