Dmitriy Sychev – The Wonder Boy Who Tripped Over His Own Feet

“At the end of the week, Sychev will decide whether to end his career or not.” These are the words of Vladimir Mukhanov, Dmitriy Sychev’s current, and perhaps, last head coach as a professional football player.

Once, the golden boy of Russian football, the now 32 year old is close to retiring after playing a season in Kazakhstan. When a guy like Sychev goes from being one of the best Russian strikers in the 21st century to considering finishing his career in Kazakhstan, it is clear that something went wrong. Mukhanov is the head coach of the Kazakh side Okzhetpes, where Sychev plays, and his comment doesn’t allow many comments. So what happened to Sychev? Where did it all go wrong for the controversial striker, who is still worshipped as a god among Lokomotiv Moscow fans?

A young Sychev in school

Born into a so called “sport family” in Omsk, it came as little surprise that Sychev dedicated his life to football. His father too was a footballer while his mother was an athlete. The former immediately introduced Dmitriy to the beautiful game, bringing him to the local side Dinamo Omsk’s training sessions as well at games. At school, Sychev’s talent quickly became clear, as he excelled in most sports, including hockey, of which he to this day is still a big supporter. However, unlike many other footballer players, Sychev’s success on the pitch didn’t hurt his academic achievements, and he was also one of the best English speakers in his class, something that later benefited him in his football career.

Inspired by his father, the young Sychev started his career with Dinamo Omsk, and it didn’t take him long to establish himself as an integral part of the team as well as the captain. Sychev himself was a constant threat against the opponents, and from offensive midfield, he scored many goals, something that caught the attention of Russia’s biggest clubs. Consequently, he moved to Saint Petersborg, where he joined the famous football academy Smena. Here he, among others, got to know Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Maksim Astafyev. The former would later become Russia’s greatest goal scorer and establish himself as a St. Petersburg legend, while the latter is now plying his trade for FNL side Tosno, also based in St. Petersburg. Unlike his teammates however, Sychev’s future lay outside of St. Petersburg, as his father couldn’t reach an agreement with Zenit, which meant the family returned to Omsk. The return to Omsk happened shortly after Sychev helped the Russian national team reach the quarterfinals in the U16 Euros in 2000.

 

A young Dmitriy in Dinamo Omsk’s White-Blue kit together with his father Evgeniy.

Sychev during his brief, but succesful, stint at Spartak.

After returning home, Sychev signed a contract with the Second Division side Spartak Tambov, where he joined his teammate from the U16 national team Aleksandr Sheshukov, who now plays for Lokomotiv, and the current Dinamo defender Yuri Zhirkov. Thanks to his versitality, Sychev easily earned a spot in the starting line-up for his new team. The coach Vladimir Kovylin often moved Sychev around, and during his time with Spartak Tambov, he was used as a striker, winger and offensive midfielder. His talent was obvious, and thanks to his agent, Dmitriy got the opportunity to go on trials in both Russia and Europe. He tried out with Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine, Metz and Nantes in France and CSKA and Spartak in the Russian capital Moscow. Metz couldn’t afford his services, and he turned down the offer from Nantes because he didn’t want to play for the reserves team. In the end, he decided to join Spartak Moscow, arguably the biggest club in the country. When Sychev joined the Red-Whites in 2002, the Moscow side had won the league nine out of the last ten seasons.

Sychev made his debut for the ‘Myaso’ against Rostelmash, the current Rostov, on March 8 and only four days later, he scored a decisive double against Shinnik Yaroslavl. His goals made him the second youngest goal scorer in the history of Russian football after his teammate Vladimir Beschastnykh. Sychev went to score six more goals in the next ten games, and thus, after eight goals in 12 matches, he was called up for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. With his 18 years and 222 days, Sychev became the youngest player ever to play for Sbornaya, and he topped this by scoring against Belgium, which made him the fourth youngest goalscorer in World Cup history.

Returning to Moscow, Sychev continued scoring goals, and Europe’s biggest clubs started knocking on Spartak president Andrey Chervichenko’s door. AC Milan, Juventus, Real Madrid and Bayern Münich were all following Sychev closely, especially as he refused to extend his contract with the Red-Whites after he hadn’t been paid since he returned from the World Cup. This was the beginning to much drama between Sychev and his beloved Spartak, as the club tried to force him into signing a new contract. Instead, Sychev delivered a request to get his contract terminated before he joined the national team’s training camp before a friendly against Sweden.

A few weeks later, the Russian Football Union punished Sychev with a four-month suspension for his actions. When the suspension was done he was however free to join whomever he wanted, and he opted for French side Olympique de Marseille.

Celebrating a goal with Ivorian International striker Didier Drogba in Marseille

Sychev got his debut for Marseille on January 14 2003 against Rennes, and, just like at Spartak, he scored his first goal four days later. However, Sychev was struggling, and the presence of the two strikers Egyptian Mido and the Ivorian Didier Drogba stopped his development and kept him out of the starting line-up. A few days after his last game against Metz on January 27 2004, Sychev left France for good when he joined Lokomotiv Moscow.

Just a few seconds before the final whistle of the game against Shinnik that ensured Lokomotiv the title in 2004

Sychev later revealed that he had the option to return to Spartak, but that he preferred the Railroaders because of the visions of the head coach Yuri Semin. At Lokomotiv the now 20 year old Sychev once again got the chance for regular playing time, and he paid Semin back by establishing himself as a key player. At the end of the season, the Red-Greens had secured the title, and Sychev was awarded with the Russian Footballer of the Year award thanks to his eight goals in 13 appearances. Over the year, Sychev had developed an almost telepathic bond with the midfield general Dmitriy Loskov and their good performances earned both of them call-ups for Russia’s 2004 Euro squad.

In 2005, Sychev was among the biggest stars in Russia, and it was once again only considered a matter of time before the biggest club would want his skills again. At the MTV Russia Music Awards he and fellow Lokomotiv star Diniyar Bilyaletdinov performed a rap. Sychev was truly on top of the world. Unfortunately, on August 6 everything changed. During an away game in Kazan, Sychev broke his ligaments and he left the stadium on a stretcher. Without their striker, Lokomotiv couldn’t defend their championship despite having a seven points lead down to CSKA and Zenit, and they finished third.

After being out for seven months, Sychev made his comeback in April against Spartak Nalchik, and 14 days later he helped Lokomotiv beat local rivals CSKA with his first goal in the 2006 season. However, it wasn’t until 2007 when he and Lokomotiv could once again taste the sweet taste of trophy winning, when a goal of the infamous Scottish striker Gary O’Connor secured Lokomotiv the Russian Cup trophy after beating FC Moscow in the final. Sychev was among the best players on the field, and he was also the man behind O’Connor’s goal with an incredible piece of individual skill. Despite winning the cup, the 2006 season ended in fiasco, as the Red-Greens only finished seventh in the league, while they finished last with only one point in an otherwise manageable group in the UEFA Cup.

Sychev and Loskov with the Russian Cup won in 2007

At this point, Semin was long gone, and neither of his successors Anatoliy Byshovets and Rashid Rakhimov managed to get the best out of Sychev as the Railroaders fell further and further away from the top, finishing seventh for the second season in a row. Sychev, now used as a left winger, did however manage to score 13 goals in the 2009 season as Lokomotiv finished fourth, something that resulted in him being the best player of the season according to the fans of the club.

In 2010 Semin once again returned to Lokomotiv, and with him he brought Loskov and the promising Ukranian midfielder Oleksandr Aliev. The expectations were once again high among the fans, but the Red-Greens failed miserably. In the Russian Cup, Lokomotiv were eliminated by minors Gornyak Uchaly, and in the Europa League play off they lost to Swiss side Lausanne, after which Sychev cried on the pitch in disappointment. After finishing in 5th place, Semin was forced to leave Cherkizovo by the president Olga Smorodskaya. Yuri Krasnozhan replaced him and he immediately stated: “Sychev is the only striker in our team. We need to buy three players in this position.” Therefore, Sychev decided to boycott the first training session under the new coach, which lead to the club fining him. However, after a good preseason, Krasnozhan managed to prepare the team to face a tough season and in the first game, the Railroaders humiliated the rivals from Dinamo thanks to a great performance by Sychev.

Despite the good results, Krasnozhan was later sacked. He was replaced by Vladimir Maminov and afterwards by Portuguese coach José Couceiro. Under Couceiro, Sychev finally returned to his old level, and he signed a new contract with Lokomotiv, a contract that would keep him in the club until the end of 2015. Despite the arrivals of foreign stars Victor Obinna and Felipe Caicedo, Sychev continued to score, and he became the second highest goalscorer in the group stage of the Europa League.

Fighting until the end. Sychev during the last game for Lokomotiv, on December 8th 2012 against Volga

His career changed for the worse when Roman Pavlyuchenko joined Lokomotiv from Tottenham at the beginning of 2012. The former Spartak striker was usually preferred over Sychev, and when Dame N’Doye joined Lokomotiv from FC Copenhagen later that year, Sychev’s fate was sealed. On September 16 2012, Sychev was in the starting line-up for Lokomotiv for the last time, when they took on Torpedo Armavir in the 1/16 final of the Russian Cup. Sychev scored a double, but only three months later, he wore the red-green Lokomotiv jersey for the last time, when he got the last 20 minutes on the pitch in a game against Volga Nizhny Novgorod after replacing Denis Glushakov.

Sychev with former Lokomotiv defender Sergey Gurenko in Dynamo Minsk

Forced to leave Lokomotiv, Sychev opted to move to Belarusian side Dinamo Minsk in the winter of 2013 in the pursuit of playing time. Here, he went to score three goals in 15 matches, after missing more than a month due to an injury. Aleksander Golenchuk, a Belarusian football expert, described Sychev’s time with Dinamo Minsk this way: “His arrival had really excited everyone. The White-Blue fans had many hopes for him, as they wanted Sychev to score as many goals as possible.”

Unfortunately, Sychev failed to live up to the high expectations. “Maybe, the expectations were too big for him,” Golenchuk said and continued, “to fulfill his potential in Belarus. It wasn’t until the summer, before he started playing as he did in his youth when ‘goal’ was his middle name. Thanks to him, Dinamo defeated Kruoja in the Europa League, and he started believing in himself again.”

Sychev scored twice against Kruoja, and afterwards he announced that he would join Volga on loan. On July 22nd he made his debut for his new side, when they took on Lokomotiv. Just like in the rest of his matches, Sychev didn’t show much, and he finished the season with zero goals in 16 appearances and Volga were eventually relegated together with Anzhi. During his stint in Nizhny Novgorod, Sychev struggled with injuries, and the financially unstable Volga missed several wage payments as well, something that also took its toll on the players.

During one of the first training with Volga Nizhny Novgorod

Returning to Lokomotiv, Leonid Kuchuk made it clear that he wasn’t going to use Sychev for the upcoming season. Therefore, Sychev went nine months without playing before he joined Kazakh side Okzhetpes on a season loan in March this year, for whom he has so far scored three goals.

Sychev in Okzhetpes

His contract with Lokomotiv expires in November, and he now has to decide whether to continue his career or not. If he retires, it has been speculated that he could join the newly formed Match TV as a pundit, but also that he could dedicate himself fully to the Moscow restaurant Rosso & Bianco, which he owns. While it is unlikely that he will extend his contract with Lokomotiv, he is still an incredibly popular figure among the fans, and most of them would love to see him try to redeem himself before hanging up his boots.

Once one of the most promising strikers in Europe, the 32-year-old Sychev can now look back on a career that is close to the finish line. He has won one Russian championship, one Russian Cup and Super Cup. Furthermore, he was a part of Russia’s 2008 squad, where he, in the absence of Andrey Arshavin, started the first group match against Spain.

Despite these accolades, his name will however always be linked with the inevitable question “What if…?”. Sychev was unlucky to have some serious injuries while at his peak and on top of this the departure of his mentor Semin surely influenced him as well. Afterwards, Lokomotiv turned into a madhouse and the many different coaches over the years destroyed the atmosphere at the club. Sychev is no longer the wonder boy who enchanted the Russian football fans and allowed them to dream of glory. He tripped over his own feet, and no one can help him up now.

Now, all we can do is wait, to find out what the next, and perhaps last chapter, in the book of Sychev is.

 

Stefano Conforti is the Editor-in-Chief at the FCLM Magazine, the only English magazine and blog about Lokomotiv Moscow.


Follow Stefano on Twitter: @ConfortiStefano

Author: Stefano Conforti

Half Russian, half Italian. Football writer and Lokomotiv Moscow supporter. Founder of the FCLMblog, the only blog about Lokomotiv outside Russia, and FCLMmagazine, which is the first magazine in English for an Eastern Europe football club. I’m interested in everything related to Russia and the post-Soviet world.

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