Almaty: An international debutant at 18, his country’s Player of the Year six months later and a high-profile arrival at one of the region’s big clubs in the new year – Gulzhigit Alykulov’s life has been moving as quickly as his feet.
But while his surge to prominence in international football has been rapid, the truth is the Kyrgyz Republic youngster has never been far away from the spotlight.
Talking exclusively with the-AFC.com, one of the rising stars of Central Asian football discusses his meteoric rise, earning the approval of Andrey Arshavin and the pivotal role played by his well-known family.
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Kyrgyz Republic football enjoyed a landmark 2019.
The national team’s first ever trip to the AFC Asian Cup Finals ended in a Round of 16 elimination that was as heartbreaking as it was heroic, with Alexander Krestinin’s squad welcomed home as conquerors.
But when the time came to crown the country’s Player of the Year in December, it was a teenager who had played no role in that tournament, and only made his international debut in June, who walked away with the award.
“Honestly, I was surprised,” admits Alykulov, who looks not a single day older than his 19 years of age. “Because there were better candidates for the best player.
“That award gave me even more confidence, as well as motivation. I will continue to work on myself to achieve even better results.”
For Alykulov to claim the award ahead of experienced pros like Valerii Kichin and Edgar Bernhardt just months into his national team career, and weeks after his 19th birthday, was no error.
In fact, it wasn’t even the only award he claimed that month.
If 2019 was a big year for Kyrgyz football as a collective, it was an even more transformative 12 months for Alykulov.
The diminutive attacking midfielder started the year having spent the second half of 2018 with Alga Bishkek, once the power club of the local football ecosystem, but now a mid-table outfit in the Kyrgyz Premier League.
His performances there helped him earn a move to Belarusian Premier League side Neman Grodno early in 2019, and he quickly became a star in the competition, with eye-catching performances earning him acclaim, and ultimately the award for Neman’s Player of the Season.
He also became an instant hit in the national team, scoring his first Akshumkar goal in a thumping win over Myanmar in the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 in October, before adding a second against Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar five days later.
In 2020, he is one of the more intriguing new arrivals at Kazakhstan’s FC Kairat – a storied club in the region and one which holds the distinction of regularly competing in UEFA competitions, while being based in Almaty; only 240 kilometres away from Alykulov’s family in Bishkek.
“There were many offers from Europe and Asia,” reveals Alykulov. “Since I wanted to grow up, I moved to FC Kairat.
“There is a good base, a good team, a good coaching staff. I knew some of the players before that, so it was easier for me in joining the team. I want to raise my level, and I am fully aware that FC Kairat is the ideal platform to achieve my goals.”
Alykulov is the type of player neutral fans love to watch.
His pace, dribbling ability and a penchant for taking on defenders make him a born entertainer, but it is perhaps only those within the country appreciate the extent to which showmanship runs through his veins.
Gulzhigit is son of Zhanybek Alykulov, a singer, comedian and entertainer who became a beloved figure in the country before he passed away in 2014.
The senior Alykulov was widely known, particularly for his signature song ’Shorpo’, and another of his children, Gulzhigit’s older brother Manas, has become a popular showman in his own right, even establishing a social media following which dwarfs that of his footballing brother.
“If we talk about my father - he was a legendary comedian in the country, many people knew him, and now my brother is engaged in this sphere,” says Alykulov.
“I think it’s genetic. We have such a unique family, especially my father who had so many talents, played a lot of musical instruments, and of course was a master of improvisation."
“Unfortunately, in 2014 he passed away when I was 13 years old. He often played basketball and football with friends and took me to my training sessions.
“It is unfortunate that he couldn’t see my performances. I think he would be proud of me.”
That much seems clear.
A very small Gulzhigit sat alongside his father in a television interview in the mid-2000s, with Zhanybek telling the host: “After Gulzhigit was born in 2000, I was enormously happy and I celebrated for a whole year.”
Zhanybek regularly toured the country, taking the family along for the ride, and – as the many videos of his performances uploaded online can attest – putting smiles on faces wherever he went.
Gulzhigit had a role to play there, too, perhaps unwittingly preparing himself for his own career of performing in front of fans.
“As a child, I was always with my father, and on tour, at concerts - it was really cool and fun,” he recalled. “When he started singing his most popular song “Shorpo”, he took me to the stage, and I danced with him. I loved it.
“Football appeared in my life thanks to my older brother, who played. He played for Alga, for Dordoi, for the youth teams of the Kyrgyz Republic. Also, we never missed matches on TV, I was always surrounded by football.
“In 2011, I happened to see a poster of the Dordoi Football Academy about opportunities for kids, and I was immediately interested in it. I showed it to my mother and the next morning I was already training with my teammates. My first coach’s name is Vladimir Sadovsky.”
Given his rise to prominence, it’s easy to view Alykulov as an overnight success, but his ascent has been years in the making.
He spent six years in Dordoi’s academy, played, and scored, for Kyrgyz Republic at the 2016 AFC U-16 Championship in India, and endured a challenging, but instructive spell with Antalyaspor in Turkey the following year.
“I already began to speak Turkish after three months, since the language is similar to Kyrgyz, but there were problems with the documents because I was underage,” he explained.
“I was there for a year, trained and played in friendly matches, but didn’t play in the championship due to the issue, and I had to come back to Bishkek and start all over again - to prove and show my skills.”
Stints at Kara-Balta, Alga and Neman gave him the opportunity to do just that, with call-up to the national team forthcoming for a June 2019 friendly match against Palestine, before Alykulov was entrusted with a larger role for the start of Kyrgyz Republic’s Asian Qualifiers campaign.
It was there where the son of the entertainer took centre stage, turning in a superb performance to help Kyrgyz Republic wow a packed Dolen Omurzakov Stadium with a record 7-0 win over Myanmar.
“When I scored, I felt wonderful emotions and indescribable feelings,” he recalls.
“The game with Myanmar in Bishkek had a wonderful atmosphere for me personally, because we played at our own stadium and all my loved ones were at this match.
“I felt such pride and joy that I was born in Kyrgyz Republic, and I can represent my country in the international arena.”
That dazzling impact eased his transition into senior international football, but his biggest test came when Kyrgyz Republic hosted Japan in November, putting a Belarus-based Alykulov against established Premier League and Bundesliga stars.
The Belarusian Premier League, despite its more recent boost in attention, is not considered among the world’s strongest competitions, but Alykulov insists it provided crucial preparation for the Samurai Blue, who were made to work hard for a 2-0 win.
“The championship of Belarus is at a very high level,” he says.
“I gained invaluable experience, and it helped me to play for the main team of the country. Yes, of course, adaptation is difficult at the beginning, but, fortunately, I had very good mentors who helped me overcome any difficulties. Discipline plays a big role for me too.
“The games against teams such as BATE (Borisov), Dynamo Brest, Dynamo Minsk, Shakhtar in Belarus helped me a lot in terms of confidence and against Japan I came out already more prepared emotionally, although those teams play a completely different type of football.
“Of course, we were very upset that we could not win, but we fought till the end.”
After such a remarkable 2019, the question now is: How does one go about setting goals for an abbreviated 2020?
One thing he has already achieved at his new club is turning the head of former Arsenal star Andrey Arshavin, who finished his playing career for the Almaty outfit.
Following a pre-season friendly between Kairat and Russian powerhouse Zenit – who Arshavin now works for – the Euro 2008 star had words of praise for “the little guy” in the Kairat camp, before confirming he was referring to Alykulov.
For a young player trying to make an impact, it was music to Alykulov’s ears.
“Andrey Arshavin is a legendary player who had a wonderful career,” he says.
“Of course, it’s incredible when a player of his level notices and praises you. I was very pleased.”
Beyond that moment, which was widely covered in his home country, Alykulov is focused on helping Kairat end a run of five successive second-place finishes, particularly after the club looked certain win the league last term, only for rivals Astana win their sixth title in a row by a single point.
“Eventually, the championship will resume,” says Alykulov. “The challenges we face are the most serious – to win the championship. This year the whole team wants to win the long-awaited title.
“Now we are all waiting for the championship to resume in Kazakhstan. For us, every match is important, and we look forward to start. In every match I want to help my team – this is my number one goal for now.”
With his club career taking a compelling trajectory, and seemingly destined for a long career in the national team, Gulzhigit Alykulov will be aiming to prove that 2019 was merely the first of many fruitful years.
Should he succeed on that measure, it won’t be long until the boy with the famous father becomes one of the Kyrgyz Republic’s favourite sons.
Photos: AFC, AFP
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