x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

From black and white to colour

Diniyar Bilyaletdinov grew up playing a methodical game in Russia, yet he has excelled for Everton in the Premier League.

Growing up, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov knew that there were two kinds of football. There was the one he began watching on television in the mid-90s, filled with exotic players in faraway grounds, filled with loud, passionate fans. It was football in colour, it was the Premier League and Primera Liga. But, above all, it was the Arsenal of Arsene Wenger, Thierry Henry and Marc Overmars, his favourite.

And then there was his father's football. Rinat Bilyaletdinov spent 15 seasons as a top-flight footballer (though, in Soviet times, he was actually an amateur who held a job as a physical education teacher). Their Moscow flat was decorated with pennants, black and white photographs and father's stories. Bilyaletdinov Jr listened and learned, but, somehow it almost seemed a different sport. Like the methodical, patient game he was learning daily in Lokomotiv Moscow's youth academy, his father's stories seemed to belong to a different universe compared to what he watched on TV.

And so, even as he broke into Lokomotiv's first team at the age of 19, he nurtured his dream of one day experiencing another football. But, unlike so many of his peers, this is not a story about a boy's single-minded pursuit. Bilyaletdinov may have grown up in a sporting household, he may have witnessed a string of former and current players and coaches troop through his kitchen, drink coffee and talk to his father (now Lokomotiv's reserve coach), but in fact he learned from a young age to take nothing for granted.

Because of Bilyaletdinov Sr's success, he grew up relatively privileged and, with privilege, comes responsibility. That is why he insisted on completing his studies at Moscow Industrial University graduating with honours in engineering, writing a thesis on the mechanical workings of earth-moving equipment. He made his debut for Russia aged 20 but still continued studying, going so far as to lugging his textbooks with him on away trips with Lokomotiv. He won a starting place in his very first season, when Lokomotiv won the Russian league, and never looked back. For five and a half seasons he ruled the wing with a combination of pace, technique and workrate.

It was perhaps the latter, coupled with the personality of a natural leader, that persuaded the club to name him as captain at 22. But then Bilyaletdinov had the kind of confidence other players fed off. He had been linked with western European clubs since the summer of 2007 and, a year later, Seville took a long, hard look at him, going so far as to booking him on a flight to Andalucia. But he had to wait until the summer of 2009 before he got the chance to experience the other football, effectively becoming a character in the epic games that played out in his head.

Everton paid ?9million (Dh47m) for his services and manager David Moyes told him he would be "guaranteed nothing beyond a chance to fight for a place in the side". This suited him just fine, it was all he could ask for. After all, in his mind, until that point, he had only excelled in the other football. This was the Premier League, this was different. But thus far, he has been just as effective in his new sport.

sports@thenational.ae