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 has traveled thousands of miles. His journey has been long, and often lonely. “I did not want to leave, especially,” he said. He did so because of his “dream of playing for one of the world’s biggest teams, in the biggest stadiums, against the biggest opponents,” but it was not easy.
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.
Mkhitaryan says he does not resent it; he would like to think victory against Ajax would not only provide him with a medal but also give others the chance “to find out what Armenia is, where it is.”
It is a subject that came up, again and again, last Friday when he sat in a changing room at Manchester United’s youth academy at Carrington, just south of the city. “Wherever Armenians go, they create a new Armenia” around themselves, he said. He has done just that in Manchester: As well as watching as much soccer from home as he can, he has found an Armenian Apostolic Church — “we were the first country to adopt Christianity, in 301 A.D.,” he points out, with the air of an earnest schoolteacher — although he has not yet had time to visit.
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.”
He seeks out other reminders, too. His last trip to the movies was to see “The Promise,” set in 1915, when as many as 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were killed in what historians have long accepted as a genocide.
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