FEATURED | INTERIVEW: ANDRIY SHEVCHENKO
Andriy Shevchenko's goals took Dynamo Kyiv to within touching distance of the final in 1999, before he fired Milan to the title in 2003. As this year's final ambassador, the first Ukrainian-born player to win the European Champion Clubs' Cup is delighted to be back in the UEFA Champions League spotlight
Andriy Shevchenko is describing what happened next on the night he got his hands on the UEFA Champions League trophy. It was 28 May 2003 and Shevchenko, this year’s final ambassador, had converted the decisive penalty as his AC Milan side overcame Juventus on spot kicks at Old Trafford.
His reaction on returning to Milan’s dressing room underlines the emotional and physical impact of these huge occasions. “I just laid down on the floor for maybe 30 minutes as I’d given everything I had,” he smiles. The pressure was off, at last, and whether it was joy or relief or a bit of both, some hours later, the grounds of Milan’s hotel outside Manchester became an impromptu playground for Carlo Ancelotti’s team.
“At four in the morning we were like kids,” Shevchenko explains. “The hotel had a garden and some players just started to play with a football. We were just playing for fun with our suits on, passing the ball and
laughing. We flew back in the afternoon and it was a great memory for me – there were 150,000 people waiting for us at the airport.
“It’s an incredible feeling when you win … if you win,” adds Shevchenko – and the caveat is telling. After all, he knows the opposite feeling too. He experienced what happens if you don’t win in 2005, after an astonishing final in Istanbul, where Milan lost a three-goal lead to Liverpool FC – and then a penalty shoot-out. This time, Shevchenko’s attempt, stopped by the left hand of Jerzy Dudek, sealed his side’s fate.
“It was a very similar emotion, but the last second changed everything,” he begins. “My mentality’s always been that you have to have control – don’t get to that point where you say, ’I’m unlucky.’ But
Andriy Shevchenko flies the flag of Ukraine after Milan's triumph at Old Trafford in 2003
"We flew back in the afternoon and it was a great memory for me – there were 150,000 people waiting for us at the airport"
with some games I realise that, whatever you do, there’s a line where you win or lose, and it’s very fine.
“It was a shock. In a game where you have enough opportunities to finish it and you don’t, and you lose the final, that hurts you more. Even at 3-3, we had four or five chances to win that game. I spoke with a lot of Liverpool players and I always give them credit for believing in themselves and staying in the game. They gave a great performance in defence.”
As an unused Chelsea FC substitute, Shevchenko experienced a second final defeat against Manchester United FC in Moscow in 2008. Ten years on, European football’s club showpiece returns to eastern Europe – this time to the city where Shevchenko began his exceptional career with FC Dynamo Kyiv.
“It’s a big honour for Ukraine,” he says of this latest landmark occasion in the very stadium where he got his first taste of European football as a spectator, taken there by his late father Nikolai to watch the great Dynamo side that won the 1986 European Cup Winners’ Cup. “I started to go aged six or seven,” he recalls. “My dad took me and it was the best memory for me – [Olexandr] Zavarov, [Oleh] Blokhin, [Ihor] Belanov …”
Shevchenko would soon follow in their footsteps, but not before highlighting his youthful promise on a visit to Britain with a junior Dynamo side – to Aberystwyth in Wales, where he finished as top scorer at the Ian Rush Tournament. His prize was a pair of the same Nike boots worn by Rush, the iconic Liverpool striker.
“I’ve seen him many times and we’ve talked about this. I was 12. The boots were already a tight fit and after a couple of months my feet were growing too quickly. Sometimes my toes came through and I had to repair them. I did it by myself in the small apartment where I lived with my family – I remember working a couple of hours there on my own stitching them back up!”
The Ukrainian striker sends Gianluigi Buffon the wrong way to win the UEFA Champions League
If Rush was a European Cup-winning striker to emulate, a greater source of inspiration was Valeriy Lobanovskiy, who coached Shevchenko at Dynamo Kyiv. Under him, the forward developed into the attacking spearhead of the formidable Dynamo side that reached the 1998/99 UEFA Champions League semi-finals – propelled there by his six goals in the previous rounds.
His double at the NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium sealed a 3-1 aggregate win against holders Real Madrid CF in the quarter-finals, and he struck twice more in the home leg against FC Bayern München in the last four. However, the German side, 3-1 down with 13 minutes remaining, found a way back to 3-3, before prevailing 1-0 in Munich. “We played better,” says Shevchenko. “We were 2-0 up, 2-1, 3-1. We hit the
post, had a couple of chances, and then Bayern just came back.”
One of the striking features of Dynamo’s attacking play in that campaign was Shevchenko’s understanding with Serhiy Rebrov. “We were both very quick and there was a great feeling between me and Rebrov,” he says, explaining how the pair followed Lobanovskiy’s orders to take up wide positions and attack defences from deep.
“He asked me and Rebrov to drop back a little bit and always take the flanks – he was on the left, I was on the right, or we’d change. When we recovered the ball, we’d come in from the side and for the two central defenders it was very difficult to catch us because we didn’t start up front. Defenders didn’t have a reference point as we always came in from behind.”
It is a measure of his respect and gratitude towards his former coach that when Shevchenko made amends for that 1999 near miss by winning the UEFA Champions League with Milan, he took the trophy to Lobanovskiy’s grave.
“I took the Champions League trophy to Kyiv because we came very close to playing the final and, with a bit more luck, and maybe a bit more experience, we could have won. I knew it was his dream and, when I won, I felt he’d done a lot for me – there’s a lot of his work in me and I gave him a lot of credit for that.
“He prepared me to go [abroad]. He talked to the club president and said I was ready and it was better for the club to sell me. We spoke about which kind of club was better for me and, when I left, he’d always call. He helped me set up a little programme, because the training sessions at AC Milan were a little bit different at that time. I used to work a lot more at Dynamo Kyiv.
“At AC Milan, you play two games in a week, while in Ukraine you play, but it’s a different intensity, so sometimes when I got a couple of days off I needed to take one day off and then work.”
Today, at 41, he has followed in Lobanovskiy’s footsteps as national coach of Ukraine. “I want to qualify for the European Championship,” he says. “Over the last two years we’ve searched for young players and tried to change the strategy and structure of the team. We’ve also started playing a little differently and tried to keep more control of the game with a lot more possession.”
One thing he notices as a coach is the evolution of his previous role. “There are not many typical strikers,” he observes, highlighting the impact of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. “Ten or 20 years ago, you always had two strikers or one striker – now the evolution of football has changed the position. You need to go right or left, get a different position. The best goalscorers of the last ten years are not typical front men.”
His own days as a UEFA Champions League leading man brought him 48 goals – 30 of them with Milan, the club with whom he won the trophy 15 years ago. “That Milan was built very well,” he recollects. “We defended well together. We attacked well together. There were a lot of creative players like Andrea Pirlo, Clarence [Seedorf], Rui [Costa] – all a little bit different. There was balance in the team. ‘Rino’ Gattuso even, who was running and chasing everyone. A great defensive line and just a great feeling – very talented players but friends with the same objective to win. And ambition.”
If he clenches his fist to signify their unity as a group, it could just as readily represent their willingness to fight – and he remembers the all-Italian final of 2003 at Old Trafford as the ultimate struggle. “It was very intense, very hard, not beautiful football. For us, it was like war.
“We knew we couldn’t give a single millimetre on the pitch and that’s why the game was not fluid, with no goals. It was just hard work – and battle, and battle, and battle. That’s how you sometimes need to play to win something important in your life. And Juventus played in the same way.
“For me, it was great. It was one of my best memories of a football game, even if it wasn’t the greatest game. It was the battle – you had to stay strong and mentally you have to believe in yourself.” They may be memories from the past, but they are words that this evening’s finalists would be wise to heed.
Andriy Shevchenko's UEFA Champions League highlights
Andriy Shevchenko opened his UEFA Champions League account on his first start in the competition, firing in the first of his 48 goals during Dynamo's 4-1 loss to Bayern in December 1994.
He topped the UEFA Champions League scoring charts on two occasions, finishing joint-leading scorer on eight goals with Manchester United’s Dwight Yorke in 1998/99 before outstripping his rivals with nine in 2005/06.
Shevchenko made 100 UEFA Champions League appearances overall, representing Dynamo 26 times in the competition over two spells – either side of 59 games for Milan and 15 for Chelsea.
His winning penalty in the 2003 final was a career highlight, but Shevchenko also struck four times in UEFA Champions League semi-finals, including the crucial goal at Internazionale in that 2002/03 campaign that took the Rossoneri through to the final on away goals.