ITV News Correspondent Richard Pallot reports from Porto as fans gear up for the UEFA Champions League final
Words by ITV News Sports Producer Dan Salisbury-Jones
There is a Manchester City star who is more careful than most when describing his remarkable backstory. He is understandably wary of saying something that could inflame tensions back home, even as he prepares for the biggest match of his career – the Champions League final.
Oleksandr Zinchenko says it was the “toughest moment” of his life when he fled Ukraine in 2014 as war with Russia broke out in the region.
"It made me stronger" - Zinchenko on how his remarkable backstory helped propel him to football glory
The then 17-year-old Shakhtar Donetsk scholar spent several months training alone in the streets of Moscow as a contract dispute meant he couldn’t even train with another professional team.
It would be understandable if, at that point, Zinchenko gave up, but he says the thought never crossed his mind.
“That period was the toughest but you cannot lose your dream,” he told ITV News.
“For a long time I didn't speak about that period, you know, that was really tough to remember as well because, yeah, I couldn't even say to you right now everything.
“But it’s made me stronger that situation. Since I was a kid I couldn’t even dream that one day I would be in the Champions League final, but everything is possible.”
He believes he is well equipped to deal with that scenario after leaving his family as an 11-year-old to play with Ukraine’s best team Shakhtar – who played hundreds of miles away at the other end of the country to where he grew up.
“I left my home for 500 kilometres, you know, and I was living alone, just with my team, no parents, no one.
“So why should I drop it? For what reason? Of course everyone has tough periods, a lot of injuries or something like this, or any problems, but you cannot drop it because that’s the commitment that you have to have.”
Despite what could’ve been a bitter divorce, he doesn’t hold grudges against Shakhtar: “I respect them. I have never said something bad about them because the things they have done for me are unbelievable. I really appreciate that.”
Once the dispute was over, the flying full-back signed for Russian Premier League side Ufa before his transfer to Pep Guardiola’s City.
His stoic attitude served him well for the following years as he struggled to hold down a first team place.
Now a regular at 24-years-old, it was the team that reflected his own resilience in their semi-final win against Paris St Germain.
The defining image of the second leg was John Stones’ goal-like celebration with Zinchenko after he superbly blocked a shot.
He says he’ll be thinking of his family and pet dogs when he walks out on the pitch in Porto on Saturday.
He can line up for the match against Chelsea with a smile. Safe in the knowledge that he’ll have either well and truly earned his success or, if it doesn’t go to plan, he’ll come back even stronger yet again.