Aleksandr Golovin's rapid emergence making him a Russian football icon
Aleksandr Golovin's first coach lost his right hand in a mining accident. That is hardly unusual in the tiny town of Kaltan, Russia, which is considered peripheral even by Siberian standards. Most of its 20,000 residents are connected to mining industry, but Golovin wanted to choose a different path. At the age of five he told his father that he was going to become a footballer, no matter what.
It is not a trivial task to fulfil such a dream when you live so far away from everything, even if you are exceptionally talented. For Golovin, who had always been one of the slimmest kids, it was even harder. He was nicknamed "Chick" because of his build and looks, but had the tenacity and determination of a terrier.
When asked about his role models as a youngster, he mentioned two names. One is Zinedine Zidane, who was in his prime when Golovin started watching football. Real Madrid are forever Golovin's favourite team. The other is Alexey Smertin. There is a good reason behind that one, because the slightly built former midfielder grew up in Barnaul and progressed all the way to Chelsea.
Kaltan is just 300 kilometers from Barnaul, thus Golovin could easily relate to Smertin when imagining a seemingly impossible move to the Premier League. It feels real nowadays, as Arsenal were reportedly considering signing Golovin from CSKA Moscow this summer. Nothing came out of it yet, but his teammates believe that he should be a success in England.
"Golovin should not be out of place at Chelsea. He is the best young player in Russia at the moment," CSKA stalwart Vasily Berezutsky said.
The biggest step had already been made. It might sound quite incredible, but the distance between his hometown and Moscow is more than the distance between Moscow and London. This was a meteoric rise for someone who was a bench warmer at a small Siberian academy in Leninsk-Kuznetsky as recently as 2011. He worked harder than others, though, and had good basics after mostly training at futsal in his childhood. There is just one regular-sized football pitch in the whole of Kaltan, and it is poorly maintained, even without considering the cold winters.
Those futsal sessions proved to be handy to improve dribbling and passing. When Golovin became a bit stronger physically and got a chance at Leninsk-Kuznetsky, he shone enough to be called into the Siberia XI for a tournament that took place in Crimea in 2012.
That is where he was spotted by CSKA youth scouts, and the rest is history. Less than a year later, he was already part of the Russia squad that won the gold medals at the European Under-17 Championships.
Playing in UEFA Youth League against the likes of Manchester City and Bayern Munich did Golovin's development no harm. Russian clubs are notoriously reluctant to give chances to young players, but CSKA coach Leonid Slutsky saw something special in the versatile midfielder and took him under his wing. The prodigy made his league debut in March 2015 at the age of 18. Three months on, fans were astonished to find his name on Fabio Capello's national team squad.
That was indeed bizarre, because Golovin scored on his international debut before starting a single league match for CSKA. Those were desperate times for Russia, just before Capello was belatedly fired, and most pundits disregarded his decision as a bad joke. Yet, remarkably, just a year later Golovin was in the starting lineup at Euro 2016 under Slutsky.
He was lucky to be there, of course. The midfielder only broke into the CSKA starting lineup in the beginning of 2016 and never expected to go to the big tournament despite making some positive headlines, especially after scoring a magnificent brace against Krasnodar in the Russian Cup. However, with both Alan Dzagoev and Igor Denisov suffering untimely injuries just before the Euros, Slutsky decided to gamble on his favourite protege.
The coach combined two positions at the time, and later revealed that working with Golovin was the major motivation to remain at CSKA.
"Preparing a player is one of the most important goals. When Golovin appeared and started progressing very quickly, I put a lot of effort into him. I really felt for him, and only wanted to leave the club when he is a certain starter, regardless of my successor's name. It is like a child who doesn't need his parents anymore," Slutsky said.
The mentor resigned in late 2016 and now works at Hull City, who were also mentioned as potential suitors of Golovin. The Tigers won't have the necessary funds to lure him away from CSKA, though, because he has become a star already. His place is certain not only for the club, but for country as well -- he didn't miss a minute of play at the Confederations Cup this summer and is considered the cornerstone ahead of the World Cup.
Golovin is far from a finished article yet, but his influence is obvious. He feels at ease in every position in midfield, be it playmaker, box-to-box warrior, winger or holding lynchpin. His defensive skills were not sufficient in the past, but now the tackling had improved beyond recognition.
"I watched a lot of videos of from Italy, and also thoroughly studied the game of my favourite defensive midfielder, N'Golo Kante," he said.
Russian football is way too slow, but Golovin is different. He is light-footed and a quick thinker. He makes things happen, and his all-around style could prove difficult to handle when he is on song. His levelheadedness is a crucial asset too -- CSKA are the best Russian club to grow up at in that respect, and the youngster can't forget his Siberian roots anyway, especially because his parents still live in Kaltan.
In short, one can see why the midfielder could attract Arsene Wenger's attention. Golovin is a self-confessed Arsenal fan as well, even though Real remain the biggest dream.
Last season, with Slutsky still on the bench, Golovin impressed when CSKA lost to Tottenham in the Champions League. This time, a year older and more experienced, he is about to take on Manchester United on Wednesday, and the Gunners are certain to pay close attention.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin