James Lawton: Arshavin is dazzling star of Russia
Andrei Arshavin has come from almost nowhere to dominate Euro 2008, but could his exhilarating talent survive the journey to the West?
If Andrei Arshavin, surely the oldest sensation ever to happen at the highest level of world football, is really playing poker with a posse of rich admirers, he may somewhere along the line care to develop his career at The Golden Nugget or Caesars Palace.
However, he may simply have been stating a boyhood preference when he revealed, "All my life I've been a supporter of Barcelona. It is my dream."
Whatever the truth of this delicately poised matter, one thing is certain and utterly compelling at the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna tonight when Arshavin's Russia take on Spain in a semi-final that has acquired the magnetism of a potential classic.
It is that everyone is waiting for the footballer who still looks a little like an urchin from the streets of his native and beloved St Petersburg to turn over his latest hand of cards.
The delicious expectancy is that it could be another of those royal flushes that stunned first Sweden, then the Netherlands and, this week, had Arsène Wenger, the man who can normally cite the shoe size and dental records of every likely young contender across the breadth of Europe and Africa, saying, "Russia is the only country where a guy like him comes to the attention of the world at the age of 27. Suddenly, you discover him. It's not possible. You know every 21-year-old in France, Germany, Italy etc, but in this case we knew his name – but we had to see him play in a tournament like this."
Around about the time the admiring Wenger was speculating on whether Arshavin can be drawn beyond the pull of Mother Russia – his guess is that he can – Arshavin was doing a little light training and that which he does best next to making a defence look suddenly as though it has become enmeshed in barbed wire.
He was, if he cared or not – and this is the poker playing which would have been the envy of Doc Holliday – raising the stakes in the endgame that will surely follow if he maintains his recent exquisite form tonight and possibly in Sunday's final.
The mystery is whether he really wants to leave the cold and beautiful city he loved even before its pavements turned to gold when he was awarded a weekly wage of £50,000 by Zenit St Petersburg.
The question is rooted in Russian experience because if Arshavin does decide to leave – and prospers at somewhere like Barcelona or Arsenal – he will be the one of the few Russian virtuosi since dancer Rudolf Nureyev, and the first footballer, to maintain his lustre beyond the borders of his homeland.
As one Russophile said yesterday: "The Russian mentality says that you can only live truly in your own country, it is where your soul will always be." There is certainly one example close to the experience of the player who has so illuminated 2008 his name seems to be on everybody's lips.
It is Alexander Kerzhakov, who was considered Arshavin's superior when they played together for Zenit, but failed to grow when he moved to Seville two years ago. He was not a disaster, scoring 11 goals in 33 games, but apparently Arshavin has noted that so many of his compatriots decline, if not wither, in foreign climes. For Arshavin, the aura could only boil any more beautifully if it was placed in a samovar made for a tsar.
It is an appeal which seems to demolish the normal partisanship of the games we play. Over morning coffee a sober German businessman announced, "I can hardly wait for the Russian game – they play so beautifully and Arshavin is a gem."
He has also something of what was once attributed to the great jockey Lester Piggott – the authority of a gunfighter.
Here he is discussing the tactics of the collision with Spain: "We will play our way, we will attack because that is the way we are set up and it is the way we enjoy playing. But of course it doesn't all depend on us, let's see how the Spaniards do. Maybe it makes it harder for us if we play in such an open way because they know how to counter-attack and have some fast players, but we need to play, and I need to play, our way. If we don't do that, we are nothing. I know one thing. All teams have weak spots. You just have to find them."
His coach, Guus Hiddink, whose own stock in a perennially strong career has never been so high, can hardly keep the relish out of his voice when he speaks of the player who has transformed the Russians since serving a two-match suspension for hitting an Andorran in qualifying action. Why would a putative superstar deign to slug an Andorran? Because, he has suggested privately, he was subject to an overwhelming – and just – urge.
Says Hiddink: "I did not think of leaving him behind because he was suspended for the first two games. When you have a player of this quality, someone who makes such a difference, you play him when you can. You know, he has tremendous skill. He is one of those boys who know how to dribble and run at a defence, how to play on the edge. He knows how to find the boundaries of his play, to go into zones where defenders can run with him but cannot attack him. That's what nature gave him."
What Wenger would give him, apart from a pay rise which could reach 100 per cent, is the chance to work with a team of refinement – and, hopefully, the defence-warping presence of Emmanuel Adebayor. But could that outweigh the budget of Barça and the climate of Catalonia, or the continued attraction of being the favoured son of a city which is apparently deep in in his blood?
So far we have scarcely had a glimpse of Arshavin's cards. He spoke of Barcelona in one breath this week, then in the next of his duty as a "player of Russia".
His head does not seem susceptible to easy turning. While Cristiano Ronaldo, late of this tournament he was supposed to dominate, seemed to spend most of his time drumming up Real Madrid business, Arshavin appears untouched by any kind of narcissism. He claims to be quite underwhelmed by the storm of attention building around him. "I'm not doing anything different from normal," he says. "Sometimes I score, sometimes I provide a pass, but I suppose when you do it at a World Cup or European Championship there are bigger repercussions."
He gives a hint of an urchin's smile when he says that. He knows, of course, that he is doing what Hiddink says he is; he is pushing himself to the boundaries of his game. "I don't mind if I make a pass for a goal or score one, to me it is the same," he adds. "If football is not about your team as much as yourself, it has no point.
"I never talk about whether I'm a leader or not. The beauty of football is that when you are helping your team-mates you are also helping yourself."
Nor, of course, are you discouraging someone like Wenger from raising the stakes.