On This Day: seventeen-year-old Akinfeev wins on RPL Debut

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On 31 May 2003, Igor Akinfeev played for CSKA for the first time in the Russian Premier Liga, as the Armymen beat Krylia Sovetov in Samara.

In the winter of 2003, 16-year-old graduate from the Red-Blue academy joined the senior team’s training camp and was soon receiving positive reviews. CSKA President Evgeniy Giner, answering questions from fans, spoke of Akinfeev as a "good reinforcement" along with the signings of Jiri Jarosik, Aleksandr Geynrikh, Alan Kusov and the promotion of another prospect, Sergey Samodin.

CSKA’s number one, Venyamin Mandrykin (himself only 21 years old), felt competition from his young colleague. "Yes, he is young, but sometimes he demonstrates a mature game beyond his years," the goalkeeper said of Akinfeev to Sovietsky Sport. “So you have to perform really well to deserve a place in the team. And I am ready for serious work."

Akinfeev started the season in the first team squad, but as a reserve goalkeeper. Mandrykin played in the RPL, and in the Premier Liga Cup last-16 first leg against Zenit St. Petersburg 28-year-old Dmitry Kramarenko started. In St. Petersburg he conceded two goals in the first half, but came off for Akinfeev at the break, who didn’t concede as the game finished 2-0 to the hosts. In the second game three days later Akinfeev replaced the injured Mandrykin in the 20th minute. He saved a penalty, but despite the team winning 3-1 they were knocked out.

After the RPL Cup disappointment the army team met Spartak, and for Akinfeev such a debut in the championship could have been a great gift for his 17th birthday: the match was on 6 April, while the goalkeeper's birthday was two days later. However, Mandrykin returned in goal, CSKA beat the Red-Whites 3-2, and the young goalkeeper continued to sit on the bench. Akinfeev didn’t even have any gametime for the reserve side, except for one game, a 1-1 draw against Rostov on 18 April.

While preparing for the trip to face Krylia Sovetov, Mandrykin caught a cold and recovered only on the eve of the game. CSKA then led by a seven-point margin from second place after 10 rounds and had conceded only eight goals. Gazzaev chose the goalkeeper on the day of the game, and it was Akinfeev.

"It was very exciting and scary to pick the guy - after all, it was his first match," recalled CSKA goalkeeping coach Vyacheslav Chanov in an interview with Championat in February 2019. "He was not shaking, no, but he was looking for support in the form of a look or a touch. He needed a boost of energy, or something."

It is symbolic that Akinfeev was also first named in a matchday squad for a match against Krylia, a year before his debut, in July 2002. Then he was Kramarenko's understudy, and CSKA won 2-0 at home. A year later, Akinfeev himself appeared against Samara, and it was at the 35,000-seater Metallurg stadium. His performance was impressive: he kept out six shots on target, was confidently at crosses and was not afraid to command more senior teammates. Gazzaev's team scored twice in the first half through Jiri Jarosik and Bogdan Shershun, and at the end of the match they conceded a penalty. It was taken by one of the top RPL scorers Andrey Karyaka (six goals), but Akinfeev guessed the right way.

"It turned out even better than I could have expected," the goalkeeper said in assessing the debut in an interview with Sport-Express. “The penalty was not part of my plans, of course. In previous matches, Karyaka preferred to send the ball to the left corner, but my intuition told me that this time he would shoot to the right. I always know in advance which corner I will jump into, and I hardly follow the movements of my opponent."

CSKA won 2-0 and went on to win the championship. According to Akinfeev, Gazzaev did not just praise him for his game, but immediately invited him to the national team; the coach then combined roles at the club and with the national team. The goalkeeper did not go to the Euro 2004 qualifying match in Switzerland, but earned a compliment from an experienced colleague, Sergey Ovchinnikov. "I rarely publicly evaluate my colleagues, but I can say about Akinfeev that he is one of the most gifted goalkeepers in the last 10 years," the goalkeeper told SE.

Ovchinnikov, who worked with Akinfeev as a CSKA coach, was right: Igor has already won six RPL titles, the UEFA Cup and a third-placed finish at Euro 2008, and also led the team to the quarter-finals of the home 2018 World Cup. Without taking injuries into account, he has been CSKA’s starting keeper for 20 years, and club captain since 2008.

The artcile was pusblished firstly on 31 May 2020, updated on 31 May 2023


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