It’s been quite the year for Spartak forward, Yura Movsisyan. After making the move to Moscow last winter from another Russian club, FC Krasnodar, Movsisyan has bagged a pair of hat-tricks, scored 22 goals in 32 appearances, and emerged as one of the young guns on a rising Armenia side. Spartak, meanwhile, are 3rd in the league, just three points behind Zenit and Lokomotiv.
Though he’ll miss the final two matches of 2013 due to knee surgery, the 26 year old was on fire all autumn, racking up eight goals in his final seven appearances, including strikes against Bulgaria and Italy in World Cup qualifying. After 17 league matches, he’s tied with Artem Dzyuba for top scorer on 12 goals. And assuming he’s fit when play resumes in March, Yura will be raring to help Spartak battle for the league crown after a 13-year drought.
I got the chance to talk with the Armenian-American superstar a few days ago, less than 24 hours before the CSKA derby. For someone whose football star is rapidly rising in Europe, Yura’s path has not been a conventional one. Our conversation ranged from his teenage years in California, where he got his start in the sport; to his decision to represent Armenia rather than the USA in international competition; and, of course, his thoughts on playing for Spartak, the Russian club with the most pressure, the most history and one of Europe’s best fan clubs.
Yura’s family emigrated to the U.S. in 1999. He was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, but politics forced his family to leave, and they ultimately ended up in Pasadena, California, home to one of America’s largest Armenian communities.
When you first moved to the U.S. at age 12, how did you get connected with the soccer scene in Pasadena?
When I arrived, it was a different culture for me. We didn’t really know many people or many things, so there was no soccer in the picture at first. After living for a few months, we made friends and we finally found out about teams and clubs. There were a lot of clubs in our city, so I started out there.
Were you focused on playing soccer or did you try any other American sports at first?
As a kid I always wanted to play soccer and that was my dream. I didn’t really look at other sports. Obviously, in LA, there’s the Lakers. Basketball’s pretty big in LA, plus they have hockey and college teams, American football you know. But for me, soccer was kind of a done deal.
Obviously, our school had a team, plus my clubs. As you know, back about nine or ten years ago soccer wasn’t as popular as it is today in America. Now you can see people playing in every park. But Pasadena has always had a big Hispanic population, so it wasn’t that unusual.
What did you learn from your high school years in Pasadena, playing for Cherif Zein (one of southern California’s most-respected youth coaches)?
The biggest thing I got from Cherif was the confidence he gave me. I met him when I tried out for the team as a freshman. We actually had a very good team that year. It was great of him to trust me to play, you know. The most important thing at that stage is playing every day, having the confidence of the coach and playing with some very good players. It was just a joy to be part of that.
Over here in Russia it’s impossible not to notice your competitiveness. Have you always been like that?
Obviously, I love what I do and that’s my life. Playing soccer is not just my job, but it’s also my hobby and what I love to do the most. Knowing that I play at the stage where I play at right now, that’s just my personality. I’m a fighter, nothing’s ever been given to me. I’ve always earned things.
What role did your family play in helping you get to where you are now?
My father, my brothers, my family have played the biggest role in my career. They’ve always been very supportive. There were times when I needed to work and help out the family, but they didn’t let me do that. At those times, nobody thinks you will make it as a professional, but my family knew that I had to play. They wanted me to enjoy it and make a life for myself, hopefully through soccer.
Are you still involved in the Pasadena community? How do you stay connected with people back home?
Of course, I have my friends that I keep in touch with. I also have a camp every year which I do for the kids in the area. This year, I’m going to have a very big camp, and all the money raised will be donated to various organizations. I try to stay in the community and help out the community as much as I can.
This might be a difficult question to answer, but apart from your Armenian heritage, do you feel like you’re an American, too, or is it more complicated than that?
I would say that I am Armenian, and that’s the most important thing. But I lived in America, I was raised basically in America. That’s where my family lives and where part of my life was spent. At the same time, Armenia is always going to be in my heart. That’s my country, those are my people. But, you know, America’s not far away from that. I love America. It’s just a dream to live there. So, I feel very fortunate about that.
Playing soccer in America, spending four years in MLS, was eventually making the move to Europe always part of the plan?
Everybody’s got dreams. I played in America and I won a championship in my last year, which was fantastic (Yura’s second MLS club, Real Salt Lake, won the MLS Cup in 2009 over the LA Galaxy). I played for four years, you hope to win a championship, and I did. It was time to move out and play in Europe, and try to prove myself over there. That’s where football is at – in Europe.
So going to Denmark was an opportunity for me to go and play in every game. At that age you can’t be going to a bigger club and sitting on the bench. I needed to go and play every game, grow as a player and learn.
What role did your agent, Patrick McCabe, play in helping you make the jump to Europe?
Patrick McCabe was the biggest reason I went to Denmark. He’s not just my agent, he’s close to my family and a good friend of mine. I do trust his judgment. At a time when you’re 21, 22 years old, you can make a lot of wrong decisions. But he’s been in the game for a long time. He’s a fantastic agent, he’s got his connections.
He was the first person to suggest I go to a team where I would play all the time and grow as a person and as a player in a great club like Randers. Obviously, at that time, they were not in the standings where they needed to be, but as you can see in the last years, they’ve played in the Europa League and they’re up there with the best in Denmark. I was just very grateful for his advice and his judgment. That’s why we’ve had such a close relationship.
Was he involved in the move to Krasnodar, as well?
With the move to Krasnodar, you know, there were some other guys – Armenians – that helped with that. But he was part of the deal, he’s always been part of everything I’ve done. It doesn’t matter where it is in the world, he’s always been part of it. He’s always the one I would go first to ask. It was an opportunity that they brought up to us and we decided that it was a good opportunity.
There’s a lot of interest right now in Sergey Galitsky, the Krasnodar owner, and what he’s doing with the team. What was it like to play at that club?
It’s a fantastic club. Sergey Galitsky is one of the few people around football right now that I think loves football. He does everything for football. What he has done with the club of Krasnodar and for the city is just fabulous. He lives for the game and does everything for the love of the game. You don’t have many people nowadays doing that. I have nothing to say but great words to say about him and the club.
Plus, going to Krasnodar for me as an Armenian was not that big of a culture shock because it’s closer to my culture (Krasnodar has Russia’s largest Armenian community).
Does Mr. Galitsky spend a lot of time with the team, in the locker room or at practices?
Surprisingly, he’s almost always there. He’s always behind the team, encouraging the team. He’s not one of those people that will put pressure on you. It’s the opposite, he’s always the one that takes pressure off of you after a loss. He’s always the one that tells you to keep your head up. He comes to trainings and interact with players. To have a fantastic president like that, you know, you feel very comfortable with him.
The reports in the press were very positive, from both clubs, when you decided to move to Spartak. Still, was it hard to have that conversation with Mr. Galitsky, when you told him that you were leaving?
It was a very difficult conversation. But, at the end of the day, what I respect about Sergey Galitsky the most is that he looks out for the player’s best interest and he understood that it was time for me to move up a level and go to a bigger club. At that time, Krasnodar wasn’t ready to make the next step as a club. And he knew that. That’s why he basically didn’t want to let me go, but he understood it was best for me. I will always be grateful to him for being a great person, not just a great president, and actually thinking about the well-being of the players.
You made a big splash in your Spartak debut, scoring a hat-trick against Terek. What about the rest of the spring, which wasn’t as successful for you or the team?
Now, I might say I learned that it wasn’t the best [way to start]. Obviously it was the best entrance that I could have had, but then I was under the lights a lot more, too. People expect three goals from you every game. That’s why it was difficult after the hat-trick, at least the next few games, because I was getting so much attention. It was crazy.
Every player needs time to adapt to a new team. Some people adapt faster than others. I adapt pretty quickly and I think I did adapt very quickly at Spartak. Playing for them is like playing for the New York Giants in the NFL or the Yankees in baseball. Obviously, Spartak is the best club, the most storied club in Russia. Expectations are already very high to start, just by representing the Spartak name.
You’re always under pressure, but that’s a good thing because you always perform at the highest level.
How about the Spartak fans? How do they compare to the other places you’ve played in your career?
I would say Spartak fans are one of the best in the world. Hands-down. I can’t compare them to the fans anywhere else I’ve played because the numbers here are huge, there’s just so many of them. It’s unbelievable. You know, obviously, we had very good fans in Krasnodar for a new team. In Randers and Salt Lake, it was just fantastic. But Spartak fans are just at a different level, I would say, just like the club is.
Do you get recognized much when you’re out in Moscow?
Yeah, it’s kind of a good and a bad thing. I do get recognized everywhere I go. It doesn’t matter where it is, what it is, what kind of atmosphere it is. You always have people there that are Spartak fans because it’s the number one club in Russia.
How excited were you this summer when fellow Armenian Aras Özbiliz joined the team from Kuban?
It was fantastic. For me, it was one of the best scenarios that could have happened, to have an Armenian player at Spartak. Throughout their history, they’ve always had Armenians here. I’m glad, I was very happy and very excited about the news that he was coming over, because he’s a very close friend of mine. It made him very happy too, us getting to play on the same team regularly, and not just on the national team.
Aras has followed you now to the Armenian national team (Yura joined in 2010, Aras in 2012) and to Spartak. Did you play any role in those decisions?
I didn’t have any influence on him picking the Armenian national team, but obviously with Spartak, we’re very close and we do speak a lot. He asked me my opinion and I told him what I thought about it. But he’s a professional and he’s old enough to know what he wants in his career and what decisions he’s going to make. He chose Spartak – one of the reasons was that I was here, but another reason was that Spartak is the biggest club in Russia. We spoke a lot about it, but it was never that I tried to convince him, because he made his own decision.
Do you keep in touch with the other Armenian players in Moscow, Roman Berezovsky at Dynamo and Karlen Mkrtchyan of Anzhi?
With Roma, we’re in touch on the telephone. Moscow’s a big city. With Karlen, we’ve met a few times, it’s just a little more difficult to keep in touch, going and seeing each other because of the schedules we have.
Obviously, in the last year or two, you’ve gained a lot of name recognition in Russia and in Armenia. Is it strange, though, that you’re not very well-known to the public back home in California?
America’s so big and I haven’t even been in America for the past four years, so I don’t look at it that way. I think anywhere I’ve played, with the success I’ve had and the goals I’ve scored, I would get some attention. It’s just a different culture in Russia and Europe than it is in America. In America, soccer is not the number one sport, but everywhere else in the world, soccer’s huge. You get a lot of attention everywhere else. It’s not really surprising because they live with soccer here, whereas in America you have four or five big sports that rule the country.
Did you think about it at all, though, when you chose to play for Armenia over the USA? You probably could have enjoyed a lot of publicity and attention in America if you had played there…
I made that decision because I’m very proud of who I am and where I’m from. I am Armenian and in times like that, sometimes you have to put your own glory to the side for the good of the people. I wanted to come help out Armenia as much as I could. If I can make 3 million people happy or 10 million people around the world happy, I will be a lot happier than if everybody recognizes me wherever I am. For me, that played a bigger role in coming to play for my nation.
What was it like taking the pitch for the first time in Yerevan for the national team?
I’ll tell you one thing, every time I go back to Armenia, it’s a special feeling. It’s not something I can even describe to you. It’s very special.
Many in Russia probably don’t even look at you as a foreigner, given your Russian first name, Yura, and the number of Armenians that live in Russia. But what’s it been like for you to play and live in Russia for the last couple of years?
It’s been fantastic. Of course, the success has played a big role in people accepting and recognizing me and everything. It’s been very good, it’s been fantastic. No complaints.