'At the time Chernobyl didn't affect us too much. Of course, for too many others is had terrible consequences. It was all hidden from us'
Andrei Shevchenko, the most expensive player ever to sign with a UK club and the greatest footballer to have emerged from Eastern Europe, was born on 29 September 1976 in the village of Dvirkivshchyna, the son of a kindergarten teacher and a captain in a Red Army tank regiment. Though far from wealthy, his parents Lubov and Nikolaj - next-door neighbours in their youth - created a happy home for Andrei and his sister, Yelena. Endless football, skating in winter, fishing with his father and idyllic summers on the Black Sea all made for a contented youth.
But at the age of nine, Andrei and his school were evacuated to the Black Sea after the nuclear disaster of April 1986 in nearby Chernobyl. His class, however, only moved in the autumn, some four months after.
"At the time, it did not affect us too much. Of course, for too many others it had terrible consequences. But the tragedy and all its after-effects were more talked about in the West. It was all hidden from us there," recalls Andrei, whose foundation today helps children in need and orphans in the Ukraine.
Shevchenko's talent had already been recognised. Four weeks before the tragedy he signed for the youth team of Dynamo Kiev, who were then coached by the legendary Valery Lobanovsky, former trainer of the Soviet Union.
"For a child at that time, Dynamo Kiev had always been the greatest team in Kiev, in Ukraine!" Shevchenko remembers.
FIRST STEPS IN FOOTBALL
'It's my people who watch me, who respect me. I play for them. That's why it's important'
Father Nikolaj was reluctant to see his son become a player, but eventually, like everyone, recognised Andrei's ability. "My parents left the choice to me, they never said, 'Do this, do that'. They said it's best you choose," Shevchenko says.
By the age of 14, Andrei was already making his mark internationally, as the young Dynamo team won the Ian Rush Cup in Wales in 1990, and Andrei, as the top scorer, received a pair of boots from the famous marksman.
As a child of a military family, Andrei always appeared spick and span. Already foreign newspapers were noticing the handsome and impeccably kitted out goalscorer.
His goalscoring touch was such he became the symbol of the fruits of glasnost on a youth tour of Germany, where already his self-confidence and good looks made him stand out. Aged 15, Andrei had burnished a major local reputation, boosted after he scored for Ukraine's youth team live on national television in a 2-2 draw with Holland.
Aged 18, Andrei broke into Dynamo's first team at a golden time. Dynamo won five consecutive league titles and three Cups, as Shevchenko scored 60 goals. He also notched a remarkable 20 for Dynamo in the Champions' League, including a hat-trick against Barcelona in Nou Camp - the first by a Ukrainian in the competition.
"In Kiev we had beaten Barcelona 3-0, and a friend said, 'Let's see how you do in the return,' and bet me I wouldn't score three goals. He ended up buying that dinner," Andrei chuckles.
But Sheva's greatest season for Dynamo was 1998-99, when in the Champions' League he scored in each match against Lens and a penalty against Arsenal as Kiev won their group. In the quarter-final, Andrei rifled in three to eliminate Real Madrid before racking up two against Bayern Munich, fruitlessly as the Germans squeezed through.
Later, when Milan paid £18m to buy the player, Lobanovsky nicknamed him "The White Ronaldo", while Italian fans dubbed him the new Marco van Basten. Seven years on Chelsea were to almost double that price when they lured Andrei from Italy to England.
Lobanovsky was to be an immense influence on Andrei, for whom loyalty is a key value. He drove his young charge hard at Kontcha Zaspa, the mythical training camp with 500 rooms, immense Socialist Realist pool, sauna, gym and covered and open-air pitches 10 miles from central Kiev.
Like many young Eastern Europeans back then, Sheva was a heavy smoker, consuming 30-40 cigarettes per day, something the old hand Lobanovsky was determined to stop. He forced him to drink a nicotine-based solution, which made him feel powerfully sick and reject cigarettes ever since.
Shevchenko's greatest remaining ambition came true on 3 September, 2005 when Ukraine qualified for their first World Cup. Three times they had been eliminated in the play-offs, to Croatia in 1997, Slovenia in 1999 and Germany in 2001. However, guided by coach Oleg Blokhin, Ukraine won their group, with Andrei top scorer. Again, Sheva's statistics are remarkable - 19 goals in 29 World Cup qualifiers.
"Playing for Ukraine is extra important; it's my country. It's my people who watch me, who respect me. I play for them. That's why it's important. You are playing for the people, not for anything else, only for them."
With Dynamo, Sheva wore the 10 or 11 shirt, but with the national team and Milan - and now Chelsea - he took to wearing No 7, in part because he felt it brought him luck, but also because Sheva means seventh in Hebrew. His official website is: www.sheva7.com.
Andrei does not like to make comparisons with his contemporaries, though when pressed names his four favourite past players as Blokhin, Van Basten, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff.
When it comes to defenders, he cites five fearsome opponents: Paolo Maldini, Ciro Ferrara, Lilian Thuram, John Terry and Jürgen Kohler, "who was maybe the toughest of the lot".
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
'Losing to Liverpool was a beautiful moment; I would never change it. Even if we lost, we also learnt'
Andrei exploded into Serie A with the Rossoneri, scoring on his debut. With 24 goals he finished up capocannoniere (top scorer) in Italy in his first season. Almost immediately, Milan's tifosi began calling him Super Sheva.
Shevchenko went on to score 173 goals in seven seasons with Milan, a exceptional figure in the tough-tackling and defensive minded Italian league.
His European scoring average was even better. On 23 November 2005 he scored four in a Champions' League game, an achievement matched only by four other players, Van Basten, Simone Inzaghi, Dado Prso and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
And he knows how to take the rough with the smooth: his missed shoot-out penalty sealed Liverpool's remarkable comeback from 3-0 down at half-time in the Istanbul Champions' League final of 2005, an emotionally exhausting defeat for the Italians.
"This was an important moment to face. Life is not made up just of victories, but also losses. When you are down, you rise up and go ahead. This was a beautiful moment; I would never change it. Even if we lost, we also learnt," he shrugs. "These famous six minutes completely changed the destiny of Milan. It's not true what was written that we thought we'd win. We continued to play; we even played very well. For us, that is football and that is why I would not change this moment. Liverpool did what they had to do in those six minutes, you recognise that."
'I said I would not even think about it. But I wished him good luck creating this new Chelsea. Now we are ready for each other'
The latest chapter in Sheva's football career began in May 2006 when he signed a four-year contract with Chelsea for a record fee - "I want to finish my career here." On signing Sheva, the Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho declared: "Today is a day when the dream became reality. Andrei has always been my first choice for Chelsea since I arrived. He has great qualities, ambition, discipline, tactical awareness and of course he is a great goalscorer."
Mourinho knew the sting of Sheva's scoring - when Sheva scored the winner in the 2003 Uefa Super Cup the opposition was Mourinho's Porto. After two Premiership titles, the key target for Chelsea must be the Champions' League, which is where Sheva comes in. He was the top marksman in that tournament last season with nine goals.
Sheva is full of admiration for the team Roman Abramovich has busily built with his petroroubles. "Chelsea is a beautiful team, very well constructed and, above all, with very special, passionate fans," Sheva says. "I hope to win the Champions' League and Premiership with Chelsea. I play for the team, not just to score lots of goals, but also to make my contribution.
"There has always been competition at Milan, a huge team, so I'm used to it. Teams are not just 11 players. Chelsea have many objectives: Premiership, FA Cup, League Cup, the Champions' League, so everyone has a role and a chance to play."
Shevchenko first met Abramovich shortly after the Russian billionaire bought Chelsea. "I met him in Milan's Four Seasons [hotel]. He was in town to speak with Internazionale, who had players that interested him. Roman asked me right away would I think of coming to his team. But that was when Milan had just won the Champions' League and I said I would not even think about it. But I wished him good luck creating this new Chelsea. Now we are ready for each other."
Abramovich and Mourinho are the latest wise men to guide the trajectory of Sheva, a man who speaks with great respect for his own father. Lobanovsky, Blokhin, [Silvio] Berlusconi and [Carlo] Ancelotti were all mentors; now it's the turn of Roman, and Jose. Sheva arrived in London the mirror image of the pampered modern player, the spoilt millionaire indulged by Footballers' Wives. He is the consummate professional and, statistically, the best striker ever in the Champions' League. No wonder Roman hired Andrei. If Sheva's the missing piece on the Holy Grail that is the Champions' League, he will be worth every penny.
ANDREI SHEVCHENKO FOUNDATION
'It was clear people needed help'
Sport is not his only connection to his native land. The Andrei Shevchenko Foundation raises funds to refurbish existing orphanages, donate modern hospital equipment and train hospital staff, doctors, social workers and qualified psychologists in a battle to help children in need and orphans.
In May 2005, his foundation raised €1m (£670,000) through a benefit match in San Siro where Maradona and Richard Gere lent their support and personalities like tennis star Andrei Medvedev, gymnast Yuri Chechi and boxer Vladimir Klitschko appeared.
"The foundation began because so many letters arrived. It was clear people needed help. First we bought a machine for a neonatal hospital, then I visited the hospital and we bought more machines and then ambulances. Slowly but surely you do more. You see that people really needed support."
Sheva is determined to use his fame and reach to build the Andrei Shevchenko Foundation, which raises money for children suffering with leukemia and cancer. The Foundation bankrolled a fully equipped ambulance for newly born babies for Bojarka's Paediatric Regional Hospital. Next, it financed a boarding school for orphaned and needy children in Pereyaslov Khmelnitskiy and another in Volodarka, Kiev Region. Information on the Andrei Shevchenko Foundation or how to make a donation is available on www.sheva7.com.
Extracted from 'Sheva', a biography of Andrei Shevchenko, written by Godfrey Deeny and specially commissioned by Giorgio Armani, who will be donating royalties from the sales of the book to the Andrei Shevchenko Foundation