Monday 18 December 2017

Euro 2012: Shevchenko determined to cement iconic status

Ukraine's hopes rest in another masterclass from their captain, writes Duncan White

When England emerge from the tunnel in the Donbass Arena, into a sea of yellow shirts and great crashing waves of noise, they will find their opposition's aspirations concentrated into one man: Andrei Shevchenko.

For Ukraine the formula is simple: they have to beat England to go through. And nobody has scored more times in the yellow shirt than Shevchenko. At 35, with a history of knee and back problems, many thought his days as an international striker were behind him, that his selection was sentimental.

Then he gave his finishing masterclass against Sweden, scoring his 47th and 48th international goals. Where there is Shevchenko, there is hope. No player understands better what it means to Ukraine to make a success, on their own soil, of what is only their second major tournament.

They have only been able to call that soil their own since 1991, of course, and many of Shevchenko's team-mates were still toddlers when they gained independence from the crumbling Soviet Union. Shevchenko has not just lived through this period of national self-definition, he has played an important part in realising it.

As a national hero, you could not get a better name. Taras Shevchenko is the national poet, a man born into serfdom in the 19th century who would elevate the Ukrainian language to the literary and with it foster ideas of Ukraine as a nation. In the centre of Kiev you can wander down Shevchenko boulevard and take a stroll in Shevchenko park. His statue stands in parks named after him in Kharkiv, Odessa, Rivne and Dnepropetrovsk.

This boy with the iconic name was born in 1976, as the Soviet Union was beginning to stagnate. The Brezhnev era saw failed attempts to revive the economy and promote the idea of a Soviet nationality. The independently minded in Ukraine had different ideas and disenchantment with Moscow intensified with the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

As radiation contaminated the country, Shevchenko, at 10 years old, was evacuated to the coast of the Sea of Azov in the south.

The year after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, glasnost policies allowed him fly to Wales to compete in the Ian Rush Cup for Dynamo Kiev, finishing top scorer. The following year, 1991, his country had its independence and he was on the path to becoming its most famous citizen.

He made his debut for Ukraine in 1995, the year before the national constitution was ratified, making him the longest-serving international at Euro 2012. It was not until 1997 that his talent was recognised by a wider audience. It was a November Champions League game at the Nou Camp and against a Louis van Gaal Barcelona side containing Luis Figo and Rivaldo, he scored a first-half hat-trick as Dynamo won 4-0.

That year Dynamo reached the quarter-finals, the following season, 1998-99, they reached the semi-finals by beating Real Madrid in the last eight. They beat Real 3-1 over two legs and Shevchenko scored all three. Had they not thrown away a 3-1 lead in the semi-final first leg against Bayern Munich they would have faced Manchester United in the final. Independent Ukraine had a club to be proud of, and a player that was the envy of Europe.

Shevchenko moved to Milan that summer and went on to win Serie A, the Champions League and score 175 goals in seven seasons. In 2004 his status was acknowledged as he won the Ballon d'Or. He got married that summer to an American model he had met a Giorgio Armani party. But Ukraine kept calling.

That autumn the Orange Revolution began, as Ukrainians poured into the square now serving as part of Kiev's fan park in protest at perceived rigged elections in favour of Viktor Yanukovych. While his team-mate Serhiy Rebrov played for West Ham with an orange ribbon on his shirt, Shevchenko was persuaded to a read a statement on national TV endorsing the Yanukovych candidacy. Many, certainly in the pro-European west, felt that was a betrayal.

Shevchenko was stung because he has avoided politics since. He has stuck to promoting Ukraine through his football, leading them to the 2006 World Cup.

So determined was he to be part of that tournament that he jeopardised his fitness in doing so, rushing back from a knee injury. He was never the same player after that, as Chelsea supporters will attest.

Yet back home in Ukraine, in his final sallies in the yellow shirt, Shevchenko has shown flickers of his old brilliance. He has already made history in that dramatic night in Kiev last week. Now he wants to make more.


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