The perfect farewell: How Andriy Shevchenko took Ukrainian football into the 21st century

The former Milan striker will be looking to terrorise defenders on the international stage one last time as looks at how he changed the landscape of his country's football

By Michael Yokhin | Ukraine Expert

If it were not for Euro 2012, Andriy Shevchenko might well have put an end to his glorious career a couple of years ago. After all, what is left of the great striker he once was apart from the nostalgic memories and the ever-painful back problems?

Remember Serhiy Rebrov, his fantastic partner in the young days at Dynamo Kyiv? He is just two years older than Sheva, but his shooting boots have been on the shelf since 2009. It’s true that Rebrov never fulfilled the potential Tottenham appeared to believe he had when paying £11 million (€13m) for his services, but the point is elsewhere. Rebrov decided to retire when his body told him to do so. Shevchenko chose quite a different path.

Euro 2012 was awarded to Ukraine and Poland in March 2007, when Shevchenko was about to finish his first, extremely disappointing season at Chelsea. Naturally, he was not close to finishing his career then, aged 30, but he forced himself to continue, waiting for his dream to come true. He was always determined to shine at the first football tournament that takes place in his homeland. Quite possibly, he also sees the participation in the event as something he owes to millions of his fans all over the country.

“This is my dream, and it is also a dream of my countrymen. It is huge to finish my international career at such a tournament in front of my home crowd,” he stated a few weeks ago.

As a child he had to be evacuated from the Chernobyl region, and now says: “It will be a great achievement if my goals and the victories they bring will remind the world of that great catastrophe and its victims.”

Shevchenko claims he still enjoys playing, and even went back on the intention to retire completely after Ukraine finish their part in Euro 2012: “I will continue as long as I have positive emotions.”

A neutral observer, though, might feel that disappointment of playing below the once majestic level took its toll on him. When at his prime at Milan, Shevchenko was one of the fairest gentlemen of football. Nowadays, he makes some really unwanted headlines. In the beginning of the season, he was caught shouting at Dynamo Kyiv coach Yuri Syomin when given instructions: “Sit down and shut up!” In the championship decider against Shakhtar Donetsk, Sheva was guilty of throwing the ball into the face of Brazilian star Fernandinho after fouling him from behind. Those are signs of frustration, never evident when one of the best strikers of the previous decade was in his top form.

Dynamo Kyiv
171 99
AC Milan
296 173
77 22
AC Milan
26 2
Dynamo Kyiv
83 30
106 46

For many outside of Ukraine, Shevchenko is now a player from the past. That is probably not how he would like to be viewed this summer, but he does want us to remember his prime years, when few, if any, could match his outrageous scoring record.

Here he is taking Camp Nou by storm, scoring a first-half hat-trick in the 4-0 win over sorry Barcelona in November 1997 en route to the Champions League quarter-finals. Here he is winning the Serie A top-scorer award in his first season at Milan in 1999-2000 with 24 goals, becoming the first really successful ex-Soviet player in a top western league. Here he is scoring the winning penalty in the 2003 Champions League final against Juventus at Old Trafford, and runs to celebrate wildly with his team-mates, ironically at the end of his worst personal season at San Siro.

Here he is voted European Player of the Year in 2004, after topping the scoring charts in Italy once again. And while squandering that amazing chance saved by Jerzy Dudek in extra-time of the 2005 Champions League final versus Liverpool and then missing the decisive penalty in the shoot-out are events hardly remembered fondly by Sheva, those moments were still written into history when he was one of the most fearsome strikers in the world.

Some might say Shevchenko already achieved international glory with his country when Ukraine reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 2006. That is not exactly accurate. Firstly, Andriy himself didn’t show even a tenth of his potential in Germany, having arrived with a niggling knee injury. Secondly, the entire team had been woefully poor, enjoying a huge slice of luck when getting the easiest group with Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, and beating the Swiss on penalties in the last 16 after one of the most dour 0-0 draws ever. Spain and Italy thrashed them with ease, and coach Oleh Blokhin can hardly consider the tournament to be his personal success. He was far better as a player.

Shevchenko knows it only too well. After veteran keeper Oleksandr Shovkovskiy got injured, Andriy remains the only player in the squad who had the privilege of working closely with Valeriy Lobanovskiy. The legendary coach was the one who took care of Sheva in his younger years. He told him straight away about his huge potential, but at the same time made it clear that it will only be fulfilled if he worked hard enough. When Shevchenko was 20, Lobanovskiy called him the “white Ronaldo”. Later he took his words back, claiming his pupil is superior to the Brazilian.

A funny story goes around that Shevchenko owes his career to his grandmother, who planted a lock of his hair under a pear tree, a custom that brings a child curly hair and a lot of good luck. Hair apart, Sheva knows only too well that in truth, he owes much of his success to Lobanovskiy. It’s more than a decade since the great teacher’s death in March 2002, but he will be alive in Shevchenko’s mind when he takes to the field during Euro 2012. He would dearly love to dedicate the success in this tournament to Ukraine’s greatest football mind.

That is part of the reason why Sheva is still here. That is part of the reason why it would be nice to see him shining again after so many indifferent years. At 35, the man who scored 175 goals for Milan is no longer what he used to be, but he deserves a good tournament as a farewell from the world stage.

It would be sad if he were to sit on the bench alongside Blokhin, watching his team bow out at group stage. He surely deserves better.

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