MANCHESTER, England — Henrikh Mkhitaryan would be forgiven for not wanting to take his work home with him. His first season in the Premier League has, after all, been a demanding one, enough to make anyone cherish any chance at all to switch off.
There has been the battle to win a place and establish his presence at Manchester United; a collection of wonderful, occasionally gravity-defying goals once he settled in; and then, as the campaign reached its climax, a relentless workload — games piling up in great drifts, culminating in Wednesday’s Europa League final against Ajax in Stockholm.
That would be enough, but Mkhitaryan has always been one of those players who struggle to relax. Early in his career, he tended to switch off his phone for “three days before a game,” so determined was he to focus on the task in hand.
Looking back, at 28, he knows that such intensity was unhealthy; he often felt “sad” for days after games, brooding over every perceived error, reproaching himself for every defeat, screening the calls of his friends and family in case he took out his frustration on them.
Credit Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Sergei Supinsky/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Matthias Hangst/Bongarts, via Getty Images
He is better at it now, he says, persuaded that it was counterproductive if his “muscles were tense all the time,” but even now it remains a deliberate thing, requiring a conscious effort. He finds it hard to take it easy.
It is eight years now since Mkhitaryan left. In the intervening years, he has played for four clubs (Metalurh and Shakhtar Donetsk, in Ukraine; Borussia Dortmund in Germany; and now United) and picked up four languages (English, German, Russian and Ukrainian) to add to the three that he already spoke (Armenian, French and Portuguese).
He initially agreed to go to Ukraine “for six months, maybe a year,” assured by Metalurh’s Armenian owner that he would be able to return home if he could not settle there. He found being “so far away from my family” a challenge.
When he moved across the city of Donetsk to Shakhtar, he lived in the club’s training facility; he was nicknamed the President by his teammates. It was only at Dortmund that he agreed to take a club-recommended apartment. It was still difficult — he said he needed a year “to understand German, and 18 months to speak it.”
In retrospect, of course, it has all been worth it. Mkhitaryan already ranks as the finest player his country has produced, and should United beat Ajax on Wednesday, he will be the first Armenian to win a major European trophy.
In his eyes, that is more than a piece of trivia. There is a particular burden on high-profile athletes from low-profile countries; voluntarily or not, they are compelled to play the part of ambassador and evangelist for their nations, charged with presenting the country’s face to the world.
He has become a regular at the Armenian Taverna, sandwiched between a dry cleaner and a bank in the heart of the city. It has been there since 1968, but only since Mkhitaryan started popping in, once a week or so, has it started to attract the flashbulbs of the paparazzi. It is his little echo of home. “The new Armenia in Manchester is in the city center,” he said. “Near me.”
It is a subject close to his heart, one he learned in school that remains “central” to the identity of all Armenians, he said. The film is not the usual cinematic fare for players — Mkhitaryan has not discussed it with his teammates, he said; he suspects they would not be interested — but it left him profoundly moved. “To watch it, I was sad in one way and proud in another,” he said.
To some extent, he has an even broader symbolism in the sporting sense. Mkhitaryan is one of only a current handful of players from the former Soviet states at one of the biggest teams in one of Europe’s elite leagues. Schalke’s Ukrainian winger, Yevhen Konoplyanka, is the only other active one he can name.
“No scouts come to Armenia,” Mkhitaryan said. “And in Russia and Ukraine, because the money is good, the players prefer to stay there, not to come to Europe and develop as footballers.”