Igor the incredible bears big burden of expectation

Uefa Cup final
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The Independent Football

It would be easy to dismiss CSKA Moscow as an army of mercenaries. They have used the proceeds of their £10m-a-season sponsorship deal to bring in such exotic talent as the Brazilians Daniel Carvalho and Vagner Love, the Croatian Ivica Olic and the Nigerian Chidi Odiah.

It would be easy to dismiss CSKA Moscow as an army of mercenaries. They have used the proceeds of their £10m-a-season sponsorship deal to bring in such exotic talent as the Brazilians Daniel Carvalho and Vagner Love, the Croatian Ivica Olic and the Nigerian Chidi Odiah.

Russians, suspecting - despite official denials - that the clubs share an owner, have taken to calling them the Chelsea of Moscow. Yet in goal for them against Sporting Lisbon in Wednesday night's Uefa Cup final in the Portuguese capital will be Igor Akinfeyev, a 19-year-old who has been at the club throughout his teens.

Although the suspension he served last season for hitting an opponent who had kicked a ball at him suggests a competitive edge, Akinfeyev could hardly be more modest. "When I have spare time, I try to go to church," he said. "I light a candle, say a few words and when I leave I feel a great easiness in my soul."

The trappings of celebrity seem to mean little to him: "Of course, I could afford an expensive car, but I don't need one. Cars, yachts, motorbikes mean nothing to me. I'd play for free so long as I was guaranteed my place in the team." Such delight in his profession is rare, and his humble approach can only serve him well as he struggles, as all talented Russian keepers have had to for the past 40 years, with the burden of being "the new Lev Yashin".

The ponytailed Sergey Ovchinnikov, who played at Euro 2004, seems to have developed an almost consciously eccentric persona to emphasise his difference from the conservative Yashin, while Russian football will always wonder what might have been had Mikhail Yeremin, a star of the USSR side who won the European Under-21 Championship in 1990, not been killed in a car crash a few hours after winning the last Soviet Cup with CSKA. Even Rinat Dasayev, probably the greatest goalkeeper in the world in the late Eighties, lived always with the knowledge that, at best, he was only second best.

Yashin, strangely, suffered the same problem of being compared to an earlier legend, having for years been "the new Alexey Khomich". So frustrated was he at constantly playing second fiddle to "The Tiger" that he was on the verge of giving up football for ice hockey when Khomich was injured in 1953.

Russian affection for their keepers goes back to Simyon Timoshenko's popular 1936 film adaptation of Leo Kassil's novel The Keeper Of The Republic. Its hero was selected to play for an unnamed Russian side after being spotted catching watermelons as they fell from a cart. At the climax, the matinée idol Grigory Pluzhnik, having made a series of fine saves to thwart a touring Basque side, raced the length of the pitch and scored the winner.

Awash with money from the privatised oil and gas companies, Russian football has developed over the past five years, but it is still only in Europe's second tier, so does that mean Akinfeyev is looking for a move? "Our league has grown up, but if you get the chance to join a prestigious club you have to take it. When you turn 30 in Russia, everybody forgets about you, but I am 19. Maybe when I am 25..."

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