Big Lang Theory: In praise of Andriy Shevchenko


In amongst the Olympic explosion that has gripped the sporting world, it was easy this week to miss a significant piece of football news: Andriy Shevchenko, the talisman of Ukrainian football in the modern era, announced his retirement from the game in order to pursue a career in politics. That the decision received such little fanfare is thoroughly unfair on a player who, for a decade, lit up European football.

When Shevchenko was beginning to break onto the scene with Dynamo Kiev in the 90s, his name was imbued with a mythic quality. In the nascent days of Champions League coverage, before the Twitter generation had begun to shed light on every nook and cranny of the football world, Shevchenko existed as a mere whisper on the wind from the East; a goalscoring phenomenon somehow beyond our comprehension.

Gradually, however, Shevchenko - along with brother in arms Serhiy Rebrov - became more tangible; a hat-trick against Barcelona at the Nou Camp in 1997, three more in his side's quarter-final win over Real Madrid two years later. The Ukrainian was a superb, instinctive finisher, capable of finding the net with either foot and converting with his head. He made up for his slight lack of pace with his subtle, ghostly movement and his otherworldy understanding with the more creative Rebrov.

It was at Milan that Shevchenko truly wrote his name into the history books. While he would have been forgiven for taking time to adapt to Italian football following his big money move, the forward hit the ground running, notching 24 Serie A goals in his first season. He would go on to repeat that feat on two occasions, most significantly in 2003-2004, when his goals were crucial in the Rossoneri's championship-winning campaign. In Europe, he continued to dominate, and finally claimed the Champions League medal he had long deserved, firing home the final penalty against Juventus in 2003.

There were low points in Shevchenko's distinguished career: his critical miss from the spot in the Champions League final against Liverpool, the two-year spell at Chelsea that saw his stock fall almost as quickly as it had risen ten years earlier. His time in England was indeed disappointing, but hindsight will surely help the Ukrainian's cause; even setting the whole Mourinho/Abramovich power pissing contest aside, moving from Italy to England so late in his career was never going to be easy.

His career never truly recovered from that slump, although he did enjoy a lengthy Indian summer back at Dynamo Kiev. Conceivably, his retirement could have come earlier, had it not been for the advent of a certain tournament in his homeland.

Euro 2012 proved to be a fitting swansong for the veteran. He was the catalyst as the Ukraine stunned Sweden in their opening Group D match, briefly sparking hope of qualification for the knockout stage. That wasn't to be, but Shevchenko still had his moment in the sun, grinning with childish joy after bagging a brace of instinctive headers. It wasn't quite "football's best ever story", as Alan Hansen incongruously suggested in the BBC studio after the match, but it was certainly one of the tales of the tournament.

While a certain chunk of the English press will always view Shevchenko as the multi-million pound Chelsea flop, he will be sorely missed by most (in the Ukraine, in Italy and by people who aren't idiots). A dignified, stoical man whose shy smile belied his predatory instinct, Sheva deserves to be remembered as what he was: one of the greatest strikers Europe has ever produced.