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“People continued to go to work and go about their business. There was no panic. For days the press and television would not say exactly what had happened, how serious it was,” Andriy Shevchenko recounts. He’s not reliving a loss in a big game or a crucial missed chance. He’s recalling his memories of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. “We knew something was going on because my father was in the Army, but mostly it was just rumours.”
The Chernobyl disaster affected hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians. Betrayed by the lackadaisical safety regulations of the Soviet era, many were exposed to nuclear particles and to this day childhood thyroid cancer, among other illnesses, are common in the region.
By the time of the accident, a nine-year-old Shevchenko had already started his football career, having been signed by Dynamo Kyiv’s youth team four weeks earlier. His father was initially sceptical of his son’s sporting ambitions but was soon won over by his ability.
At the age of 14, Shevchenko set about making a name for himself away from his home country as his Dynamo team won the Ian Rush Cup in Wales in 1990. Shevchenko was the top scorer, his prize a pair of boots personally handed to him by one of his idols, Rush.
The youngster was slowly building a fearsome reputation in his home country. As a military child he was always smartly presented and polite, two things that helped him charm his way into the hearts of nation in later years. At 15, his reputation was further enhanced when he scored two goals on national television in a 2-2 draw between the youth teams of Ukraine and Holland.
It wasn’t long before a fresh-faced Sheva made his debut for Dynamo’s first team as an 18-year-old. The two could not have come together at a better time as the capital powerhouse were enjoying the most successful period in their history, winning five league titles on the spin and three cups under the management of the great Valeriy Lobanovskyi.
Shevchenko contributed 92 goals over those five seasons but it was by no means a one-man charge. Lobanovskyi not only realised he had a gem on his hands in Shevchenko, but he knew that in Serhiy Rebrov he had a partner with whom Shevchenko could form a deadly attacking duo and with whom Dynamo could do great things at home and abroad.
The two fuelled the team’s belief that they could beat anyone in the Champions League, and that’s exactly what they did, humiliating Barcelona 4-0 at the Camp Nou in 1997. Shevchenko became the first Ukrainian to score a hat-trick in the tournament’s history with the first three in that very game, while Rebrov added the fourth from a tight angle. “It was the night I was discovered, after that there was no hiding,” he would later say. Dynamo topped their group that season but were eventually knocked out by Juventus in the quarter-finals.
Both the club’s and Shevchenko’s most successful season would follow in 1998-99. Dynamo made serious inroads in Europe’s top tier of competition and he was there every step of the way. Goals against Lens and a penalty against Arsenal helped Dynamo finish top of their group before the real fun started in the knockout stages.
In the quarter-final against Real Madrid, a game Dynamo entered as huge underdogs, he showed no mercy for his illustrious opponents and scored all three goals in a 3-1 aggregate win. In the semi-final he added another two to his tally against Bayern Munich, but Dynamo fell cruelly short and lost 4-3 on aggregate. Shevchenko finished as the tournament’s joint top scorer with eight strikes and, with his reputation solidified, moved to AC Milan for the princely sum of £26 million, being hailed by Lobanovskyi as “the white Ronaldo” in doing so.
AC Milan had, in hindsight, conducted a shrewd bit of business. It had been four years since the club’s most iconic forward, Marco van Basten, had been forced to retire because of injury, and in Shevchenko the fans saw a striker who had already proven his ability at the very highest level. Predictably, it didn’t take long for them to label him as the new van Basten as Sheva bedded in immediately with a goal on debut and 23 more to follow. In finishing top scorer he became only the sixth foreigner to do so in his maiden season, and he would repeat the tally by scoring another 24 goals the season after.
So far everything had been rosy for him in Milan. He had met his future wife in the city, learnt a new language and was scoring regularly. The 2002-03 season was very different, however. Up to that point in his career Shevchenko had been relatively lucky with injuries, but a succession of them ruined his season. He only managed to score five goals in 24 league appearance and four in 11 in the Champions League, but still managed to become the first Ukrainian to win the competition. After having a goal ruled out early on against Juventus at Old Trafford he had a quite game – as did everyone else – in what was one of the more forgettable finals, the match eventually going to penalties.
After Alessandro Del Piero had kept Juventus in the tie with his converted kick, the task of wining the tournament would fall to a Milan player. Of course, that player would be Shevchenko. After a long run up he sent Buffon the wrong way with a tremendously composed penalty and wheeled away in celebration, looking overwhelmed with emotion as he galloped towards Dida.
In the days after the final Sheva would take the trophy to the grave of Valeriy Lobanovskyi, who had died a year earlier. Overcome with emotion, Shevchenko hailed Lobanovskyi for the impact he had on his career: “It was my way of thanking him for what he gave me. Without doubt he was the coach that changed me most. He taught me the need to be patient, he instilled the culture of work in me and the importance of respecting your adversary. He laid the foundations on which my career is based.”
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Shevchenko is widely considered to be one of Milan’s greatest strikers
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The following season would see him get back to his best as he grabbed the winner against Porto in the European Super Cup and netted 24 goals in 32 league matches on the way to Milan’s first Scudetto for five years. Shevchenko also scooped that year’s Ballon d’Or to cap 2004 as his best year in the game.
Away from football, however, life was complicated. As a national hero in Ukraine, his fame came with the luxury of widespread adulation, something that others increasingly looked to exploit for their own gains. In late 2004 he was caught up in the nation’s presidential elections, in which the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych faced the pro-Western Victor Yushchenko in a contest that was rife with corruption and voter intimidation.
In the run up to the elections Shevchenko appeared on Ukrainian television and sombrely read a pre-written statement endorsing Yanukovich. Ukraine’s talisman didn’t look at all enthusiastic to be in the situation as he glumly read out what was in front of him before quickly departing.
Back on the pitch things were not as straightforward as they previously were, with competition for places at Milan hotting up. A broken cheekbone meant that he missed a raft of games in the 2004-05 season but, despite this, he still managed to return a more than respectable total of 26 goals in 40 games as Milan made their way to that year’s Champions league final in Istanbul, where they would face Liverpool in one of the greatest matches of all time.
Shevcheko had played well and grabbed an assist for the second goal as Milan took a commanding 3-0 lead, the Ukrainian well on his way to winning a second title in three years. The rest of normal time is indeed history as the Reds plundered Milan’s defence to draw level.
In the second period of extra time, one of the defining moments of an already definitive final would be played out, with Shevchenko playing a starring role. As a fantastic cross was whipped in from the left hand side, Sheva lost his marker and connected powerfully with a downward header from just outside the six-yard box. Jerzy Dudek, the Liverpool goalkeeper, pulled off a good reaction save but palmed the ball back into the path of Shevchenko. With Dudek still on the ground after his save, Shevchenko’s eyes bulged as he strode forward and smashed the ball at goal only to see Dudek stick a hand out – in hope more than anything – and somehow keep it out. Shevchenko’s facial expression was one of shock and confusion. As he stared aimlessly into the night with his hands on his head he must have started wondering if this was going to be Liverpool’s night.
Not long after, the game went to penalties and Milan seemed resigned to their fate. After missing two of their attempts it fell to Shevchenko to keep the game alive. Walking up as the fifth penalty taker yet again, he knew if he missed the game was over. After everything that happened in 120 minutes of enthralling action, what followed was cruel. Striding up to the ball with less purpose than his winning penalty two years earlier, he prodded his shot tamely down the middle and Dudek kept it out with relative ease. Milan had blown it and Liverpool were champions.
Emotionally exhausted, Sheva and Milan had no option but to accept the defeat and go again. Dignified to the end, he drew on the teachings of Lobanovskyi that life has both its ups and downs, and reflected: “This was an important moment to face. Life is not made up just of victories, but also losses. When you are down, you rise up and go ahead. This was a beautiful moment; I would never change it. Even if we lost, we also learnt.”
Shevchenko spent that summer collecting his thoughts while holidaying on the Black Sea with his family, a place where he had spent many summers as a carefree youngster all those years ago. Chelsea were batting their eyelids heavily in his direction and Roman Abramovich was more than ready to spend a world record fee to get his man – but Shevchenko didn’t feel the time was right and discarded any thoughts he had of moving to London for the time being.
The 2005-06 season would yield no trophies for Milan, nor would it yield any individual awards for Shevchenko. Still heavily favoured in the Champions League, Shevchenko scored a last minute winner against Lyon to set up a semi-final with Barcelona. Many saw it as the final before the final as the two strongest teams faced off.
A Ludovic Giuly goal gave Barcelona a priceless 1-0 victory in the first leg at San Siro, meaning Milan headed to the Nou Camp walking on a tightrope. The trademark pressing game Barcelona deployed kept Milan at bay until controversy ensued in the 69th minute.
After a ball was played over the top Carles Puyol seemed to innocuously fall down, but taking no notice Shevchenko guided a brilliantly angled header into the far corner and wheeled away in celebration. The referee didn’t share that same enthusiasm, ruling the goal out and awarding Barcelona a free-kick in the thought that Shevchenko had pushed Puyol before scoring. Replays would show that Puyol slipped and Shevchenko had played no part in his downfall. For Shevchenko, it represented the closest he would come to winning the Champions League again.
With the season all but over in Milan, his eyes began to cast glances north, towards Germany. After coming agonisingly close to qualifying for the World Cup on the previous two occasions, Ukraine had finally managed to book their place at the 2006 finals, helped by six goals in qualifying from Shevchenko.
He captained his team throughout the tournament and scored in a 4-0 victory over Saudi Arabia in the group stage, the nation’s first win at a major tournament. He then converted a penalty against Tunisia to seal a 1-0 victory and put his country through to the last-16, where they would meet Switzerland.
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Shevchenko carried his nation for much of his international career
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In a goalless game, which eventually went to penalties, Shevchenko missed his attempt but would stand and watch as the rest of his team’s chosen takers converted their spot kicks and Ukraine went through to the quarters. For all the glory he had achieved at club level, this was one of his most enduring moments. As captain, he had led his country to the quarter-finals in their debut tournament. Although they lost 3-0 to eventual champions Italy in the last eight, they returned to a rapturous welcome in Kyiv.
Shevchenko would also be returning to a new start at club level. After years of flirting with Chelsea, the time was finally right to make the move to London, and Chelsea were only too happy to pay £30 million to get their man.
Everybody knew Abramovich had longed to see Shevchenko – a close friend – in a Chelsea shirt for many years. What happened to be less clear was his manager’s stance on the transfer. Rumours of José Mourinho’s reluctance at signing Shevchenko abounded before and after he was purchased, with many believing that he had been overruled by Abramovich and told to accept the deal. With a blatant lack of enthusiam, Mourinho welcomed his new striker by telling the press: “Today is a day when the dream became reality. Andriy has always been my first choice for Chelsea since I arrived. He has great qualities, ambition, discipline, tactical awareness and of course he is a great goalscorer.”
On a personal level, things got off to a good start for Sheva. He opened his account with a goal against rivals Liverpool in that season’s Community Shield and scored his first league goal against Middlesbrough a few days later.
The euphoria of his goalscoring start faded away soon after, however, with his form falling way short of a former Ballon d’Or winner. It seemed as if Shevchenko had quickly regressed, lacking composure in front of goal and the electric five-yard burst to beat defenders. He was starting games but was rarely on the score sheet, and was soon being ridiculed in the same way Fernando Torres would be for Chelsea some years later. Despite Didier Drogba providing ample competition, things never improved and his season was eventually cut short by a hernia operation, finishing with an average return of 14 goals from 51 appearances.
The following season was no better. In and out of the team due to injuries, his performances were lacklustre in the main, finishing with eight goals from 25 appearances.
After Luiz Felipe Scolari had been appointed at the start of the 2008-09 season, Shevchenko’s time at Chelsea was up. It was plain to see he was struggling to get going in England and he duly jumped at the chance of returning to Milan on loan and working under Carlo Ancelotti again. However, if his failure at Chelsea was mystifying, it was plainly evident that age was catching up to Sheva during his second spell in Italy. He didn’t manage to score a single league goal and only bagged two in 26 appearances. The old Sheva, full of grace and finesse, had gone, replaced by an aging stalwart.
He seemed to accept this when, not long after returning to Chelsea, he agreed a move back home to Dynamo Kyiv, where he would see out the rest of his career at club level. He had long set his sights on playing at Euro 2012, of which Ukraine was a co-host, and saw his return to Dynamo as the perfect way to not only end his club career but to also build up to the Euros, after which he would retire. He had some success, being named in the Ukrainian Premier League’s Team of the Year in 2009, but his days were numbered. Age catches up to everyone, and the great Andriy Shevchenko was no exception.
When the Euros did eventually come to town, Shevchenko was fired up. Motivated by pride to perform in front of his countrymen, he got off to a dream start in the tournament by scoring both goals in Ukraine’s 2-1 win over Sweden. The celebration for his second goal was particularly poignant as he wheeled away towards the corner flag with tears in his eyes. But, despite everything he had given football, and being more deserving than most, Lady Luck was nowhere to be found and Sheva was unable to play again because of yet another injury. Immediately after Ukraine’s elimination he announced his retirement from football.
Since then he has kept busy by playing in various golf tournaments around the world and has also welcomed two more sons to his family. He was offered the chance of becoming the manager of Ukraine in 2012 but quickly declined, citing his inexperience for the role and a desire to take some time away from football.
Despite a less than glorious ending, the beginning and middle of Shevchenko’s career saw some of the best striking moments in European football history – and some of the finest goals along the way. Rarely will we see a striker who combined so many attributes – pace, power, technique, movement and intelligence – into one deadly package again, and rarely will his name not be mentioned among the greats of Eastern European football.
From a child deeply affected by Chernobyl, Andriy Shevchenko overcame the odds, defied his father, lifted a nation, and became AC Milan’s first great striker since Marco van Basten. Valeriy Lobanovskyi would have been proud.
By James Bhamra. Follow @JamesBhamra