AFC Ajax's Armenian international striker Edgar Manucharyan has enjoyed a blistering start to his career.
By Khachik Chakhoyan
Armenia will make their debut in an international finals at the UEFA European Under-19 Championship, and much of their hopes will rest squarely on the shoulders of Edgar Manucharyan, whose eight goals in qualification played a huge part in helping his team to Northern Ireland.
The 18-year-old has long been considered a prodigy, having been involved in qualifying for the UEFA European U17 Championship as long ago as 2002 and having also played in the U21 side by the end of that season. He left Armenian Premier League club FC Pyunik on 1 July after agreeing to join AFC Ajax.
Manucharyan took his first professional steps under coach Mikael Zakaryan, and almost immediately made rapid strides. He moved swiftly through Pyunik's youth teams, and in 2002 top-scored for the club's reserves, earning promotion to the senior squad the following year.
Making his mark
Manucharyan soon found his feet at the higher level, managing 12 top-flight strikes in 2003, and also scoring four times in Armenia's European U17 Championship qualifier against Belarus, before really making his mark the following year. Twenty-one league goals helped Pyunik to a fourth successive league championship, and made Manucharyan the Armenian Premier League's joint-top scorer.
At the start of 2004/05 Manucharyan made his bow in the UEFA Champions League, finding the net twice at FK Pobeda of F.Y.R. Macedonia in the first qualifying round first leg. His exploits did not go unnoticed by the media, with Suren Bagdasaryan, chief editor of weekly newspaper Football Plus, saying: "Edgar is an event in Armenian football. Players of his talent are not born often. He has everything a striker needs."
Manucharyan then made a crucial contribution to the national cause in the European U19 Championship, scoring in each of Armenia's qualifying round games. Although he was initially quiet in the next stage, he more than made up for it in the final round of fixtures in Elite round Group 4, scoring four times in a 5-1 win against Hungary to help clinch a finals berth.
"The Armenian U19 team achieved an unparalleled result in our history," said an article in Football Plus following the unexpected success. "Our country will be represented at European Championship, while Manucharyan has proved once more that he is talented and that Armenia can put faith in him."
'No effort spared'
"I am very glad for our team, which no one expected to win the [Elite round] group," Manucharyan responded. "But this is not the end. We have to give our best to do well in Northern Ireland. I will spare no effort to help Armenia achieve good results."
Manucharyan is already a regular in the U21 side and recently made the jump up to the senior team, scoring his first goal in a FIFA World Cup qualifier against F.Y.R. Macedonia on 4 June. Meanwhile, after a broken bone in his foot brought a premature end to his trial with Ajax last December, he signed a three-year contract with the Dutch club in April. "He can mature into a top-class player if he keeps his professional attitude," said Bagdasaryan. "Leaving Pyunik for Ajax should help, as he will be playing with much better footballers."
In spite of his rise, however, the Armenian forward is keeping his feet firmly on the ground. "I am taking my first steps in senior football," he said. "And I am thankful to all those who have helped me or are helping me on my way."