Football

'King Shevchenko' emerges as Euro hero

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Shevchenko was Ukraine's hero yet again (©GettyImages)
Shevchenko was Ukraine's hero yet again (©GettyImages).

On a balmy night in Ukraine, a country willed its hero to rise one last time.

Andriy Shevchenko answered his nation's call, and even went one better, rolling back the years to rise twice, and nod his side into pole position in Group D.

In the first half, the former-Chelsea striker looked every inch the player Stamford Bridge had lost patience with. Slow off the mark, a loose touch, and a spurned chance were all hallmarks of his disappointing spell in England. For a 35-year-old striker, it looked like one tournament too far.

But, while the pace may be long gone, the desire remains, especially when the man affectionately known as 'Sheva' pulls on the Ukraine shirt.

The striker is practically a God in his home country. Like several other Eastern European nations, many of Ukraine's finest players pulled on the jersey of the Soviet Union, but Shevchenko is its first modern day hero.

On Monday night, he hit his 47th and 48th international goals, extending his record tally even further - Sergiy Rebrov is next highest with just 15. Ukraine gained its independence with the fall of the USSR, and played its first fixture against neighbouring Hungary on 29 April 1992. The new nation lacked a talisman.

Not for long. Shevchenko made his debut for Ukraine in 1995, one year after the golden boy of Ukrainian football broke onto the scene with Dynamo Kyiv. 17 years on he is his country's golden man, and the longest serving international at Euro 2012.

But while he has always been the main man for his country, the past few years have been more difficult at club level. His £30m move to Chelsea didn't work out. His friendship with Roman Abramovich made the fans and media suspicious of his place in the team, while the 29-year-old looked off-the-pace and a shadow of his former self. For Fernando Torres now, see Andriy Shevcheko then.

But since moving back to Kyiv, Shevchenko has found his place. The goals might not come as easily as in his Milan days, but his contribution is as much psychological as it is physical.

As the captain of his country, Shevchenko is the undisputed leader of a nation desperate to succeed as a co-host. But Ukraine has borne the brunt of a lot of negative press in the build-up to the tournament. The joyous celebrations that greeted Shevchenko's goals betrayed relief as much as happiness. Ukraine were pleased to be making headlines on the pitch, rather than off it.

Sheva has always been a player for the big occasion - he holds the record for most goals in the AC-Inter Milan derby (14) - and his two goals were classic examples of world-class forward play. Former England international turned TV pundit Alan Shearer was purring over the headers, no doubt thinking back to the days when he was outfoxing defenders with such cunning simplicity.

For all Shevchenko did was anticipate and move, like all good strikers should do. His first demonstrated his sharpness over five yards, capitalising on the heavy-legged Olof Mellberg's slow reaction to steal in and thump an equaliser past Andreas Iskasson. Cue wild celebrations that could not fail to bring a smile to the face of the neutral, much like how Siphiwe Tshabalala's goal for South Africa lit up the 2010 World Cup.

His second, the winning goal, saw Sheva treat a corner like a carefully choreographed dance. Pealing off the first man, he popped up in front of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and flashed a header inside the near post. The Olympic Stadium - home of Sheva's Dynamo Kyiv - erupted.

The Ukrainian icon was truly rolling back the years, and he admitted as much. "I feel great, I feel 20 years old, not 35," said Shevchenko. "Thank you to everybody who supported me. It was a very long walk because I had a lot of problems before the European Championship."

The national team coach, Oleg Blokhin, a Ukrainian legend in his own right, had toyed with the idea of leaving Shevchenko out, after injuries and form caught up with the striker. But Sheva is a fighter - he competed as a boxer in his youth - and he battled back to full fitness to put himself in contention.

Despite just two goals in his last two years, Blokhin - himself a top Soviet Union era forward - understood Sheva's importance, not just to his teammates, but to his country. And his choice has been vindicated, the 2004 European Footballer of the Year has returned to kick-start his team's unlikely pursuit of qualification.

On home soil three years ago Ukraine won a European Championships, albeit the under-19 version. It still remains to be seen whether any from that class of 2009 graduate to become the next Andriy Shevchenko.

 

It seems unlikely, as Sheva is a unique forward, embodying the spirit, determination and ability of past great players of the Soviet era, including his coach Blokhin.

That year also saw Ukraine crash out of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup - a disappointing playoff defeat to Greece. Shevchenko renewed his vows to his country that day, and said it would be a dream to play for Ukraine on home soil in 2012. Monday's performance against Sweden was surely beyond even his own wildest dreams, but Sheva will hope for at least one more before he retires after the tournament.

After the first round of matches, Shevchenko has the tournament's best individual rating, according to UEFA.com - a near perfect 9.7 score. But it was perfect night for Shevchenko, and a perfect night for his country.

Topics:
Internationals
Football
Andriy Shevchenko
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