For Ukraine Striker, Ending Is Also a Beginning
By JERÉ LONGMAN
Published: June 6, 2012
KIEV, Ukraine — The end is near, so much so that Andriy Shevchenko cannot precisely remember the distant beginning of his brilliant soccer career. He is said to have begun kicking a ball before he could walk.
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“My whole life has been connected with this ball,” he said.
The European Championships start Friday, co-hosted by Poland and Shevchenko’s native Ukraine. At 35, he is gearing up for his final major tournament before, he hopes, a stint with Major League Soccer. He is married to an American, Kristen Pazik, a former model, and they want to spend time with their two young sons in the United States.
“I have several offers,” Shevchenko, who is known as Sheva, said in a telephone interview, speaking Russian through an interpreter.
An M.L.S. official confirmed the league’s interest in Shevchenko, who said, “I asked everyone to wait until the end of this tournament so I can decide what to do.”
He has had a great and curious career as a striker, with a shimmering ascent and a puzzling decline. At the pinnacle, Shevchenko won the European Champions League with A.C. Milan in 2003, scoring the decisive penalty kick in the final against Juventus. In 2004 he was named Europe’s player of the year and finished among the top three for world player of the year. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, perhaps only Hristo Stoichkov of Bulgaria and Shevchenko have left the East to so thoroughly master the West.
He is Ukraine’s leading career scorer, with 46 goals, and Milan’s second-leading career scorer, with 175. At his best, Shevchenko was full of speed and power, deft with both feet, able to score as a center forward or from both wings, a master at knowing when to lurk and when to pounce.
“All my dreams came true,” Shevchenko said. “My best characteristic is that I made the most important goals in the most difficult games.”
Of course, there were moments of regret. That is the drama of sports. Shevchenko missed the final, critical penalty kick in the 2005 Champions League final against Liverpool. His move to Chelsea of the English Premier League in 2006 became an expensive disappointment, amid much speculation that Roman Abramovich, Chelsea’s Russian owner, coveted Shevchenko more than José Mourinho, then its coach.
“You saw this great trajectory, this explosion and potential, and then there was a moment that was never specified, when he began going downhill and petering out,” said Alexi Lalas, an ESPN commentator and former United States defender. “He had this great ability to do things alone on the field, to take it all on himself. You could target him but not be able to do anything about it.”
Injury and age played their inevitable role in Shevchenko’s decline. A return to Milan in 2008-9 produced only two goals in 26 appearances. For the past three seasons, he has played for Dynamo Kiev, for whom he starred in the mid- and late 1990s in a career that almost ended just as it began with the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986.
Now there is one final tournament to play, the Euro 2012. It will be difficult for Ukraine to emerge from a group that includes Sweden, France and England. Only two teams will advance, and among the 16 participating nations, only co-host Poland is ranked lower than Ukraine by FIFA, the sport’s international governing body. But the tournament will be played at home, and the crowds will be supportive. Shevchenko hopes for a magical send-off.
“I’m 35; I don’t have a lot of time left,” he said. “I’ve prepared very seriously.”
A month before the disaster at Chernobyl, Shevchenko, then age 9, signed with the youth team at Dynamo Kiev and entered a sports school. After school ended that spring, he and his classmates were evacuated for three months to southern Ukraine, near the Sea of Azov. Upon returning to Kiev, Shevchenko left the sports school and again began living at home. His father, a mechanic in a tank regiment, had wanted his son to prepare for a career in the military, not soccer.
“My first coach came to my house and talked to my parents,” Shevchenko said. “I went back and started training seriously at Dynamo.”
Five years later, the Soviet Union dissolved and Ukraine gained its independence. Over the past two decades its athletes have become the country’s most visible and recognizable faces: the Olympic champions in figure skating, Oksana Baiul and Viktor Petrenko; the Olympic champions and world record-holders in the pole vault, Sergey Bubka and Yelena Isinbayeva; the heavyweight boxing champions and brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko.
“We are a young country without much history,” Wladimir Klitschko said. “Sheva is an icon to millions. He represents the country in a positive way.”
Euro 2012 was to be a hopeful moment for Ukraine, but the tournament approaches with a planned political boycott by some European countries and concerns among the English players that they may be subjected to racist behavior. Shevchenko said he believed the British news media was overstating the extent of racism in Ukraine.
“They talk about Ukraine like we don’t have culture, like we don’t have nothing,” Shevchenko said in English. “Of course, we have a lot of problems, but people are nice. I don’t see this racism.”
The political boycott stems from the imprisonment of a former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, amid what Western leaders have called a backsliding on democracy by Ukraine’s president, Viktor F. Yanukovich. Shevchenko said he would not get involved. He learned a harsh lesson in the 2004 presidential campaign.
At the time, Shevchenko publicly endorsed Yanukovich, who was criticized by some as a pawn for the Kremlin, against the reformist candidate, Viktor A. Yushchenko, in a race that observers said featured widespread fraud. Yushchenko won in a runoff but sustained dioxin poisoning and facial disfigurement in a mystery that has not been solved.
This turbulent period in Ukraine became known as the Orange Revolution, and Shevchenko’s hero status took a hit. At one soccer match, according to The Guardian of London, fans held up a banner that read, “Your choice made the nation weep.”
Yanukovich became Ukraine’s president in 2010. Ukrainian politics are again stormy. This time, Shevchenko said: “I’m not taking any side. I took sides long ago. Now, I represent Ukraine to the world. I have my own mission.”
He said he saw no purpose in a political boycott. “If European leaders want to change something, they don’t have to use sports for it,” he said.
Outside of soccer, Shevchenko has a foundation to support orphaned children. With Nike, his sponsor, he is building a soccer field for children. With his wife, he has started an e-commerce Web site called Ikkon.com, dedicated to men’s fashion and lifestyle. But his main interest remains soccer, Shevchenko said. After his playing career ends, he wants to coach.
“This is the world I understand,” he said, “the world I want to stay in.”