By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer
"Before I start I'd like to welcome everyone to Ukraine, and to my city of Kiev," said Andriy Shevchenko, shunning the first question asked of him by the assembled media in the Olimpiyskiy's press conference room. He wanted to get his own message across, to have his say.
A little over 24 hours later, he was peeling off on a near-post run to plant home a thunderous header that earned his side victory over Sweden in Euro 2012 and sent his countrymen into delirium. In his nation, and in his city, he had got his message across and then some.
It was immediately clear that this was a night that would live long in the memory of Ukrainian football, of the country as a whole and, more than anything, it was the crowning moment of Shevchenko's career. Perhaps he already knew that the day when he would announce his retirement from football was not far away, but nobody could have blamed him had he made the decision after that wondrous night in June, realising that it would simply not get any better than that. And that is saying something for a man who has earned his spot among some of the great names in world football's Hall of Fame.
|"Lobanovskyi made me a player. He transformed me from knowing how to play with a ball to knowing how to play football"
- Andriy Shevchenko
It was certainly fitting that his final wonderful moment came in Kiev, where it had all begun in 1986, and where he rose to prominence with local side Dynamo Kiev. Alongside Sergei Rebrov, Shevchenko spearheaded the most devastating forward line to come from outside of Europe's highest echelon of clubs in many a year.
|SHEVCHENKO'S CAREER STATS
Under legendary coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi, the Bilo-Syni swept aside great names including Arsenal and Real Madrid on their way to the semi-finals of the Champions League in 1998-99. They had reached the quarter-finals the year before, with a Shevchenko hat-trick against Barcelona at Camp Nou catching the continent's eye. The downside of these impressive showings was always going to be the potential loss of their star names, and nobody was surprised to see the storied AC Milan snap up Sheva in the summer of 1999.
At San Siro he became an almost instant hero. His ability not just to be prolific, but also to make a mark on the big occasions won over the fans' hearts in near-record time. In three of his first five seasons in the red and black he netted a phenomenal 24 league strikes, earning the 2004 Ballon d'Or along the way. Over seven years he would hit 173 goals, including a record 14 in Derby della Madonnina clashes with Inter.
It is almost impossible to count the times that Milan had Sheva to thank for significant victories, with the most notable coming as they clinched their sixth European Cup success against Juventus at Old Trafford in 2003. At the end of a penalty shoot-out punctuated by failures, the No.7 kept a cool head to slot the ball past Gianluigi Buffon and settle the contest, giving the Rossoneri their first Champions League crown in nine years.
Two years later, it would be his missed spot-kick that completed Milan's misery as Liverpool came from three down to record a historic European title. But no fingers would be pointed at the marksman, particularly when he added 28 more goals during the following campaign, including nine in the Champions League.
His scoring feats owed a lot to his movement both on and off the ball, but more than anything it was his deadliness in front of goal that made him who he was, with anyone who gave him a sniff being put to the sword. But he would also score goals from distance, and bagged a legendary effort against Juve when he beat four men and struck an unstoppable shot past Buffon. His great variety of strikes was a real plus point, and the videos that live to tell the tale – particularly those depicting his days at Milan – speak of a man comfortable in his ability to find the net in almost any situation.
His form attracted the attention of Chelsea's megabucks, and when he watched Milan's game against Roma at the tail end of the 2005-06 season among the fans of the Curva Sud, the writing was on the wall. But when his €46 million transfer went through, there were many doubts from English football fans as to whether a man turning 30 years old could justify the fee Roman Abramovich had splashed out.
On a personal level it all started well for him, but his goals in the Community Shield against Liverpool and at Middlesbrough in the Premier League both came in defeats for the expensively-assembled Blues. The results reflected the fears of some that his style and that of Chelsea were not compatible, and before long he was finding it hard to command a regular place in Jose Mourinho's starting line-up.
Even when Mourinho departed in acrimonious circumstances, Sheva's fortunes fared little better. By the summer of 2008, all concerned were left to digest the reality that the move just had not worked, and the striker was loaned back to Milan.
|"Sheva is up there as one of the world's greatest strikers for a generation. He's a legend, a true superstar"
- Frank Lampard
It was a very different Shevchenko who arrived back in Lombardy, and not just because he was left bearing the unfamiliar No.76 shirt. A bit part in a disappointing season, the Ukrainian offered next to none of the old magic, scoring just twice in 26 appearances, with neither coming in Serie A.
His stock having fallen in both England and Italy, he followed his heart and returned to Dynamo. This time he was occasionally employed as more of a link man in a bid to put his clever brain to better use now that his legs were lacking a little spark. But he still scored telling goals, adding six more to his European tally to finish with 67, enough for third spot in the all-time continental list. He also holds the bronze-medal position in the Champions League charts with 58 goals.
Three years back at home, crowned by his night to remember in the Olimpiyskiy, provided a fitting denouement to his career. He may have tailed off towards the end, but he had tellingly had the last word. And besides, nobody will ever take away what he did for Dynamo and for Milan. Why do you think they both took him back?
|SHEVA'S CAREER HONOURS
|1995 - Ukrainian Premier League
1996 - Ukrainian Premier League
1996 - Ukrainian Cup
1996 - CIS Cup
1997 - Ukrainian Premier League
1997 - CIS Cup
1998 - Ukrainian Premier League
1998 - Ukrainian Cup
1998 - CIS Cup
1999 - Ukrainian Premier League
1999 - Ukrainian Cup
Six-time Ukrainian Football of the Year
|2000 Serie A Capocannoniere
2003 Coppa Italia
2003 Uefa Champions League
2003 Uefa Supercup
2004 Serie A
2004 Serie A Capocannoniere
2004 Supercoppa Italiana
2004 Ballon d'Or
2007 League Cup
2007 FA Cup
2011 Ukrainian Super Cup
Two-time Uefa Team of the Year member
As he heads off into politics, he at least does so knowing that Ukrainian adults and children alike will stop and listen whenever he speaks. When he has something to say, they will listen. For he is Sheva, the man who has captivated them and made them dream for a decade and a half, who dragged them to a first major finals when they reached the 2006 World Cup, and who gave them that sensational night in Kiev in very recent memory. All this after being evacuated to Donetsk after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. He has suffered with his nation and he has led them by the hand to the top.
Even many of those fortunate enough to remember Oleg Blokhin's glory days on the pitch say it is hard to deny the view held today that Shevchenko is Ukraine's greatest footballer of all time. But whether he sits first or second in that theoretical argument, to the fans of Dynamo and Milan there has never been a No.7 like him.In announcing his retirement, the goal machine explained: "I want to share the experience I have acquired in Europe and do something for my country." He has already done all that, and so much more.