How Oleksandr Zinchenko has stood up as a true leader in Ukraine’s fight ahead of Wembley welcome
Oleksandr Zinchenko will proudly lead Ukraine out at Wembley on Sunday.
Skipper Zinchenko is a symbol of Ukrainian defiance against the Russian invasion of his homeland and the talisman his country hopes can lead them to an upset against England.
President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke only this week about his “love” for the 26-year-old, who has become an Arsenal leader and a driving force behind their title push.
It is remarkable that Zinchenko has been able to perform at such a high level while there has been so much grief and turmoil in his life. But he wants to use his platform to fight the war in a different way.
“It has been very difficult for him at times, but he has been very strong,” says his best friend and business partner, Artemy Ryabov. “I am proud of how he copes. He remains angry about the situation. He wants his country to win the war at any cost. People are still dying every day, so we don’t want people to forget about that.
“People sometimes ask him why he is not on the battlefield. We just need to understand that everyone has his role. We are trying to help with donations and just keeping attention on the situation in Ukraine.
“He wrapped the flag around the Premier League trophy when he won it [with Manchester City] last season, it was symbolic, and he hopes he can do it again with Arsenal, and he wants to do it for Ukraine.”
Zinchenko has starred for Arsenal under Mikel Arteta since his £32million move from City last summer.
Ryabov explains how he was reluctant to leave City and only the combination of Arteta and Arsenal could have tempted him away.
“He was happy at City,” he says. “He always said to me that the only other coach he wanted to play for was Arteta. He worked with him at City, he could see he was building the team in the same way that Pep did.
“It’s true that he was an Arsenal fan as a kid, so the move was a dream come true. We even painted his gym in Arsenal’s colours, because that’s where he belongs. Arteta has given Alex a massive role for his team. It was a win-win for both the club and the player.”
Zinchenko has been made to feel at home in north London. Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard last month gave him the armband to mark a year since the Russian invasion started, while the Arsenal Foundation help support his Football for Ukraine charity.
Arsenal fans are constantly reaching out to him, too.
At Arsenal, you can see how important he is for the team.
“People just stop us on the street to check how he and his family are doing,” says Ryabov. “For Ukrainian athletes like him, it is about showing how good people in the country can be. It was an honour that Zelensky recognised him and the other players recently.
“He is one of the captains for Ukraine and has always been a leader, always. Maybe you didn’t see it at City with all the personalities, but you can’t imagine how important he was behind the scenes. Now, at Arsenal, you can see how important he is for the team.”
It promises to be another emotional day for Zinchenko and his team-mates on Sunday, with 1,000 Ukrainian refugees living in Britain attending the Euro 2024 qualifier at Wembley as guests of the FA and millions more watching in basements and bomb shelters 1,500 miles away.
Zinchenko often plays in midfield for Ukraine, and England will need to pay special attention to a player who is turning into a star in his own right at Arsenal.
“He wasn’t a star when I met him, but now he probably is,” says Ryabov. “He remains the same person, though. We eat at the same restaurants, he spends time with his family, works hard, never goes out and hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol. He is the same guy, but people now want his picture!”