Armenia, like so many of the former Soviet states, was a difficult place to live in the 1980s. As the end of communist rule appeared on the horizon, hopes of a better future, of a free market and a free society which could govern itself, began to take hold. By 1991, a year after Armenia had declared sovereignty, independence was declared, paving the way for a new direction.
It was in this clash of cultures, identities and history that Henrikh Mkhitaryan was born in Yerevan in 1989, the city of a million souls and one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth. But if the prospect of a better Armenia drove many to rebuild the nation in its own image, life for a young Henrikh would be turned upside by 1996.
Hamlet Mkhitaryan, Henrikh’s father, was considered one of the finest talents to come from Armenia in the 1980s, shining for Ararat Yerevan as a dynamic, quick-footed second striker. At a time when the Soviet Top League could stake a claim as one of the world’s best, Hamlet – strikingly similar to his son in build, style and looks – was a star, winning multiple awards in Moscow and being courted by some of the nation’s biggest clubs.
Despite the interest, Hamlet would retain his place in Armenian folklore by signing for ASOA Valence, a French club with Armenian roots, proudly representing the diaspora in south-central France. Helping the club rise to Ligue 2, Hamlet would establish himself as one of the club’s greatest players, wowing locals with both his dribbling skills and the countless stories from the Soviet Top League, where he went toe-to-toe with some of the greatest footballers in history.
Naturally, Hamlet’s quality on the football pitch and the respect he had earned in both Armenia and France made him a young Henrikh’s idol. Following in the same footsteps with a love of football from an early age, Henrikh would join his father at training sessions, study his every move and register his dreams to emulate – better even – his idol.
Then, without a care for the bond between father and son, a brain tumour changed the world lines for Hamlet and Henrikh. Unable to carry on his career, the elder Mkhitaryan decided that his final few months would need to be back in Yerevan, surrounded by family and friends in a country he was fiercely patriot about.
In May 1996, aged just 33, and a mere seven years after Henrikh was born, Hamlet Mkhitaryan died. The impact on a young Henrikh was profound, as he explained in an interview with The Guardian: “He was my drive, so he was my motivation because when I was young he was playing football professionally and I was always dreaming to go with him to the training ground.
“He was 33 years old, I was seven years old at the time … it is a pity but that’s life. The life continues and I hope he is proud looking at me from the sky so I try to do everything to make him proud. I’m sad because I think he could have helped me with his words and his support, but that’s life. I’m trying to do everything with my family members, my friends, who are watching me every day, every game, so they are trying to help me to say what I did wrong and what I did well and I try to improve myself.”
Without his father for guidance, Henrikh, more focused than ever in his quest to become a footballer, needed a new idol. Enter Youri Djorkaeff.
It was during Hamlet’s time in France that the Mkhitaryan family became close with the Djorkaeffs. Much like their Armenian friends, Youri’s father, Jean, who shone for Lyon and Marseille, was one of the best players of his generation, and he too was an inspiration for his young son. It was against this backdrop that Henrikh Mkhitaryan first encountered Youri Djorkaeff. What followed has been a lifelong friendship, with one particular photo of a young Mkhitaryan and a Djorkaeff on his way to footballing immortality a poignant reminder of their past.
Back in Yerevan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan continued to excel – both on and off the pitch. Now at FC Pyunik, one of the nation’s most popular and successful sides, he quickly rose through the ranks, making his debut as a 17-year-old in 2006, a decade after his father’s untimely demise.
Mkhitaryan was also an outstanding student, eventually studying economics at the St Petersburg Institute – a course that had to be put on hold due to his burgeoning football career. The midfielder has stated that he plans on completing his degree once he retires.
Three spectacular years at Pyunik rendered a number of trophies and individual accolades, fast being recognised as the best Armenian talent in a generation, capable of reaching the very top of the game. Despite that, the game in Armenia is, even today, despite Mkhitaryan’s success, little-known outside of the Caucasus region. Perhaps that’s why Metalurh Donetsk were the biggest club willing to take a gamble on the young star.
Hitting the ground running, Mkhitaryan scored 16 goals in 45 matches for Metalurh, cementing his position as one of the Ukrainian top-flight’s best young midfielders. With suitors now coming in from across the country and Russia, it was the Mircea Lucescu powerhouse of Shakhtar Donetsk, city rivals of Metalurh, who bagged their man for a lofty £6 million.
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Shakhtar would romp to the title in his first season, 2010/11, with their Samba stars in Willian and Luiz Adriano stealing much of the plaudits. Despite their dominance at home, it would be a quiet first season for Mkhitaryan, with numerous appearances off the bench as he played second fiddle to the Brazilians.
Without a hint of second season syndrome, the Armenian would stamp his authority at the club, playing across the front three but often from wide. With Willian continuing to grow in the number 10 role, Douglas Costa was limited to a bench-warming role for much of the season as the direct running of Mkhitaryan, his trickery and, above all else, his movement in the final third made him Lucescu’s favoured winger. His ability to defend from the front also helped in a Shakhtar side that excelled at pressing.
Finishing with 10 league goals, third only to Yevhen Seleznyov and Luiz Adriano at the club, his blip began registering on radars across Europe. Still, though, he hadn’t done enough to convince the majority of his talent. In a season in which the likes of Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko would become household names in Europe thanks to their performances at club and international level, Mkhitaryan was still considered a rung down.
The 2012/13 season would change all of that. In a breakout campaign stunned onlookers, Skakhtar romped to the league title, scoring 82 goals in 30 games and conceding just 18, finishing a mighty 13 points clear of second place Metalist. At the heart of everything was Mkhitaryan. The midfielder finished with 25 goals in 29 league games and two in eight as Shakhtar qualified from their Champions League group, beating Chelsea to second place courtesy of a better head-to-head record.
Mkhitaryan had gone from respected midfield talent to one of Europe’s best in 12 months. His movement was becoming more intelligent by the game, with his darting diagonal runs reminiscent of Robert Pires at his best for Arsenal. His ability to find a key pass, link-up play and drift across the final third looked so natural. There was no restrictive coaching in his game; he was free to roam and take up positions where the likes of Fernandinho, Douglas Costa and Alex Teixeira could find him. Willian had gone, but Shakhtar had gained a better player from within.
Inevitably, such form would raise alarm bells around Europe, with the big clubs all clamouring to head the queue for his signature. With rumours rife regarding a potential move to England, it was Borussia Dortmund who showed their hand first and duly secured Mkhitaryan’s signature for £22 million. Jürgen Klopp, who had praised Mkhitaryan after the Dortmund-Skakhtar clash in the first knockout round of the Champions League during the previous season, had got his man.
Any hint that the biggest fee ever paid for an Armenian footballer would weigh on his shoulders was quashed as Mkhitaryan hit the ground running. He was the perfect Klopp footballer – high energy, intelligent and capable of excelling in both transitions. He could press, distribute well, and maraud forward from midfield. His versatility was a bonus.
Despite reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League, bowing out to a narrow 3-2 aggregate defeat against Real Madrid, Bayern Munich romped to the Bundesliga title, casting their rivals to the side. Mkhitaryan, in what now seems a fantasy front four of Marco Reus, Robert Lewandowski, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the Armenian, finished as the fourth-highest scorer in his debut season, winning the praise of the Dortmund faithful, particularly for his league performances.
Despite the promise of 2013/14, the next season would be one of consolidation after the loss of Lewandowski to Bayern, with a sixth-place finish in the Bundesliga enough to secure Europa League football in 2015/16. Mkhitaryan’s form also suffered, with the goals drying up and his influence at its lowest point in two years.
The new season brought with it new hope. While the league title would again be won by Guardiola’s Bayern and the Europa League was exited at the quarter-final stage after a dramatic 4-3 loss at Anfield against Klopp’s Liverpool, it would be the season in which Mkhitaryan cemented himself as one of Europe’s best players.
Registering 15 assists in the Bundesliga, four more than his nearest rival, Karim Bellarabi, he would be crowned the Bundesliga Players’ Player of the Season. Despite the accolade and his game reaching new levels, three years at the Westfalenstadion had yielded a solitary DFL-Supercup in 2014. It felt like that best had passed, that Mkhitaryan had joined a club that would have to settle for a place in Bayern’s shadow for some time yet.
He had notched 41 goals and 49 assists in just 140 Dortmund appearances, but tangible success was still hard to come by. For a humble, quiet individual like Mkhitaryan, team success helps deflect the attention on himself, and he would have surely traded his individual accolades for the title. As it goes, it wasn’t to be, and, with rumours of a move to Liverpool persistent for 12 months, heightened by Klopp’s move to Merseyside, the Armenian decided his time in Germany was up.
With just a year left on his contract, Dortmund accepted Manchester United’s £28 million bid – a fee that to many at the time represented one of the bargains of the summer – and Mkhitaryan was off. He would join José Mourinho’s revolution at Old Trafford.
Made to wait for a chance to stake his place in the team, Mkhitaryan’s time in England has been stop-start, littered with equal moments of brilliance and anonymity. You get that impression that while Mourinho rated his talent, he often didn’t see Mkhitaryan as a key member of his first-choice side, hence why he sanctioned his move to Arsenal as part of the Alexis Sánchez deal. What that means for his long-term future is up for debate, however Arsenal now have a player who, just 18 months ago, was regarded as one of Europe’s best. And rightly so.
Without the freedom to roam in the final third and make his darting runs across the back line and in the space between defence and midfield, it was always unlikely that United fans would see the best of Mkhitaryan, at least not consistently. He remains as clever and hard-working as any attacking midfielder, and, at 28, still has his best years ahead of him. Perhaps Arsène Wenger will be the man to grant him the freedom he needs.
Whatever happens between now and the end of Mkhitaryan’s career, he’s an individual who has changed the face of Armenian football. Once a little-known backwater of the Caucasus region, talent is fast emerging from the nation, and with Mkhitaryan leading the national team, brighter days are surely ahead. Boasting 25 goals in 70 games – a spectacular record for a smaller side in Europe – he’s already one of the nation’s greatest players, topping the charts for both assists and goals.
The next step in Mkhitaryan’s career will be to help blood a new generation of talent. The game is growing faster than ever, in part due to Mkhitaryan’s high profile, with professionalism slowly improving and facilities being modernised.
From the streets of the ancient city of Yerevan to the glitz of France and back again, life was tough for Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He doubted his place in the world after his father’s death, but worked to improve on the natural ability he had as a footballer at every session. It took him from Armenia to Manchester, courtesy of some memorable stops in Ukraine and Germany.
With a litany of personal accolades under his belt, he has surely made his father proud, bettering Hamlet’s achievements in the game and his humility off the pitch. As for his other idol, Youri Djorkaeff, this wonderful photo says it all.
By Omar Saleem @omar_saleem