Barnaul is not a lovely place to play football. A city in the south of Western Siberia, there is beautiful nature but a harsh Siberian climate. Dinamo Barnaul, the local professional football team, have always played in the lower echelons of the Russian league. But Barnaul gave Russian football Alexey Smertin, a former national captain, who successfully played in Europe for Bordeaux, Chelsea, Fulham and Portsmouth and won the Premier League title and Carling Cup with Chelsea in 2005.
Smertin was a great example for Siberian kids. “People always told us: ‘Hey, guys, you can play for Chelsea, if you are willing to work hard,’” says Aleksandr Sobolev. And work hard he did. “I always wanted to be a football player. There was my dream. And I never gave up.”
He never gave up either on the streets of Barnaul. Sobolev grew up in a poor district and regularly got into trouble. He was always ready to fight his own corner and the older boys respected him for that.
Sobolev’s parents went with him to tournaments and to provisional training sessions at the big clubs academies. “You will play for Spartak Moscow and the national team,” Sobolev’s mother told him.
But the clubs always ignored him. He was never selected for Russia’s youth teams – not at under-15, under-17 or under-19 level. Sobolev played for Dinamo Barnaul’s second team in the third tier. The club wanted him to sign a five-year contract extension, but he wasn’t interested.
When he was 18, Sobolev went to Tom Tomsk for a trial and got injured. When he recovered, he played only one friendly, against Sibir Novosibirsk. Sobolev caught the eye, provided an assist and Tom Tomsk decided to sign him.
“There was my last chance to take a step forward and play at serious level,” Sobolev says. But there was a problem. Tom Tomsk wanted to sign him as a free agent. Sobolev bought himself out from Dinamo Barnaul for 200,000 rubles (about €3,000 at the time). That was a lot of money for his family. His parents had borrowed money from friends. When Sobolev signed his first big contract, he repaid this debt.
In the 2016-17 season Tom Tomsk played in the Russian Premier League. Initially Sobolev played for the second team. He made his debut for the first team on 5 December 2016 in a game against FC Ufa. At that time Tom Tomsk had serious financial difficulties and several experienced players had left. The coach, Valery Petrakov, gave a chance to young players. Sobolev played regularly in the second half of the season (12 games, three goals).
Tom Tomsk were relegated, but Sobolev didn’t leave. He continued to play regularly and scored seven times in the first half of the 2017-18 season. In January 2018 Sobolev joined Krylia Sovetov Samara. Although they were also in the second tier with Tom Tomsk, they were fighting for promotion. He scored on his debut and a month later scored his first hat-trick. They renewed his contract.
“This blew my mind. I thought: ‘I’m fine. I’m cool. I have such a big salary. Why don’t I play?’ I argued with the coach, with my teammates. I didn’t work really hard in training. I bought a Porsche. I was young and I dreamed to have a car like this. Perhaps it was so stupid. I want to sell this car now,” says Sobolev.
In February 2019 he was loaned to Yenisey Krasnoyarsk. “It helped me. I changed my mind and started working again. This was a good lesson for me,” he now admits.
Before the start of the 2019-20 season he returned to Krylia Sovetov. Sobolev scored twice in the first match of the season, against CSKA Moscow. He scored seven times in the first 10 league games, some stunning goals including an overhead kick and long-range strikes. In October 2019 he was called up to the Russia national team for the Euro 2020 qualifiers against Scotland and Cyprus, replacing the injured Fedor Smolov, but did not play.
His profile had risen though, and Spartak Moscow took him on loan in the winter transfer window and in May 2020 signed him permanently. CSKA Moscow and Rubin Kazan were interested, but the striker chose Spartak. “I think, it was a right choice for me. I never regretted my decision. And I remembered about my mom’s words,” says Sobolev.
His mother died in August last year. She was only 46. Spartak Moscow played against FC Sochi few days later. Sobolev told Domenico Tedesco, Spartak’s coach, that he wanted to play. He scored, took off his shirt, showed his mother’s portrait underneath and cried.
Sobolev had to adapt to a new team and a big city and lockdown did not help. But this season he is on fire, having already scored 12 times in the Russian Premier League. He became impossible to ignore for the Russia head coach, Stanislav Cherchesov, but there was one problem – Alexander’s relationship with the national team captain, Artem Dzyuba. There was a conflict between them. Cherchesov said, that, in his opinion, dressing room atmosphere is most important thing. Therefore Sobolev wasn’t called up for the Nations League matches against Serbia and Hungary last September.
“I found out Dzyuba’s phone number and called him. We talked about some things and understood each other,” says the 24-year-old Sobolev.
In October 2020 Cherchesov called up him for the matches against Sweden, Turkey and Hungary and Sobolev scored his first international goal. Now there is no doubt about his place in the squad for Euro 2020. But everyone in Russia is waiting for more.