Marat Izmaylov, athlete

A journalist from Moskovsky Komsomolets once quoted a female Italian soccer fan as saying: “Oh, Izmaylov ... Izmaylov is my love.” The word play on Marat Izmaylov’s last name (“Is-my-love”) was surely accidental, but the sympathy was nonetheless sincere.

Nineteen-year old Izmaylov was unanimously voted Best Rookie of 2001, and boasts a rare combination of youth, energy, skill and maturity. But as to love from Italian fans—that will have to go unrequited. Izmaylov is intensely serious about soccer, doesn’t go to discos or clubs and wants nothing to distract him from his true passion.

Soccer has dominated Izmaylov’s life. “It is my distraction, my hobby, my work,” he said. Izmaylov began playing when he was just three, coached by his father. By the age of five he was practicing at the Lokomotiv soccer school in Moscow, soon moving on to the Junior Soccer School at Moscow’s Torpedo. In 2000, he was selected for what can be called Lokomotiv’s “farm club.”

Izmaylov said he realized early on what he wanted to achieve in his life, set a serious goal, and then subordinated everything to this. His devotion to soccer quickly paid off. In 2001, at 18, Izmailov was selected to be part of the main Lokomotiv team. After just one season, Izmaylov is already being called “the hope of Russian soccer” by Russian sports observers.

“This guy amazes me,” said Lokomotiv Head Coach Yuri Syomin. “He can play in any position except goalie, as he is not tall enough for it ...” Last season, Izmaylov shone in many matches, but was especially remarkable against Austria’s Tirol and Belgium’s Anderlecht. “During the three-match marathon with the Austrian  Tirol, the smart and talented Marat Izmaylov dribbled past his adversaries and distributed subtle, ingenuous passes, not unlike a TV moderator sprinkling his wit,” wrote Izvestia.

In October, Izmaylov helped his team spark a sensation in Europe when it defeated Anderlecht 5-1 at home. Not only did Izmaylov tie the score with a perfect free kick, but he generally called the tune in Lokomotiv’s subsequent demolition of the favored Belgian squad.

“The youth’s game can be characterized in one short yet voluminous phrase: ‘smart soccer,’” wrote the authoritative Sport-Express. “He is smart in everything—in changing his rhythm, in fooling his adversaries, in his passes ... What Marat was doing by the end of the match in the penalty area confirmed again that the young prodigy’s talent is gradually beginning to blossom. What is even more reassuring is that, judging by his commitment, he is not going to rest on his laurels.” Thanks to players like Izmaylov, at the end of the 2001 season, Lokomotiv was the only Russian club still in European soccer cups competition, in the UEFA Cup.

Not surprisingly, Russian National Team Head Coach Oleg Romantsev has twice selected Izmaylov to play for the team in World-2002 Soccer Championship qualifying matches. Izmaylov’s dribbling, astute passing and combinations were essential in helping the Russian team dominate Switzerland from the opening whistle in the decisive qualifying match. Indeed, the young Izmaylov is pumping new life into the aging Russian team, and will now travel with the team to championship bouts in Japan and Korea, something most Russian soccer players could only dream about.

To Izmaylov, soccer “is like relaxation … maybe some prefer taking a break at discos, but I need the soccer field ...” So he spends his days practicing at the sports complex in Bakovka village near Moscow. “Here you can work on your shots all day long,” he said, “the air is pure, and of course there is the sauna ...”

So far, success has not gone to Izmaylov’s head. In fact, he once reportedly insisted that a half page interview with him in a Russian newspaper “be cut two- or three-fold, as for now I don’t deserve more.” And he usually urges reporters to “please, not forget” to write about his first coach, Nikolai Antonovich Rasstegayev: “a great specialist!” Far from seeing himself as Russia’s great soccer hope, Izmaylov insists that he still “needs to hone his game.”

That “honing” will be a pleasure to watch in the years to come.

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