Andriy Shevchenko is Ukraine’s top idol and is leading by example once more


Andriy Shevchenko’s status as the icon of modern Ukraine is secure, regardless of what unfolds against England in Rome.

He, more than anyone, delivered global recognition to the newly independent nation in the post-Soviet era.

Initially, as the young goal ace in a Dynamo Kiev side who wreaked havoc in the Champions League, playing up front with his friend Serhiy Rebrov and coached by mentor Valeriy Lobanovskyi.

Andriy Shevchenko has already cemented his place as a true icon of modern Ukraine

Andriy Shevchenko has already cemented his place as a true icon of modern Ukraine

Then at AC Milan, where he became the world’s most feared striker, with a clinical eye for goal, on the way to winning the Champions League and the Ballon d’Or.

He led Ukraine into their first World Cup in 2006 and Shevchencko even performs with statesmanlike quality. He’s always immaculately turned out, serene and polite.

He’s intelligent, carefully measuring his words, aware that a nation of more than 44 million will be hanging on each one.

In the afterglow of the finest hour of his managerial career — victory over Sweden in Glasgow on Tuesday — the 44-year-old spoke of the ‘historic moment’ and his team’s ‘desire’ and ‘belief’.

He thanked those supporters who had made it to Hampden Park. ‘These people work and spent the last money they had to come to this game,’ said Shevchenko, before extending his greetings to the ‘whole of Ukraine’ and thanking President Volodymyr Zelensky for his continued support.

He has led the side to the Euro 2020 last eight as boss, having also made history as a player

He has led the side to the Euro 2020 last eight as boss, having also made history as a player

After their first game of the finals, an exciting 3-2 defeat by Holland, President Zelensky took to Twitter to issue a message. ‘Emotional beginning, very strong game,’ read the presidential tweet. ‘The guys really fought until the last second. Every Ukrainian has been with you today and will continue to do so.

‘And then two important games and a victory because what you have written on the kit, it can’t be erased or removed. Because this is about Ukraine. Because today it is about you.’

The kit sparked outrage in Russia on the eve of Euro 2020 because it has within the fabric a silhouette of Ukraine, including the peninsula of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014.

The slogan ‘Glory to Ukraine’ is a rallying cry of the protesters who forced out pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych in the same year. Shevchenko dabbled in politics upon his retirement in 2012, although not for long. It was the only subject he ruled off-limits when we met for an interview, three years ago, ahead of the Champions League final in his native Kiev.

He became the world's most feared striker at AC Milan, where he won the Champions League

He became the world’s most feared striker at AC Milan, where he won the Champions League

Perhaps he thought he could best represent the whole nation through football. And football and politics are never far apart in a country like Ukraine.

Instead, when we met, he spoke engagingly about his early life in the Soviet Union, where his father served in the military, which meant his family were privy to information about the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986.

Schoolchildren in the Ukrainian capital, 75 miles south of the disaster, were evacuated — although not immediately — and Shevchenko spent three months at the coast on the Sea of Azov, near Crimea.

He was already associated with Dynamo thanks to their celebrated talent-spotter Oleksandr Shpakov but did not go back to training on his return from evacuation.

‘I never thought about it,’ recalled Shevchenko. ‘I was playing with my friends until the coach came and talked to my parents, worried because he hadn’t seen me. After that I did not miss one training session.’

In his book Gentle Force, released this year in Italian and out soon in English, he tells how football saved him and how most of his friends died young, killed by ‘alcohol, drugs and problems with weapons’.

He led Ukraine to the World Cup quarter finals in 2006 in Germany as a player, losing to Italy

He led Ukraine to the World Cup quarter finals in 2006 in Germany as a player, losing to Italy

Shevchenko was reared on Dynamo football legends such as Oleh Blokhin and Igor Belanov. ‘It was a dream to play for Dynamo Kiev and win titles,’ said Shevchenko.

‘There is still a connection, as there is to AC Milan and Chelsea. My three clubs, always in my heart.’

He was nearing 30 when he arrived at Chelsea for £30million. He had suffered a knee injury towards the end of the previous season at Milan and raced back to fitness to captain Ukraine at their first World Cup.

They reached the last eight before losing to Italy and Shevchenko scored on his Chelsea debut in the FA Community Shield.

He was not in good physical shape, however, and never sparkled as he did for Milan. It probably did not help that the owner Roman Abramovich wanted him, but not the manager.

Jose Mourinho, having won the Premier League twice in his first two years at Stamford Bridge, was not particularly happy to have his system disrupted by a vanity signing. 

Shevchenko was nearing 30 when he arrived at Chelsea and struggled under Jose Mourinho

Shevchenko was nearing 30 when he arrived at Chelsea and struggled under Jose Mourinho

Shevchenko still has a house in Surrey, often playing golf with John Terry and Jamie Redknapp

Shevchenko still has a house in Surrey, often playing golf with John Terry and Jamie Redknapp

He liked to play Didier Drogba up front flanked by quick wingers. Shevchenko, while popular among team-mates, did not fit the system. It started badly for him and never really improved.

There was a time when he seemed more interested in golf than football. He played off scratch and made his debut on the professional tour when his football career ended, finishing 26 over par in the Kharkov Superior Cup in 2013. 

Yet Chelsea fans have some fond memories — particularly a screamer in an FA Cup tie at Tottenham — and Shevchenko loved his time in England so much that he and his family never left.

He still keeps a house in Surrey, speaks fluent English and often plays golf with John Terry and Jamie Redknapp. His heart will always be with Ukraine, however, and never more so than in the days leading up to Saturday’s quarter-final as he plots against his adopted country.

If he pulls this off, there could be streets, squares and statues in his honour in Kiev, just as there are to his namesake, the 19th Century poet Taras Shevchenko.