Henrikh Mkhitaryan is on his way to becoming one of the recent success stories at Manchester United.After a shaky start which saw him struggle with the pace of the Premier League – most notably in the Manchester derby – he has been lethal in United's attack, scoring in the Europa League final to seal United's Champions League place next season. And the Armenia playmaker came up the hard way. Mkhitaryan spent his early life in France, where his father, Hamlet, played for Ligue 2 side Valence.
Henrikh was attached to his father, and would cry when Hamlet left to go to training. When Henrikh was six, his family moved back to Armenia. His father had stopped playing football and, although young Henrikh didn't know it at the time, Hamlet was suffering with a brain tumour. He passed away within a year of the family's return to Armenia. He told The Players' Tribune:
"I remember seeing my mother and older sister always crying, and I would ask them, 'Where is my father?' No one could explain what was going on. "Day by day, they started to tell to me what had happened. "I remember my mother saying, 'Henrikh, he will never be with us.'"
Despite suffering the loss of his beloved father at such a young age, he soldiered on with his footballing career. At the age of 13, he left his family to train in Brazil with Sao Paulo." He added:
"As tough as it was for us with my father gone, my mother and sister were always pushing me. They even let me go to Brazil by myself when I was 13 to train with São Paulo for four months. That was one of the most interesting times of my life, because I was a very shy kid from Armenia who didn’t speak any Portuguese. But I didn’t care at all because, to me, I was getting to go to football paradise."
Mkhitaryan travelled with two other young Armenian players, and the trio had a room-mate: a skinny young Brazilian named Hernanes. The playmaker is currently plying his trade in China, having signed from a little-known club called Juventus, and has played 27 times for his country. Mkhitaryan, with a basic grasp of the Portuguese language, became firm friends with Hernanes, and the youngsters lived and breathed football while at the Sao Paulo academy. He added:
"That time was very important to me, because it shaped my style as a player. When I returned to Armenia after four months in Brazil, I was still quite skinny and weak, but I had technique and skill. I was feeling very free on the pitch. I was feeling like the Armenian Ronaldinho. (Hahahaha. No, I’m joking.) It was challenging because I now had three languages in my brain all the time — Armenian, French and Portuguese — and they were competing with each other."
Mkhitaryan started his professional career in his homeland with Pyunik, before moving to Ukraine with Metalurh Donetsk. Seven years after his time in South America at the age of 20, Mkhitaryan moved across the city of Donetsk to Shakhtar, and was completely unfazed by the mix of cultures. After all, his new club boasted 12 Brazilians in its ranks. Three seasons later, he was courted by Europe's biggest clubs, including Borussia Dortmund who eventually lured the Armenia star to the Westfalenstadion. It was in Germany where Mkhitaryan shot to superstardom, lighting the up the Bundesliga with assists, goals and everything in between. When he turned out for Manchester United on his debut, he made history by becoming the first ever Armenian to play in the Premier League. United fans will be hoping he can create more history at the club over the years to come.