On the eve of Ukraine’s opening game of Euro 2012, coach Oleg Blokhin might have expected a sleepless night. A string of injuries and divisions between the Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk players in the camp would be enough to make any national team boss toss and turn. Instead, Blokhin slept like a baby.
When he woke the next morning, his mind was at ease. He’d had a premonition and it involved Andriy Shevchenko. As the other players had their breakfast at the Koncha-Zaspa training base, Blokhin sought out his captain. He had to let him know. “Andriy didn’t believe me when I told him I had dreamt he would score two goals.”
That was no shock. Why would he? Shevchenko hadn’t scored or started for Ukraine this year. Suffering from serious back pain and aching joints, he was limited to only 16 league appearances for Dynamo Kyiv last season. The wear and tear of an 18-year career meant he’d have to carefully manage his body if he were to play an active part at Euro 2012 rather than that of an ambassador acting on behalf of the co-hosts.
Blokhin made Shevchenko no promises. There’d be no preferential treatment from one Ballon d’Or winner to another, no sentimentality and no nostalgia. Otherwise, “I’d be playing too,” Blokhin smiled. Shevchenko was under no illusions. “If I feel I’m not completely fit I simply don’t want to play and disappoint my supporters,” he said. “Both Blokhin and I understand this.”
Humble enough to put the interests of Ukraine ahead of his own, Shevchenko set about convincing Blokhin that he deserved to play not on reputation but on merit. For all his good intentions, the feeling among the local press was that, yet again, he’d be sidelined and that it’d either be Metalist Kharkiv’s Marko Devic or Dynamo Kyiv’s Artem Milevskyi, who’d get the nod to partner Andriy Voronin in Ukraine’s curtain raiser against Sweden.
Imagine the surprise then on seeing Shevchenko’s name printed on the teamsheet. Ukraine’s talisman had made it. For the last five years he’d “hardly thought about anything other than the European Championship that will come to my country.” This had been his focus. Here was Shevchenko’s chance to play more than an honorary role. His swansong might not be a backing track after all, but maybe, just maybe, the sound of an unforgettable summer in Ukraine.
The game with Sweden now had another dimension too. Facing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it was Milan’s past versus their present. The question on everyone’s lips as kick-off approached at the Olympic Stadium in Kyiv was: who would win? A compelling subplot developed. Shevchenko skewed a shot wide. Then Ibrahimovic headed against the post. It was honors even at half-time.
Shortly afterwards, Ibrahimovic opened the scoring with a tap-in. An unhappy ending now seemed in store for Ukraine. But in actual fact, a fairytale was only just beginning. Shevchenko soon equalized, ghosting ahead of Olof Mellberg at the near post to head in a delightful cross from Andriy Yarmolenko. He then struck again, this time eluding Ibrahimovic to glance a corner kick through the tiniest of gaps between the post and Mikael Lustig.
His first header in particular rolled back the years. “That goal took me back in time,” Shevchenko told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “I scored a similar one against Porto in the European Super Cup nine years ago.” The ovation that accompanied his substitution in the 82nd minute was spine-tingling and the joy he felt as the full-time whistle confirmed Ukraine’s first ever European Championship victory was simply contagious.
Blokhin’s dream had come true. Others were dreaming with their eyes wide open. Temur, the bowl-haired kid whose sweet celebration of Sheva’s second goal became the enduring image of the tournament will continue to do so after he was invited by his hero to attend Ukraine’s training session today.
Monday’s game offered a stark reminder of the power of sport. Shevchenko brought a vast country together, he buried much of the bad news that has blighted Ukraine in the build-up to their hosting of this competition with a genuine feel-good story but also resurrected his own status as one of the greatest strikers of his generation, silencing those foolish enough to think that not doing it at Chelsea somehow defines a player more than being one of the most important players in the history of the Champions League, AC Milan, Dynamo and Ukraine.