Shevchenko is aiming to finish in style at Euros
Chelsea flop hopes for glorious farewell with Ukraine. He tells Robin Scott-Elliot in Kiev about Torres, Terry and tournaments
Saturday 21 April 2012
There is already a Shevchenko Boulevard in Kiev. It's not named after Ukraine's most famous footballer, rather the country's most famous poet. If the next few months pan out as the optimists on the streets of the nation's capital hope, there may yet be call for another.
Less than 10 minutes walk from the boulevard, which runs through the heart of the old city, is the rebuilt Olympic Stadium, home of Dynamo Kiev and the stage for the final of Euro 2012. Here Andrei Shevchenko grins down on his people from a giant poster. Some way beneath him in the away dressing room – the one the national side prefer to use – his yellow Ukraine shirt with his name and the No 7 on its back hangs on a peg. The man from the ministry touches it reverentially. The state of Shevchenko's legs is the subject of almost as much discussion as affairs of state. Will he be fit for the Euros? Might Oleg Blokhin, Ukraine's coach, dare not choose his ageing star? "Names do not play football," pronounced the great Blokhin grumpily, when pressed on Shevchenko earlier this month. "He's Sheva," says the man from the ministry, and shrugs to dismiss any suggestion that the 35-year-old could be omitted from Blokhin's squad.
Earlier this season Shevchenko returned to Chelsea's Cobham training ground for two weeks of intensive treatment on a thigh injury that has limited his appearances for Dynamo. He also suffers from chronic back pain. The suggestion in Kiev is that, if it was not for the lure of a European Championship on home soil, Shevchenko would have already joined Oleg Luzhny, once of Arsenal, and Sergei Rebrov, once of Spurs, on the Dynamo coaching staff. Rebrov grinned and nodded as he walked past to take reserve training. Luzhny repelled questions with a resolve not always apparent in his spell in the Arsenal back line. "Yeah, it is my dream," says Shevchenko of playing at Euro 2012. "For the last five years I have thought about nothing other than the Euros in my homeland."
Behind him his Dynamo team-mates are wandering into the restaurant at the club's Koncha Zaspa training ground a few miles outside the city, where Ukraine and Sweden will be based come the Euros. Ukraine will play their opening game in Kiev and the next two in Donetsk, the stark industrial city some 435 miles south-east of the capital. Their final match in Group D is against England, and possibly pitches Shevchenko directly against John Terry.
They were team-mates for two years, but it's a reunion he does not want to talk about. First he insists it is about making the squad, but he has no doubts as to how pivotal a role Terry and Frank Lampard can, and do, still perform for club and country.
"They are important players," says Shevchenko. "I think experience is important. For many years with the national team, the performance of Frank and John Terry is very good. They are still very important players."
It's one senior footballing citizen defending two others. He will not, he insists, advance an opinion on whether Terry should be captain of England come the summer, but from what he does volunteer, an opinion cautiously emerges. "This decision should not affect the players," says Shevchenko. "They have to be players on the pitch, not outside. The stories about him... it is more important how John performs on the pitch. The last couple of games I saw John Terry play he was very good. He plays like a captain."
Shevchenko speaks carefully, considering the questions before answering. At first he replies only in Russian but when the conversation switches to Chelsea, he switches to English. It was in May 2006 that he arrived at Stamford Bridge from Milan, feted as one of Europe's best and most consistent goalscorers. But with a record £30m price tag came whispers he was not Jose Mourinho's signing; more an Abramovich plaything. He scored on his debut in the Community Shield and then again in his second league game but a bright start soon fizzled out.
"For me sometimes it was very hard," says Shevchenko. "I really enjoyed the fans, I tell you the Chelsea fans were fantastic. My performance sometimes was good, sometimes bad. I had injuries [a hernia operation]. We played in the [Champions League] final, and when you [get to that stage] it is always a good result, we won a couple of cups. There were some good things."
But there were only nine Premier League goals, from 30 starts and 18 outings off the bench, not much of a return for the club that paid him £121,000 a week and a far cry from the deadly finisher who found the net so regularly in Serie A; 175 in 296 games for Milan. It's a decline that is impossible not to compare with that of Fernando Torres although, at 30, Shevchenko was three years further down his career path than the Spaniard was when he joined Chelsea. "I have watched him in many games," says Shevchenko of the man whose price tag dwarfs even his. "He is moving a lot, doing a lot of work for the team. He still needs time. His physical performance is good and he is trying hard. They have changed the manager, which does not help. But football is about the opportunity. If you trust yourself, an opportunity comes and you score an important goal – that can change your story with the club."
It was in 2009, after an unsuccessful loan spell back at Milan, that Shevchenko finally had his ties with Chelsea severed and returned to the club where his story began. The bright young Kiev side of the Nineties won nine straight titles and began to make a mark in the Champions League. The rise of southern rivals Shakhtar Donetsk in recent years has challenged their position. The two go into the final three games of the domestic season neck and neck. If they finish level on points it will mean the "Golden Match" – one game, winner takes all.
"Football is changing a lot here," says Shevchenko. "Investment in the stadiums is very important. The last three games, and this has never happened before in this country, we get a 60,000 crowd. The quality is much better. People like to come and watch the games."
He may find himself watching much of the tournament. There is a school of thought in Kiev that says when Shevchenko starts it slows down the team – everything has to come through him and the feet are just not as quick as they once were. A substitute's role is a possibility, while Ukraine will do well to get out of their group. "The dream" is one of his poetic namesake's best-known works, and a man must be allowed a dream.
"We do understand that we are playing in a difficult group but we have some good young players," says Shevchenko. "Let's just say we do have a chance." And with that he smiles, shrugs and heads off to lunch.
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