My piece for worldfootballweekly
It so happened that my grandfather and I were one of those fans who witnessed Andriy Shevchenko making his top flight debut for Dynamo Kyiv in their away game against Shakhtar Donetsk on November 8, 1994. Despite Shakhtar losing 1-3 to Yozhef Sabo’s charges, I was very impressed by a solidly-built youngster who came on as a sub in the second half of the game to terrorize my home team’s defence with his dribbling and forward runs; as my grandfather said, Shevchenko meant business. Although I am not very good at remembering things that even happened one week ago, I still remember clearly that game and that performance put in by a bold-headed lad who would go on to become probably the best footballer and one of the best sportsmen any post-Soviet country has ever produced.
Sometimes a raw diamond needs a distinguished master for it to turn into a truly beautiful piece of jewellery that would shine for many years to come, and that master for Shevchenko was the great Valeriy Lobanovskiy who returned to Kyiv from Kuwait to take charge of his beloved Dynamo which had been underachieving internationally under Sabo. In 1975, when Dynamo won its first European trophy (UEFA Cup Winners' Cup), Valeriy Lobanovskiy had Oleg Blokhin; in 1997, his main silver bullet in the gun was Andriy Shevchenko.
The first game that really put Sheva on the European football map was Dynamo’s overwhelming 4-0 away win over Barcelona in the 1997/98 Champions League group stage. In that memorable game Sheva netted a hat-trick to earn an unbelievable 7-0 win on aggregate.
In 1999, after another successful season with Dynamo that saw them reaching the UEFA Champions League semi-finals, Andriy Shevchenko was signed by Milan with whom he won the league title and the UEFA Champions League trophy, scoring a famous penalty in the shoot-out against Juventus in the final game to become the first Ukrainian footballer to win this title. After that victory, Shevchenko headed to Kyiv to put his medal by the grave of his football father Valeriy Lobanovskiy.
In 2003, he scored a winner for Milan to clinch the UEFA Super Cup trophy, and in 2004, Shevchenko became the third Ukrainian player (after Oleg Blokhin and Igor Belanov) to win Ballon d'Or. No wonder why during those years Milan’s biggest international fanbase was probably based in Ukraine, with everyone waiting for the weekend to watch Sheva ply his trade in northern Italy.
After a successful season with Milan, Shevchenko was persuaded by Roman Abramovich to join Chelsea, but his career in London wasn’t as outstanding as in Italy due to various factors, mainly having to do with his injuries and managers’ (Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant and Felipe Scolari) vision.
Shevchenko’s biggest international success came in 2006, when Ukraine, captained by Chelsea’s striker, reached the World Cup quarter-finals for the very first time in its history.
Then followed a loan spell with Milan, before Shevchenko left Western Europe for Ukraine. In late summer of 2009, Andriy returned to Dynamo Kyiv.
Having come back to his home club, Andriy was more battling with his injuries rather than Dynamo’s opponents on the pitch; a long professional career at a top level was taking its toll. Before Euro 2012, there were many concerns whether Sheva would be fit to be selected for Ukraine’s squad to spearhead its attack. After heading home both Ukraine’s goals against Sweden, Sheva proved once again that “an old ox (in Sheva’s case, an injury plagued ox) makes a straight furrow”. Although Ukraine failed to advance from the group, Andriy retired from international career on a high note, with his brace bringing ordinary Ukrainians so much happiness and a sense of national unity that any Ukrainian politician, regardless which political camp he/she represents, can only dream of.
Ukraine’s game against England in Donetsk turned out to be Shevchenko’s last official match in his professional career. Last Saturday, after Dynamos game against Hoverla, Shevchenko announced that he would quit football for politics. So, now I can safely say that I witnessed Sheva playing both his first and last game at senior level in Donetsk.
If, 18 years ago, you had asked ordinary Ukrainian pupils about the greatest ever Ukrainian person, almost everyone would have mentioned the most famous Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko whereas now it is more likely that they will be asked twice to specify which exactly Shevchenko they mean.