Shevchenko's homecoming the last hurrah
In 2009, Andriy Shevchenko took the overtly emotional decision to return home.
He could perhaps have stayed on at Chelsea, where Carlo Ancelotti, under whom he had a highly successful spell at AC Milan, had taken over as manager. He had offers from a number of other major clubs.
But he opted instead to go back to Dynamo Kyiv, the club that had taken him on as a nine year old, in whose academy he had learned the game and at which, under Valeriy Lobanovksyi, he emerged as one of the world’s greatest center-forwards.
Shevchenko is perhaps the only player known to American fans on what is at best a workmanlike Ukrainian side. And the Euros will be his last major tournament – perhaps even marking the end of his career.
Shevchenko is 35 now, the bones beginning to creak to the extent that he admits playing two full 90-minute games four days apart is probably beyond him. He acknowledges that the Euros have extended his career; the thought of lifting the Henri Delaunay trophy on July 1 in the city that became his home when he was three years old was too much to pass up. It is not likely to happen, but from a sentimental point of view it would be the perfect finale to the Euros.
Kyiv, after all, is the city that shaped Shevchenko and its most famous recent son. He learned the game in its back alleys and waste lots and was even evacuated to the Azov seaside for three months following the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986.
Like many sportsmen, Shevchenko wasn’t the easiest pupil at school, often encouraging his classmates to play truant to play football with him. On one occasion, the director of the school had to call Shevchenko’s parents, threatening to send him to a different school if he didn’t knuckle down.
Gradually, though, a compromise was found, Shevchenko’s friendly and sincere personality and his evident talent as a footballer encouraged teachers to find a way of accommodating him.
“You know, there are some pupils who are not the best in the school but who you always remember with special feeling,” said Zinayida Savutska, who was a senior teacher at his school (in Ukraine, the hierarchy comprises the director, then a handful of senior teachers, and then the rest of the teaching staff). “That was exactly how Andriy was. His class wasn’t great at studying but the children were kind and friendly. The teachers understood that Andriy had chosen sport as his future and tried to help him.”
Nadiya Nechay, who taught Shevchenko chemistry, remembers Shevchenko coming to her after a long absence from school after time away at a training camp and saying, “Please understand, I’m not going to be able to catch up everything I’ve missed. But give me some paragraphs to learn and then give me whatever mark you like.” Nechay couldn’t give him a 5 – the top mark – but felt a 3 would be too low given his effort, so she gave him a 4.
Had football been a subject, of course, he’d never have got anything other than a 5. Oleksandr Shpakov, the coach who saw Shevchenko paying in a game between housing associations and first invited him to Dynamo’s academy, remembers him as a holding midfielder with a habit of getting involved wherever the ball was on the pitch. In less organised games, he could be hugely frustrating for other so his team, as his class-mate Stanislav Moskalenko remembers.
“Shevchyk [his nickname at school – Shevchenko means “shoemaker’s son”; “Shevchyk” is an affectionate diminutive meaning “little shoemaker”] was always taking the game on himself. He would take the ball and try to beat five or six players. Maybe he enjoyed it but the others felt left out.
“But when we played against older boys, Andriy was irreplaceable. We would pack the defence and he would stand-alone up front. And we would win. He would always stay on his feet. And when other boys kicked him or fouled him he would stay after the match and, as we say, give them it back change.”
His ability meant that Shevchenko started to travel outside the Soviet Union, something that was extremely rare for children at the time. When he was 12, he took his first foreign trip, going to Italy where he visited the San Siro in Milan, remarkable considering his later career path. Those trips raised his status among his class-mates as he brought back luxuries virtually unknown in Kyiv – chewing gun, cans of Coke and Adidas sportswear.
“He was the leader of the class, always bringing gifts from abroad,” said his mathematics teacher Lidiya Serenko recalls. “Some of his class-mates were envious but he was good at resolving disputes.”
What Serenko doesn’t mention is that Shevchenko was also a talented young boxer - which perhaps explains the toughness of which Moskalenko spoke. “He never had a swollen head from his trips abroad,” Serenko said, but there was, from very early, a self-confidence about Shevchenko.
PE lessons usually began with the pupils being lined up from tallest to shortest. After a while, Shevchenko started standing in the position of the tallest, moving back there however often his teacher tried to move him back. In the end it was simply accepted: Shevchenko at one end, and then tallest to smallest.
In a sense, that’s the position he occupies in Ukrainian football: Shevchenko and then the rest. One of the major thoroughfares through Kyiv is Shevchenko Boulevard. It’s actually named after Taras Shevchenko, the national poet, rather than Andriy, the national striker, but if he does achieve his dream on July 1, you wouldn’t be surprised if they amended the signs in appreciation of the more modern icon.