Manchester United’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan brings Armenia with him – New York Times

Mkhitaryan ranks as the finest player his country has produced, and should United beat Ajax on Wednesday, he will be the first Armenian to win a major European trophy, the New York Times writes.

In his eyes, that is more than a piece of trivia. There is a particular burden on high-profile athletes from low-profile countries; voluntarily or not, they are compelled to play the part of ambassador and evangelist for their nations, charged with presenting the country’s face to the world.

Speaking to New York Times’ Rory Smith, Mkhitaryan said he would like to think victory against Ajax would not only provide him with a medal but also give others the chance “to find out what Armenia is, where it is.”

 “Wherever Armenians go, they create a new Armenia” around themselves, he said. He has done just that in Manchester: As well as watching as much soccer from home as he can, he has found an Armenian Apostolic Church — “we were the first country to adopt Christianity, in 301 A.D.,” he points out, with the air of an earnest schoolteacher — although he has not yet had time to visit.

He has become a regular at the Armenian Taverna, sandwiched between a dry cleaner and a bank in the heart of the city. It has been there since 1968, but only since Mkhitaryan started popping in, once a week or so, has it started to attract the flashbulbs of the paparazzi. It is his little echo of home. “The new Armenia in Manchester is in the city center,” he said. “Near me.”

He seeks out other reminders, too. His last trip to the movies was to see “The Promise,” set in 1915, when as many as 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were killed.

It is a subject close to his heart, one he learned in school that remains “central” to the identity of all Armenians, he said. The film is not the usual cinematic fare for players — Mkhitaryan has not discussed it with his teammates, he said; he suspects they would not be interested — but it left him profoundly moved. “To watch it, I was sad in one way and proud in another,” he said.

That word recurs: proud. He is proud that he is, if not the world’s most famous Armenian — an honor that he would admit goes to Kim Kardashian — then at least a standard-bearer for his homeland on the world stage, in a social sense as much as a sporting one.

To some extent, he has an even broader symbolism in the sporting sense. Mkhitaryan is one of only a current handful of players from the former Soviet states at one of the biggest teams in one of Europe’s elite leagues. Schalke’s Ukrainian winger, Yevhen Konoplyanka, is the only other active one he can name.

A region that was once a hotbed for talent, to Western eyes, from Andriy Shevchenko to Kakha Kaladze, has all but dried up. Many English clubs contend it is too hard to scout in Russia and Ukraine because the standard of teams varies so widely; scouring for gems in a place like Armenia would not even occur to them.

“No scouts come to Armenia,” Mkhitaryan said. “And in Russia and Ukraine, because the money is good, the players prefer to stay there, not to come to Europe and develop as footballers.”

Mkhitaryan is the exception. He has made it out, as far as he could have ever dreamed of going. He has not, though, forgotten where it started. He still watches, even now, for that little taste of home.

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