Aleksandr Kokorin’s Reformed Character

Photo: Анна Майер, Евгений Асмолов /

Is there a finer sight in football than the sudden, late blooming of a player believed to be lost forever? A bud thought never to open that reveals its brilliance just as winter approaches. What can be more heartening than the reminder that a player’s potential is never truly wasted until the final whistle of their final game? It is, after all, confirmation that no judgments can be passed or epitaphs penned until a career has concluded.

That said, such reveals are scarce and most player’s paths are destined to remain on one course until the end. Sudden shifts in direction almost never occur and to wait for them would be so hopelessly naive that it would verge on masochism. So, when such a segue takes place, nearly all of us are caught napping.

I was as half-awake as anyone when Zenit St. Petersburg’s striker Aleksandr Kokorin finally found his feet at the dawn of the new season. Struck dumb by his unprecedented surge in form, it seemed so unexpected, so swift, that I was cautious about voicing my approval for fear it would all be over as quickly as it began. In fact, I’ve held off on writing this article just in case my enthusiasm undermined his sudden ascension. Nobody wants to be a jinx. But now, with eighteen games and fifteen goals behind him, I feel relatively safe to comment.

Even in a game as transient as football, Kokorin’s transformation from zero to hero is almost unparalleled. One minute, he was the troublesome tearaway, the epitome of all that was wrong with the modern Russian footballer. The next, he’s Russian youth redeemed and possibly the great hope of the nation as next year’s World Cup rapidly comes into view. Those prone to conspiracy theories might wonder if some kind of switch has occurred. Perhaps the Kokorin of old was a sinister twin bent on destroying his noble brother’s reputation or maybe the striker has been subjected to some new kind of psychological treatment that removes all juvenile idiocy and replaces it with a virtuous focus and work ethic.

More likely, it’s just called growing up. We tend to forget how young many of these players are and how we would have behaved if exposed to the same temptations they encounter on a daily basis. Whilst we moralise about taking pride in the shirt and relishing such a unique opportunity, we lose sight of the pressure, the sudden publicity and the generally crazed nature of modern football. Our surprise should not be aimed at how players can have their heads turned but, rather, at how any one of them manages to retain even a semblance of sanity. In this respect, Kokorin must be lauded not only for his overnight upswing in momentum but for his strength of mind in turning around his trajectory.

No man is an island, however, and external factors surely contributed to this colossal reinvention. It must be said that Roberto Mancini’s arrival at Zenit may well have marked the first time Kokorin came under the tutelage of a club manager that appreciated his untapped potential. André Villas-Boas had been too adrift and Mircea Lucescu too conservative to fully grasp or address the young striker’s weakness for distractions. Cut from a different coaching and cultural cloth, Mancini has encountered his fair share of mercurial strikers as both a player and a manager. Compared to the likes of Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez, Kokorin must have struck the Italian as a model student.

Though this description would not have been offered at any other point in the previous two years. Ever since Kokorin and Russia teammate Pavel Mamaev chose to splash out on champagne at a Monte Carlo nightclub following Sbornaya’s calamitous exit from the Euros last summer, the term most commonly used to describe the boy from Belgorod was ‘national disgrace’.

It’s true that Kokorin’s decision to attend the party and his choice of background music (the Russian national anthem played as bottles of champagne and lit sparklers were brought out by bar staff) didn’t paint a picture of post-defeat decorum. But the deluge of abuse and castigation that followed would be more appropriately aimed at mass murderers and war criminals than two stupid boys who’d been on a night out. Nonetheless, the damage was done and, however unjustly, Kokorin had become the sole focus of the nation’s footballing woes.

Then it was salt in the wound time as he was hurriedly exiled from national duty by incumbent Sbornaya coach, Stanislav Cherchesov. An estrangement that included missing the Confederations Cup and, despite appearing in friendlies against Qatar and Romania, it looked to many as though Kokorin’s days of international football had ended prematurely.

How quickly images can alter. The forward’s irresistible start to this season ensured that a call-up to the national side was inarguable, regardless of previous indiscretions, and he is surely certain to lead the line against South Korea and Iran this month. Top scorer at Zenit, back in the fold for his country, Russia’s answer to Champagne Charlie now looks as glamorous as the fizz that nearly derailed his career. A show-stealing turn at next year’s World Cup would be the consolatory cherry on top of the redemption cake, consigning the young striker’s missteps to the tundra of Russian football memory.

One of Kokorin’s namesakes, Tsar Aleksandr II, liberator of serfs and rehabilitator of the Russian state, was posthumously immortalised as ‘The Great Reformer’. If Aleksandr Kokorin can complete the rehabilitation of his image with triumph in the Russian league and, more valuably, success at his country’s first World Cup next summer, then perhaps ‘The Great Reformed’ would be a fitting moniker.  But, as I said earlier, I wouldn’t want to jinx it.

Author: John Torrie

A writer by trade, John’s love of Russia led to him embracing the motherland’s beautiful game. As with everything he loves, John just had to write about it and that’s why he’s here.

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