With an abundance of outstanding central defenders currently plying their trade on the world stage, few modern 16-year-olds would delve back into history and choose Franz Beckenbauer as their footballing icon, but Russia centre-back Dzhamaldin Khodzhaniyazov is not your average 16-year-old.
The likes of Rio Ferdinand, Gerard Piqué and Thiago Silva would all be far more obvious choices for a defender in the style of Khodzhaniyazov, but the man who has impressed at both ends of the field in the UEFA European Under-17 Championship did not hesitate when selecting the German legend as his hero. "Beckenbauer, no doubts. I have seen many videos of him playing, I have read a lot about him as well. He was just an outstanding player," he said of the godfather of modern defending.
Providing the backbone to a solid start for his side in the tournament, helping to keep clean sheets in the win against Ukraine and draw with Croatia, the FC Zenit St Petersburg man refuses to take sole credit for the defensive solidity displayed in Slovakia. "The secret of such a sustainable defence is our team work," he said. "As they say, one cannot fight against many. Well-organised team play helps us to be effective. We have a really good atmosphere in the team, and now we are preparing for the third match with fighting spirit."
A draw against Italy on Saturday will prove enough to take Dmitri Khomukha's side through to the final four, but there is a warning in recent history which Khodzhaniyazov has not forgotten. At UEFA EURO 2012 after opening with a win and draw, Russia lost to Greece when needing to avoid defeat in the final group game, resulting in elimination. "We just cannot relax, but there is nothing like that in our team," Khodzhaniyazov said. "We had a similar situation before the last game of the elite round against Portugal [Russia were beaten 1-0, but still finished ahead of England and Portugal on goals scored]. We will play only for victory, none of us are thinking about a draw."
Possessing a maturity on the field that belies his tender years, the defender, known as Dzhamal to his team-mates, jokes when the subject of his mouthful of a name is raised. "Well, you understand yourself, that while you say my full name, we might miss an attack by the opponents," he laughed.
It is not just at the back that the No4 has excelled, getting his sides' campaign up and running with a deft free-kick to open the scoring against Ukraine, which had echoes of another legendary centre-back, Ronald Koeman. "I do not think there is a consistent pattern here," he said, when asked if Khomukha, a high-class set-piece taker in his day, had been giving him tips. "It is just that he has faith in us. He said if you feel confident in yourselves, then just go to the ball and take the responsibility. But you also are responsible for the shot you are going to take."
A recent recruit at Zenit, Khodzhaniyazov is currently in the club's B side, but was cautious when the issue of first-team football was raised. "Well, I cannot say anything about that. I just joined Zenit reserves and will try to settle in the starting XI. We will see what happens after that. But I will definitely work hard on myself and try as hard as I can to achieve progress." If he achieves just a fraction of the success in his career his idol did, then Zenit and Russia are set to see something special.
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