Mkhitaryan's remarkable journey: from tragic loss to Theatre of Dreams
Henrikh Mkhitaryan's trajectory from a small town in Armenia to Manchester United's Old Trafford is not your typical one. From the tragic early loss of his footballer dad, to his teenage adventure in Brazil, AS explores the story.
Things are starting to go well for Henrikh Mkhitaryan at Manchester United. The Armenian, who joined the English side this summer from Borussia Dortmund, is certainly now getting used to the Premier League, his coach Jose Mourinho, and of course his teammates.
He has been chosen as ‘Man of the Match’ in three of the last four games the Red Devils have played, with goals for good measure, and begun to banish the memory of being one of the players singled out by Mourinho following the Manchester derby earlier in the season. On 10 September, United were outclassed by their local rivals, Guardiola’s City, 1-2 at Old Trafford. Since then, the player has missed 13 matches in all competitions.
However, this past month has been a terrific one for the Armenian striker. It seems as though a weight has been lifted, not least because of hard work, persistence and faith. It’s a quality that resides in his DNA: the ability to never surrender. 'Surrender'. It’s a word that doesn’t even exist in his vocabulary, and his innate resilience is a quality that he got from his father, Hamlet.
Hamlet was one of the first Soviet players allowed to leave the USSR. Thus, in 1989, Henrikh, then only a few months old, moved with his family to Valence, a suburb town on the outskirts of Lyon. A prolific scorer with Ararat Yerevan, Hamlet began playing in the French Third Division. There he gained fame and affection among Valance supporters, firing the team to promotion in 1992. But then fate dealt a blow that would mark the whole family forever.
In 1995, Hamlet was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After three serious operations and long and expensive treatments, Hamlet passed away back in his homeland of Yerevan at the young age of33. Micky, as he was known to those close to him, left his family behind.
For young Henrikh – who as a toddler was always trying to imitate his father, chasing him around the house with a ball and accompanying him to training sessions – football, like his dad, would also be the path he’d chose to follow. He joined the youth categories of Pyunik, a club recognised for its excellent youth set up. Henrikh was a humble lad, one who preferred to read and study rather than to go out. His idea was to educate himself, intellectually as well as in terms of football.
Little by little his development in the game grew and at the age of 14 he gained a four-month scholarship to Brazil. It was in Sao Paulo where he’d coincide with players like Hernanes, Oscar and Lucas Moura, where he’d learn Portuguese, as well as pick up the famous Brazilian footballing flair.
His potential was such that at barely 17 he made his debut for Pyunik against Shirak. It took him just 15 minutes to announce his arrival and find the net. He had the same virtues that characterised his father: a nonnegotiable scoring ability, speed to leave behind his rivals, and an impressive knack for winning.
In 2009, rumours that he might leave Armenia broke out. By then he was already a well-known talent and that same year had won the award for Armenian Player of the Year (since then he’s won it every year with exception of 2010). Mkhitaryan had offers on the table from the likes of Dynamo Kiev, Lokomotiv Moscow and Boca Juniors, although none ended up going through.
He then had trials with French sides Lyon, Olympique Marseille and Lille but ended up at Metalurh Donetsk, a Ukrainian team whose owner was Armenian and a loyal admirer of his father Hamlet. It was here where Mkhitaryan exploded, going on to be named the team’s player of the season for 09/10 and given the captain’s armband. His excellent performances caught the eye of Shakhtar Donetsk, who promptly snapped him up. Mkhitaryan flourished further.
At the same that he was forging a name for himself at club level, Mkhitaryan was also shining for his country, quickly becoming one of the leaders of the Armenian national team. Influenced by the style of play of Zinedine Zidane and Kaka, he soon too became a star at Shakhtar, a side then made up of a broad spectrum of Brazilian players. His knowledge of the Portuguese language helped him breach an important gap between that South American nucleus and coach Mircea Lucescu. He’d score38 goals in 72 games over three seasons, winning three Ukrainian Leagues in the process.
Already famous in Ukraine, in 2013 his name would begin appearing across all of Europe’s major sports media: Borussia Dortmund wanted to incorporate him into their ranks. But there was a problem. The Germans offer amounted to 27.5 million euros, while Zenit St. Petersburg made a higher bid. His rights belonged to Shakhtar, but also a percentage was in the hands of Pyunik and Metalurh. All three craved money from Russia, but eventually he ended up in the Bundesliga.
It was a difficult time for Henrikh. His first season was fantastic, but the second was a complete disaster. With Borussia Dortmund going through a bad patch, Mkhitaryan took flak from the fans; a kind of pressure felt never greater than at a team with the highest attendances in Europe.
However, when young coach Thomas Tuchel took over, he assured the Armenian: "I want to get everything out of you. I'm going to make you a star." And he succeeded. Mkhitaryan became one of the most talked about players on the continent and was named Bundesliga Player of the Year by the prestigious German football magazine Kicker.
A dream come true
Thing were about to get ever bigger. Last summer, his agent Mino Raiola, called him. "Listen to me, United want to sign you. Mourinho’s going and he wants you to be one of his key players." "Are you serious, isn’t it just speculation?" The answer was blunt: "You'll see for yourself."
Days later, it was Ed Woodward himself, United’s chief executive, who’d call to officially inform him of the club’s interest in signing him. And they did.
Now Mkhitaryan’s home is in Manchester, at Old Trafford, the’ Theater of Dreams’. It certainly is a dream fulfilled for this Armenian, but what would his father think of the remarkable journey? "When you go out on Old Trafford's grass, it's not just a pitch. It is a stage,” said Mkhitaryan recently. “If my father could see me there, I think he would be proud of me."