Euro 2012: The fitting farewell for Andriy Shevchenko

by Ciaran Kelly

As a fifteen year old who matured just as Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, there is no understating just what Andriy Shevchenko embodies in his homeland.

Sure, Shevchenko is Ukraine’s only official (Oleh Blokhin represented the Soviet Union in 1975, as did Ihor Belanov in 1985) Ballon d’Or winner and scored an impressive 48 goals in 111 matches for Zhovto-Blakytni, but he also represented and led the perestroika generation. After all, Shevchenko proved to be Ukraine’s all-time greatest export in Western Europe: marrying an American, bleaching his once-flowing locks, modelling for Armani, wearing tailored leather jackets and speaking numerous foreign languages.

However, playing for Ukraine, perhaps, Shevchenko has had the worst individual luck and most heartbreak in qualifying for, and participating in, international tournaments in the modern era. Firstly, Ukraine went out to Croatia 3-1 on aggregate in the 1998 World Cup play-offs, with the twenty-two year old Shevchenko scoring four goals in total – having nearly survived a Group 9 that included Germany and Portugal. Then, in the Euro 2000 play-offs – having finished second, unbeaten and with Shevchenko again scoring four goals in total (including a sweet, politics wise, free-kick in the dying moments in the crucial 1-1 draw with Russia at the Luzhniki Stadium on 9 October) after progressing past a Group 4 that featured the eventual tournament winners, France – Ukraine were defeated 3-2 by Slovenia in the play-offs.  In the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, Ukraine finished 2nd behind Poland in Group 5 but despite Shevchenko’s whooping ten goals, Ukraine came up short in a 5-1 defeat by eventual finalists Germany in the play-offs.

Ukraine did finally make their first ever competitive tournament, in 2006 – following automatic 1stplace progression in a tricky Group 2 with the likes of Turkey, Denmark and Greece – but then failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup after yet another play-off defeat: this time, a narrow 1-0 aggregate defeat to Greece. Thankfully for the thirty-five year old Shevchenko, he was safe in the knowledge that Ukraine, as co-hosts with Poland, would qualify automatically for their first ever European Championships. Still, regardless, many might point to Shevchenko’s knee injury – which meant that he could only play twenty minutes in the decisive Group D match against England on 17 June – and Marko Dević’s disallowed equaliser in the same match as evidence of yet more international heartbreak. However, as well as Dević being offside in the first place, Shevchenko, and Ukraine, had a tournament to savour.

Producing a talismanic display in the opening 2-1 victory over Sweden on 12 June, the fate-like proceedings of the event were encapsulated in two distinctive goals from Ukraine’s number seven. Having missed what would have been trademark far post slotted finish – which instead went wide – in the first-half, Shevchenko instead netted a welcomed first in his professional career: two consecutive headed goals. It was the perfect reflection of the thirty-five year old veteran’s standing, with cunning elusiveness – rather than pace or acceleration - proving key to a man of the match display. Even though Ukraine finished third in Group D, this one euphoria-filled and morale-raising performance has seen him join other elder international statesmen – such as Dino Zoff (thirty-eight for Italy in 1980), Arnold Mühren (thirty-seven for the Netherlands in 1988), Laurent Blanc (thirty-four for France in 2000), Theodoros Zagorakis (thirty-two years and eight months for Greece in 2004) and Marcos Senna (thirty-two for Spain in 2008) – in providing a brilliant swansong in their final European Championships and international tournament.

Still, it should come as little surprise: Shevchenko has always been a patriotic individual and that is much-owed to the fact that on 29 April, 1986, a horrific nuclear disaster struck Chernobyl. Shevchenko’s family home, in Dvirkivschynajust, was 242km away, but such was the scale of the disaster, mass re-location was required in the surrounding sprawl. From this, following a move to Kiev in 1979 due to Shevchenko’s father’s ensign work in a tank regiment, the Shevchenkos were evacuated east to Donetsk, to avoid inhaling the radiation that would go on to kill 4,000 people up to 2008 and would inflict numerous birth defects on the proceeding generation of 1986. Subsequently, despite – or maybe even because of – his footballing success and celebrity, Shevchenko would never forget the horrors of Chernobyl and later became an ambassador for the SOS Children’s Villages charity.

Shevchenko sought a serious career in football, even from the age of just ten, but despite failing an intense dribbling drill in an entry test for a specialist sports school back in Kyiv and boxing to a very high level in the LLWI junior league, he was scouted by Oleksandr Shpakov and signed by Dynamo Kyiv. Having idolised Oleh Blokhin, it was a dream move for Shevchenko and, armed with immense determination, he went on to play in the Under-14’s Ian Rush Cup in Wales, as a result of perestroika (allowed Western travel), and even won a pair of Rush’s boots – which he has kept to this day – for finishing as the tournament’s top scorer:

Funnily enough, the boots were too small for me but I still tried to play in them – until my big toes poked through!

Shevchenko soon broke into Kyiv’s first-team, as a seventeen year old in 1993, and scored thirty-three goals in eighty-six games – winning two league titles (1995 and 1996) – between 1995-1997. However, it was not until Valeriy Lobanovskyi – the man who would have the biggest influence on Shevchenko’s career – and his return to the club (following a difficulty to replicate his club methods at an international level in the Middle-East) ,in 1997, that would see Shevchenko explode onto the scene. The pair shared an immense, mutual admiration, with Lobanovskyi believing that Shevchenko was a “universal player” for his intelligence and all-round play, and Shevchenko going on to comment that Lobanovskyi “made me a player.. he transformed me from knowing how to play with a ball to knowing how to play football.”

In ways there were similarities, not to mention the fact that the remarkably postmodern Lobanovskyi was the perfect man to introduce Shevchenko to what would become Western Europe’s 21st century footballing methods. This was all the more crucial while Shevchenko was still in a key development phase from 1997-1999 yet, intriguingly, Lobanovskyi had been a flamboyant left winger as a player – who fell out with the system-focused Victor Maslov – but would go on to believe in a structured system and modern training methods. After all, Lobanovskyi would use different styles – yet never deviated from his fluid philosophy, relentless pressing and positional inter-change – and tactics depending on the opposition; and near-innovated nutritional, tactical (sheets on noticeboards on mornings after games, in, obviously, an era before mass video analysis) and backroom coaching (numerous specialised coaches, including the statistician, Anatoliy Zelentsov) modernisation.

So, even though Lobanovskyi would go on to immensely struggle with the post-Communist (post-1991) generation and, with it, their undeniable Western influences and, at times, laissez-faire work-rate, Shevchenko served as a perfect happy-medium. The striker drove a Mercedes, had a boot contract with Adidas and holidayed in the Seychelles – reflecting the fact he was, undoubtedly, Ukraine’s first national superstar – but he never let it escalate to such a level that it affected his training application. From this, Lobanovskyi nurtured Shevchenko’s Western influences but, equally, Shevchenko embodied his manager’s hard-working philosophy and this created a potent concoction with Shevchenko’s undoubted natural ability.

Lobanovskyi – standing in left centre in tracksuit, with Shevchenko underneath and nearest – and the Kyiv squad with the 1999 Ukrainian Cup

Shevchenko went on to score a brilliant sixty-six goals in eighty-five matches (78% strike-rate) under Lobanovskyi between 1997 and 1999, forming Europe’s most devastating strike partnership of the period with fellow countryman, Serhiy Rebrov (fifty-nine in eighty-nine matches, 66% strike-rate, in the same period), who was two years older than him. Shevchenko lit up the European stage the most, though, out of the pair and scored a fantastic hat-trick against Barcelona in a magnificent (even if Vítor Baia was terribly out of form) 0-4 win at the Nou Camp on 5 November, 1997; followed it up with three goals in Kyiv’s shock 3-1 aggregate quarter-final victory over the then European champions, Real Madrid, in the 1998/1999 second-round; and two goals in their 3-3 aggregate away goals defeat to Bayern Munich in the semi-finals in the same landmark 1998/1999 campaign. With sixteen goals in just twenty-four Champions League matches between 1997 and 1999, the twenty-three year old Shevchenko was the world’s hottest property.

Shevchenko joined Milan for $25 million in the summer of 1999, having won five domestic titles and six cups at Kyiv, and immediately lived up to his fee: becoming the first foreigner to win the Serie A’s Golden Boot award, with twenty-four goals in thirty-two matches, in his debut season since Michel Platini in 1983/1984. However, Shevchenko’s goalscoring form was one of the few bright spots of a disappointing 1999/2000 campaign for Milan, where Oliver Bierhoff’s form dipped dramatically and an ageing Milan clearly regressed in finishing 3rd. It was a similar story in 2000/2001, with Shevchenko netting thirty-four goals in fifty-one  games but Milan failing to progress past Group B (Deportivo, PSG and Galatasaray) in the Champions League second group stage (final was to be held in San Siro, so particularly disappointing) and finishing just twelve points clear of the relegation zone in 6th. Milan’s club owner, Silvio Berlusconi, had failed to back Alberto Zaccheroni handsomely in the summer of 2000 and it told, with Fernando Redondo being the only notable addition and Milan continuing to stagnate.

Zaccheroni was sacked, eventually replaced by Fatih Terim, but the Turk, too, struggled, and was ousted in favour of Carlo Ancelotti after just five months in charge. Ancelotti, like Lobanovskyi, would prove to be Shevchenko’s most influential mentor but the period between 2001 and 2003 was frustrating for Shevchenko due to niggling groin and back injuries, and Ancelotti’s squad rotational policy to juggle both the Scudetto and Champions League. 2001/2002 and 2002/2003 would see Shevchenko bag just twenty-seven goals (the fantastic thirty-yard, near-byline, curling floater against Juventus on 9 December, 2001 was, somewhat ironically, one of the goals of Shevchenko’s career, though) in seventy-eight appearances, but the twenty-seven year old re-exploded when it mattered most: the latter stages of the 2002/2003 Champions League. Milan, who progressed into the second group stage alongside Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Lokomotiv Moscow in a tricky Group C, opened the group against Real Madrid at the San Siro on 26 November, 2002.

Rumours circulated that Ancelotti had tired of the pressures of picking the fans’ and boardroom (Berlusconi awarded Shevchenko a holiday on one of his many yachts as a result of the 1999/2000 Golden Boot) favourite, not to mention Shevchenko’s seemingly flagging pace, but all these murmurs were crushed on that night at the San Siro. Rui Costa, who proved such a magnificent signing by Terim alongside Andrea Pirlo and Filippo Inzaghi, sent in a trademark, daisy-cutting, pace-filled through ball from deep inside the centre circle. Shevchenko, in similarly trademark style, broke the offside trap after cutting in from the channels to surprise Michel Salgado and Fernando Hierro, and sped away to slot a cool finish past the onrushing – and under the outstretched arms of – Iker Casillas into the corner of the far post. Shevchenko could not hide his delight, with a Ravanelli-esque shirt-over-face goal celebration and aeroplane, following a confidence-instigating goal for both he and the team.

Shevchenko played a pivotal role in Milan’s eventual triumph, going on to score a goal in the 3-2 aggregate quarter-final victory over Ajax and the pivotal away goal in the 1-1 aggregate semi-final ‘win’ over Internazionale. Even before the tense semi-final second-leg, with Milan having drawn 0-0 with Internazionale at the San Siro in the first-leg on 7 May, Shevchenko’s mind was not far from his roots. From this, he wanted to wear a personal black armband for Lobanovskyi (who had prematurely passed away, from a stroke, at the age of sixty-three on 13 May, 2002) on the first annual anniversary of his death. UEFA, bizarrely, prohibited Shevchenko from doing so but it did not deter his focus and he instead scored in the semi-final, went on to convert the winning penalty in Milan’s final win over Juventus on 28 May and brought the trophy to Lobanovskyi’s grave at Baikov Cemetery in Kiev that summer.

Shevchenko was firmly back to something resembling his consistent best and this did not go unnoticed, with a chance – but telling – five minute meeting with Roman Abramovich in the Four Seasons Hotel in Milan that summer. In an informal chat, with both speaking Russian, the pair just talked about football but Abramovich made a very informal offer to Shevchenko, which he politely turned down. Abramovich’s near-obsessive interest, though, was now instigated. Accentuating this fact, 2003/2004 was the perfect, consistent return to form for the Ukrainian, with Shevchenko’s twenty-four goals in thirty-two Serie A matches helping Milan win their first Scudetto for four seasons (Shevchenko’s last ever league title, sealed by a brilliant header against Roma on 2 May) and he also scored the winning goal in the 1-0 UEFA Supercup victory over Porto on 29 August, 2003. For Ukraine, though, Shevchenko had grown exasperated and after an embarrassing 1-0 defeat to Macedonia on 29 March, 2004, Shevchenko flung his shirt and captaincy to the ground, and very nearly retired from international on the flight home from Skopje.

Shevchenko remained undeterred, though, and he became the first Ukrainian Ballon d’Or winner (again visited Lobanovskyi in tribute) since Ihor Belanov in 1986, but he failed to prevent Deportivo’s incredible – and Milan’s unforgivable (were 4-1 up from the first-leg) – 5-4 aggregate quarter-final win in 2003/2004. Still, rumours surrounded Shevchenko and Abramovich, and, again, the Russian (who was so rarely so hands on in transfer negotiations at the time) courted Shevchenko’s signature: meeting Adriano Galliani, Milan’s vice-president, alongside Peter Kenyon, Chelsea’s then chief executive, on 27 May, 2004. Shevchenko, though, had just signed a contract extension with Milan but even though that would seem the perfect evidence of loyalty, that same summer, Shevchenko married the cosmopolitan American model, Kristin Pazik (who only spoke Italian and English, with Shevchenko, initially, unable to speak the latter), in Washington in July. She would prove pivotal, as a friend of Irina Vyacheslavovna Malandina (Abramovich’s then wife), to Shevchenko’s future decisions.

The horrors of Ukrainian politics: Shevchenko’s public support certainly helped Yushchenko’s eventual 52% result, amid the Orange Revolution, but  Yushchenko’s chloracne showed just how inhumane and spiteful Ukrainian politics were

In his homeland, it was not Shevchenko’s marriage that stoked some controversy, but, instead, his support of the anti-Russian Viktor Yushchenko in the 2004 Presidential elections in Ukraine that winter. This went against the grain of up to 50% (again reflecting the contrasts between the pre and post-Communism generations and, with it, the west and east of the country) of Ukraine’s population and their then current President, Viktor Yanukovych. Remarkably, this was despite the fact that Yushchenko had been so horrifically poisoned with TCDD (causes chloracne) and held immense popularity in the west of Ukraine, where Shevchenko blossomed from an apprentice to a national icon with Dynamo Kyiv. On the pitch, 2004/2005 was just as chaotic and even though Shevchenko thrived so brilliantly in Ancelotti’s perfectly balanced 4-2-3-1 – with Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Rui Costa, Clarence Seedorf and Marco Ambrosini – Berlusconi’s intervention led to Ancelotti being forced to utilise a 4-4-2 diamond and “play with strikers..that’s an order.” It did not inhibit Shevchenko, though (despite Milan, somewhat bizarrely, winning six and drawing one in the seven games he missed with a facial bone injury in the spring) – much owed to the emergence of Kaká and the consistency of Hernán Crespo – and Milan went on to make the Champions League final against Liverpool at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul on 25 May, 2005.

The rest, of course, is history and Shevchenko, like Pirlo and Serginho, missed his penalty in the 3-2 shoot-out defeat after an astonishing 3-3 draw. Perhaps, his double-miss – and, admittedly, Jerzy Dudek’s incredible double-save – at the end of the second-half of extra-time was more regrettable in hindsight, given the Ukrainian’s usual prowess under pressure in the six-yard box, and, at twenty-eight, it would prove to be Shevchenko’s last ever Champions League final. Abramovich, yet again, remained interested and for the third summer in a row, he again courted Shevchenko’s signature and met him in Boston (both Chelsea and Milan were taking part in a pre-season tournament in the U.S. in July, 2005). Yet again, the pair parted without an agreement but with Kristin wishing for their sons, Jordan and Christopher (soon to be born in November), to learn English, a move to Chelsea was not far off.

2005/2006 saw yet another stellar season from Shevchenko, scoring twenty-eight goals in forty games, and on 23 November, 2005, he became only the fifth player in Champions League history to score four goals in one match (0-4 drubbing of Fenerbahçe at the Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium) and the first to do so in an away tie. Milan, again, came very close to winning the trophy, pulling off a ‘PSV-like’ (2004/2005 semi-final 3-3 aggregate ‘win’, where Marco Ambrosini scored in stoppage time of the second-leg against PSV, regardless of Philipp Cocu scoring a minute later) comeback against Lyon in the quarter-final second-leg (Lyon, at one point, had a 3-1 aggregate lead, with the score being 1-1 before the final two minutes) on 4 April, 2006. It was Barcelona’s destiny, though – inspired by Ronaldinho’s astonishing exploits that season – to win the tournament and they edged an incredibly tight 1-0 aggregate semi-final, despite Shevchenko having a legitimate last-minute winner disallowed (missed a host of chances before this, regardless) for a push on Carles Puyol in the 0-0 first-leg in the Camp Nou by the referee, Markus Merk. Nonetheless, Shevchenko finished as the tournament’s top scorer with a personal best of twelve Champions League goals.

It was clear, though, that Shevchenko sought a fresh challenge – despite his legendary status at the San Siro and an offer of a lucrative six-year contract– and Milan, begrudgingly and tellingly (was nearly thirty years of age, so would be optimum price), accepted Shevchenko’s transfer request at an emotional goodbye press conference on 26 May, 2006. Chelsea, naturally, were quick to follow up Shevchenko’s part of the deal and sealed a then British-record £31 million deal – with £130,000 per week wages – well before the beginning of the World Cup on 31 May. On the international front, the Ukrainian remained a bonafide world-class striker and had translated his club form onto the international stage, buoyed by his hero, Blokhin, convincing him to keep on believing after that disastrous night in Skopje on 29 March, 2004. Shevchenko scored six goals in qualifying, in five of the nine matches he took part in, and the stage was set in Germany for his, and Ukraine’s, first ever World Cup. From this, Shevchenko netted twice in the group stages, against Saudi-Arabia and Tunisia, after Ukraine were hammered 4-0 by Spain in the opening match of Group H on 14 June.

Ukraine then edged Switzerland on penalties (even if Shevchenko missed their opening penalty of the shoot-out), following a 0-0 draw, in the second-round on 26 June to set up a quarter-final against Italy. Shevchenko, possibly influenced by an adoring Italian crowd and facing the likes of Gattuso and Pirlo – or just Fabio Cannavaro not giving him a sniff, which accentuated a lack of service – was fairly anonymous in Ukraine’s 3-0 defeat but did have an emotional, and mutual, blowing of kisses with the Italy fans after the match. The Soviet Union had never progressed past the quarter-finals of a World Cup and the Azzurri went on to win the tournament, so it was an admirable achievement for Ukraine in their first international tournament.

In a rare move in his history of signing players, Mourinho was even present at Shevchenko’s contract signing in London on 31 May, 2006

Even though many, since, have been key to emphasise the chasm that soon developed between José Mourinho and Abramovich in the months after Shevchenko’s arrival, there was no doubt that the Portuguee was, initially, content with the Ukrainian’s signature. Firstly, Mourinho had hoped to sell Crespo the previous summer and the then twenty-nine year old Shevchenko had been on his shortlist, but Crespo soon proved himself to the Special One. Now, though, Crespo had departed to Internazionale on a two-year loan and with Didier Drogba the perfect hold-up forward, Shevchenko, as a fantastic, intelligent runner and finesse finisher, seemed the perfect partner. From this, Mourinho’s early endorsement of Shevchenko was of little surprise, and hyperbole, at the time:

 Today is a day when the dream became reality – Andriy has always been my first choice for Chelsea since I arrived. Before it was not possible, now it is for real. He has great qualities, ambition, discipline, tactical awareness and, of course, he is a great goalscorer.

 

 

I did not need to meet with him to convince him about Chelsea, in the same way we did not need to talk a lot about why I wanted him. Everybody knows him as a player, tactically he can play in the Chelsea system no doubt.

 

 

Milan is a big club, a great club, but for him to leave Milan for Chelsea is a big statement about where Chelsea is. He is a champion and he is joining a team of champions. I have already spoken to some of our players and they are looking forward to playing with him. Great players want to play with other great players.

After all, Shevchenko was used to the tight marshalling and tough-tackling of Italy, so that was no reason for him not to produce in England and going by his debut against Liverpool in the Community Shield on 13 August, 2006, few would have bet against him living up to his transfer fee and firing Chelsea to their first ever Champions League title. Shevchenko, in trademark vibrant style, looked full of menace, endeavour and intelligence. From his 8’ run past Jamie Carragher and Steve Finnan, requiring a desperate last-ditched tackle by John Arne Riise, to his brilliant 13’ lofted pass for Drogba, it seemed that he would settle into Chelsea perfectly – seemingly thriving in Mourinho’s purposefully-designed 4-4-2 diamond. He then scored a fantastic goal before half-time, after again skipping past Carragher and Finnan, to chest a lofted Frank Lampard pass down and coolly slotted past Pepe Reina. The television cameras immediately cut to a cackling Abramovich, who performed a rare double fisted celebration as opposed to his then usual nonchalant clap. Shevchenko, unsurprisingly, got caught up in the Millennium Stadium roar and even kissed the Chelsea badge. It seemed that this would be the beginning of a very fruitful partnership.

Of course, though, Shevchenko’s Chelsea career never took off and he netted just fourteen goals in fifty-one games in 2006/2007, which reflected a paltry silverware return of ‘just’ FA and League Cups. Injuries to Joe Cole and Arjen Robben did not help the Ukranian, with Mourinho persevering with a blunt and narrow 4-4-2. This accentuated the fact that the direct-suited and under fire Drogba was, also, keen to prove his worth – just like Shevchenko – to the Chelsea fans and the Ivorian had little previous experience of playing in a striking partnership. So, even if he would go on to call Shevchenko a “great partner” – with Shevchenko assisting ten Chelsea goals that season – he soon tired of the Ukrainian’s goalscoring obsession:

On Shevchenko’s side I don’t see any desire to collaborate. I think that as a big signing he believes he is obliged to justify his transfer fee with goals at any cost. I love to share but, when I give, I appreciate it when I get something back. Everyone would have some-thing to gain if we really worked together. I have tried to understand his position and get an explanation.

Still, among these fourteen goals, was a key, and brilliant, away goal in the 1-1 draw against Porto in the Champions League second-round first-leg at the Estádio Dragão on 21 February, 2007. Mourinho, impressed, awarded Shevchenko an ovation by the travelling Chelsea fans and, in a then rare move with his players, caressed Shevchenko’s cheek as he departed on 88’. Incredibly, up until then, Shevchenko’s most important goals had been openers against Portsmouth and Levski Sofia on 21 October, 2006 and 5 December, 2006 respectively. However, the Ukrainian did not kick on, despite a magnificent curling opener against Tottenham in the FA Cup quarter-final replay at White Hart Lane on 19 March, 2007, and his astonishing open-goal FA Cup semi-final miss against Blackburn on 15 April encapsulated this. Mourinho ran out of patience and, coincidentally, unnecessary groin surgery was brought forward by the club – which ruled Shevchenko out of the Champions League semi-final second-leg against Liverpool on 1 May and the FA Cup final against Manchester United on 19 May.

Something had to change and Abramovich was not oblivious to this. Initially, he planned to replace Chelsea’s popular assistant manager, and club legend, Steve Clarke, with Avram Grant – to which Mourinho threatened resignation – but, instead, Grant was recruited as director of football. Darren Campbell, a multiple Olympic medal winner in the 200m (silver in Sydney in 2000) and the 4 x 400m (gold in Athens in 2004), was brought in as a personal sprints’ coach – which Mourinho had been sceptical about, despite Shevchenko having had a similar personal fitness coach at Milan (reflected how Mourinho would go on to refer to the fact that Shevchenko was “treated like a prince” at Milan). However, with Mourinho’s departure, the pale and scruffy Shevchenko was the perfect media scapegoat and was, somewhat, vilified, portrayed as one of the main instigators for the Portuguese’s departure and lambasted for not crying when Mourinho left. Shevchenko’s performances did improve, though, under Grant but, first, he had to hit rock-bottom and, far from re-invigorated by the Special One’s departure, this occurred, ironically, on his 31st birthday in Grant’s first home game as manager against Fulham on 29 September, 2007.

In a superficial move to placate the Chelsea fans upset over Mourinho’s departure, Abramovich and club director, Eugene Tenenbaum, sat – seemingly without nearby security guards – among the fans in the Shed End. However, following Shevchenko’s struggles and a frustrated Drogba’s sending-off on 74′, it would prove to be Chelsea’s fourth consecutive Premier League match without scoring,

In a game that encapsulated everything that had devolved with Shevchenko – his poor free-kick strikes, his cautious acceleration, his flagging strength (never got past Aaron Hughes) and his off-target crossing (admittedly, could argue that this was never an attribute at Milan) – Shevchenko reached his nadir in a Chelsea shirt and some Chelsea fans even booed him, for the first time, after being substituted for Claudio Pizarro on 54’. Shevchenko did go on to net eight goals in twenty-four games for Chelsea that season, including his best performance in a blue shirt with a brace (brilliant twenty-five yard strike for the second) and an assist in the 4-4 draw against Aston Villa on Boxing Day, 2007 – but even Grant soon lost faith (Shevchenko played for the reserves against Reading at Brentford’s Griffin Park on 4 March, 2008). From this, Nicolas Anelka was signed in January, despite the fact that Shevchenko had seemingly recovered from ‘back problems’. Therefore, it was, perhaps, little surprise that Shevchenko, publicly, sought a move back to Milan:

I feel nostalgic for Italy. I miss my friends and certain things about the country – the food for example. And then I miss the atmosphere and high tension of Italian games. Things are more relaxed over here. I can understand most things in English but I find it hard to speak. I prefer Italian.

 

Italian football is fantastic. It is all about tactics and intelligence. Italian people appreciate great champions and good football. English football is faster and more physical. The smaller teams try to cut the gap between themselves and the big clubs by playing with great strength. I could sum it up by saying Italian football is about finishing and logic, a bit like chess, and the English game is based on speed and instinct.

 

I went over to England so my children could grow up in a different situation, not to look for a better club than Milan. I can’t think of any better place in the world than Milan.

A groin injury hindered any chance of Shevchenko impressing Grant’s successor, Luiz Felipe Scolari, and Shevchenko was deemed surplus to requirements, with Franco Di Santo, tellingly, preferred as Chelsea’s striking option from the bench in Scolari’s opening Premier League game on 17 August, 2008. From this, the thirty-two year old Shevchenko – more out of sentimentality, even if his shirt number was now seventy-six, than anything else – was loaned to Milan for the 2008/2009 campaign. Any lingering hopes of him re-kindling his goalscoring exploits in his natural environment  - with the Milan Lab hoped to have been able to aid his flagging physical attributes – were soon quelled, though, and he scored just two goals in twenty-six appearances (although, admittedly, he was used mainly as a late substitute and started just nine matches) under Ancelotti. Ironically, though, Ancelotti would follow Shevchenko to Chelsea from Milan.

Shevchenko had one last chance to impress potential buyers – particularly in the MLS (Chelsea were, conveniently, touring the U.S that summer) – and in a superficial bid, he brought back his flowing, bleached locks for the first time in six seasons. Even though Kristin was open to heading back to America, the pair instead decided that they wanted their sons to be brought up in Ukraine after their now successive (Milan in 2008/2009 was a much different period to 2000-2006) failures of lives abroad and Shevchenko’s thirst to play at Euro 2012. Valery Gazzaev, Dynamo Kyiv’s then manager, had wanted to sign Shevchenko for Alania Vladikavkaz in 1998 and nowhe had the perfect chance to finally land his man – even if he was now thirty-three years of age. Shevchenko, naturally, was in a much different state – requiring to fly to Munich twice every month for back treatment, as recommended by his international team-mate, Anatoliy Tymoschuck – but it was hoped that in an adapted, deeper position, his undying natural ability could be coaxed out of him again.

Gazzaev would mainly use Shevchenko in this fashion, but, near-fatefully, he would grab his 100thprofessional goal for Kyiv as a central striker against Vorskla Poltava on 13 October, 2010. In his second spell at Kyiv, Shevchenko scored an admirable thirty goals in eighty-three games and far from it being just down to an ‘inferior’ standard of football in Ukraine, he has rolled back the years on European nights, too, such as the brilliant 2-0 win over Manchester City on 10 March, 2011. This game encapsulated everything about the veteran Shevchenko, who played as a free-roaming number ten and gave Aleksander Kolarov (may not be the best defensive left back in the world, but Shevchenko struggled so much for confidence and dribbling at Chelsea and in his second spell at Milan) a torrid time. Shevchenko volleyed a brilliant opener on 25′, after ghosting into the box in now trademark fashion, and received a well-earned, rather than sentimental, standing ovation from the Lobonovskyi Dynamo Stadium after being substituted on 88’.

Kyivlyanyn Timur: One of the many faces of Euro 2012

International wise, Andiry Shevchenko’s performances and statistics were similarly enthusing, although, interestingly, they did not flag so dramatically between 2006 and 2009 (fifteen goals in twenty-four matches), regardless. Much of this was owed to the inspirational Blokhin’s return on 21 April, 2011 and despite a shaky defence, particularly with set-pieces and physicality – and the absence of the iconic Olexandr Shovkovski (the first goalkeeper in a World Cup to not concede a penalty in a penalty shoot-out, against Switzerland in 2006) – Ukraine gave immense pride to their country as hosts in a difficult Group D alongside France, Sweden and England.

From this, Shevchenko – who was no doubt determined, before retirement and a potential move into politics, to prove to Western Europe that his legacy should not be remembered for a seemingly rapid decline post-2006 – encapsulated the positives, rather than the pre-tournament, Western-feared negatives like hooliganism or racism, of Ukraine co-hosting their first international tournament. In bringing such unrivalled joy and pride to Ukrainian people – in his performance against Sweden on 12 June and his perestroika-embodying and generation defining displays for nearly the past two decades – Euro 2012 was the fitting farewell, and legacy-sealing tournament, for Andriy Shevchenko.

1 Response

  1. Mark says:

    Fantastic article. Thanks. One of the best footie reads I’ve had in a while.

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