The life story of Ajax’s pinch hitter

The life story of Ajax’s pinch hitter

Ajax has had a majority stake in Ajax Cape Town in South Africa since 1999. In the Message from Cape Town column, we focus on the African Ajax team every Monday. In this edition, on the second day of 2012, we look forward to the second half of the competition.

In de Toekomst sport park’s cafeteria, Ajax’s centre forward speaks freely. He discusses his childhood in Moscow, where he grew up in an affluent, by Russian standards, family. More importantly, it was an athletic family. His parents both played volleyball at the highest level, with the CSKA Moscow association, linked to the Soviet military. “I went through many sections of the club in my youth”, says Bulykin. “I stopped volleyball fairly quickly, to my parents’ disappointment, but I liked other sports better. Until I was sixteen, I was one of Russia’s best swimmers. My specialty was the backstroke. But when I needed to make a choice, I picked football. I enjoy being in a physical duel against opponents. I missed that challenge with swimming. In the pool, the water is your only opponent. It’s what’s standing between you and the finish. But it’s a given and you can’t change it. I’d rather have a defender behind me, who I can outsmart in different ways.”

Born in 1979, Bulykin was aware of experiencing the last days of the Soviet Union, although he claims to not have any vivid memories of that time. “I lived in Germany for a while during that period, where my father was playing volleyball. Moreover, I was finally starting to become more interested in the world around me at around seventeen years old, and by then, Russia was well on its way to becoming the country that we know today.”
He learned to play football in the CSKA academy, but he chose to start his career with a small contract with local rival Lokomotiv, the railway’s club. “I started there in the second team, but I was allowed to play with the first team fairly quickly, especially in European matches. I scored a few times in the UEFA Cup, which generated interest from foreign clubs.”
The young man in his twenties sought his next step closer to home, with a third Moscow powerhouse, Dinamo, which originally represented the Russian police. “That’s where I had my big break. I grew into the team’s top scorer, became captain, and made it to the national team.” As an international, he experienced European Championships 2004, in which Russia didn’t make it past the group phase, but they were the only team to defeat Greece (2-1), the team which went on to become champion. In that match, Bulykin scored the second goal for Russia.
Around that time, Bulykin was yearning to broaden his horizons and try his luck within a foreign competition. Several clubs welcomed him as an intern, among which Everton in England. Bulykin’s eyes light up when he talks about his trial period with Liverpool’s second club, where he trained together with, then diamond in the rough, Wayne Rooney. Smiling, the Russian confesses that he still has, packed away in a moving box, a jersey signed by England’s most talked about footballer. “It’s something I really wanted at the time, to play in the English Premier League. Three weeks there were so different that what I was used to in Russia. It was like night and day.”

But an adventure at Everton wasn’t in the cards, since he wasn’t granted a working permit in England, based on a few interland matches. And that’s how things sometimes turned out, for example when Dinamo suddenly raised an earlier agreed upon sum by a half million euro, or pulled out its chequebook in order to tempt a player to remain in Moscow. “Looking back, it would have been better for my development if I had gone to England, or another foreign competition, but there’s no point in worrying about that now. In the end, I’m happy with what I’ve football has given me up until now.”
This last statement is understandable. Via Germany and Belgium (Anderlecht), the Russian ended up with ADO last season, where he brought himself into the picture at Ajax. With 21 goals, he scored one third of the team’s goals. Bulykin is aware of his status as a hero in The Hague, and the fact that with one bold move, he destroyed that credit by moving to Ajax; not the most loved team in The Hague. “Of course I know that there’s tension between the two clubs, I noticed that last season. I respect how the supporters feel, but that’s life. Everyone has to make choices. I chose for Ajax, for football at a higher level, for UEFA Champions League football.”
Separately from that, he thinks that his specific attributes will come in handy for Ajax, in a season which has been disappointing. “I’m a different type of centre forward that Kolbeinn Sigthórsson and the other centre forwards in the selection, that’s clear. I think there are enough matches coming up in which I can show my value to the club, both as a pinch hitter and, preferable, as a starting player. When everyone is fit again, we’ll have to fight it out in practice to see who’s the best. But in any case, we’ll need everyone in the upcoming months if we’re going to achieve our goals.”