28 May 2003, Old Trafford, Manchester. At the ‘Theatre of Dreams’, the final of the Champions League is on-scene, the title contended between Milan and Juventus—an all-Italian European final that has not been repeated to this day.
The game is a tight 0-0, alla Italiana, with solid defensive structures and little space for the creativity of silky number tens: Del Piero on one side, Rui Costa on the other. With the stalemate left unbroken until the very end of extra-time, it comes down to penalties. Following the leitmotif of the game, the penalties seem to drag on forever, with Gigi Buffon and Dida denying two and three penalties respectively. Of course, it comes down to the decisive shot. One man steps up: it’s Milan’s Andriy Shevchenko.
Sheva’s recognizable military haircut wraps up his juvenile face, as he walks slowly towards the make-or-break moment of his footballing career. And it is with the solemnity of a soldier, but the innocent serenity of a kid, that the Ukrainian approaches the spot. One look to the side, then eyes on Buffon, then to the side again and, finally, a glacial stare at the ball. Once last glimpse at the keeper. Then, Sheva bites his lip, not nervously, but with the consciousness of someone who knows exactly what he intends to do.
Perhaps, in that moment, his mind travelled back to the countless tribulations faced during that tormented season, characterized by a serious injury and a consequent unprecedented goal-scoring drought. And when scoring goals is your job, your Eudaimonia, a drought creates a void that cannot be filled. Maybe, Sheva thought nothing of the kind. Maybe, he didn’t think of anything in particular. Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter. What mattered is that the ball went one way, and Buffon went the other. Shevchenko jolted towards the sideline, his mouth open in shock and his arms tugging his shirt in disbelief, the Soviet soldier cast aside and the child glowing golden in Sheva’s eyes.
Two years later, he found himself in Istanbul, essentially in the same circumstances. But this time scoring would’ve simply served to make the score level, and missing would’ve resulted iin Milan’s loss, and Liverpool’s victory. Ironically, Shevchenko walked towards that same, determining spot, after a campaign radically different from that of 2003. With a Ballon d’Or win in December, followed by 26 goals in all competitions, the player on the verge of taking that penalty was none other than the best footballer on the globe. Jerzy Dudek, guarding Liverpool’s goal, knew it all too well.
Sheva’s preparation was almost identical to the one displayed against Juventus. He glanced to the side, just once, then bit his lower lip. But something was different: the glance was furtive, the bite dug deep into the flesh, everything happened far too quickly. In a split second, it was all over. Dudek ran towards his teammates, Sheva kicked the ball furiously into the open net. Paradoxical, cruel even, but true.
Sheva’s ferocious strike at the ball, following Dudek’s save, represented the grief and anger of every Milanista. But, despite the deep sorrow, that futile gesture was in some measure respected by the fans. After the stream of tears dried out, everyone knew they’d forgive Sheva for that miss. The outcome of a penalty-kick is half-dependent on pure fortune—fans know it as much as the players. One has the possibility to decide on direction, power, and maybe even on form. Then, one swings his leg and lets things happen, hoping for every other external factor to not interfere. This is a type of decision-making that people tend to condone.
Instead, it is decisions made with a total awareness of the outcome that are typically less tolerated by the public. And one year after Istanbul, Shevchenko consciously decided to part ways with Milan, in the direction of London’s bright lights, to the elegant ‘Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’. Sheva, with his long blonde locks and his pouty lips: modeling for Giorgio Armani, surrendered to Roman Abramovic’s wooing. The case against Milan’s golden boy was an easy one to make for diehard Rossoneri.
For example, take Gennaro Gattuso. Stocky, hirsute and with the reputation of a hard-man, ‘Ringhio’ was, needless to say, Sheva’s polar opposite. Upon Shevchenko’s kissing of the Chelsea badge, following his debut goal for the Blues, the Milan midfielder commented, “It’s best if I don’t say what I think.” More explicitly, but more diplomatically, Milan CEO Adriano Galliani deemed Shevchenko’s move to Chelsea as a “victory of the English language over Italian.” In confirmation of this, Sheva explained that his children needed stability, and that the language they grew up speaking would prove vital to this purpose. There was a desire, on the part of Andriy, and especially of his wife, to raise their children in an English-speaking culture. “It was a family decision, focused on what is best for them,” Sheva confessed to the Guardian in 2006.
Now, does this justify judging Sheva as a mercenary, or as a man subjugated to his wife’s will, as many insinuated? Or, rather, does it demonstrate that, behind those somatic features hid a rational mind, a mind sensible to the many things more important than the football jersey that one wears?
For us to answer this question, it is imperative to travel back in time, to 26 April 1986: when Andriy was nine years old, at home in Kiev, plausibly having a kick-about in the street with his mates. On that day, a nuclear reactor exploded at the Chernobyl power plant, only 130 kilometers away. Andriy didn’t know it, and wouldn’t know anything about it until a few days later, but on that day a lethal radioactive mist began to distend itself over Ukraine. Within a few weeks after the tragedy, Andriy and his family were forced to evacuate their home, moving as far away as possible from the power-plant, in a race against the deadly substance that was taking over Eastern Europe: the ‘Wind from the East’.
Years later, the ‘Wind from the East’ became a term more commonly associated to Shevchenko’s bursts of pace on the football pitch, as opposed to the radioactive spread of the Chernobyl explosion. He ran faster than that lethal storm, all the way to Italy, and then to the UK, in the pursuit of his footballing dreams. But, more importantly, and as indicated by the hardships he endured, he also had dreams that had little to do with football. The more cynical Milanisti judged Sheva’s explanations as nothing more than lousy, gutless excuses. But was it too hard to imagine that he might’ve sought the best for his family? It wasn’t, not through the eyes of a rational, no-nonsense individual like Sheva himself.
Brought up by two military men, Sheva’s life-philosophy should, in fact, come as no surprise. His father Mykhail, a mechanic in the military, and his Dynamo Kiev manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi, a man of such martial spirit to be titled ‘The Colonel’, both played a vital role in honing Sheva’s character. Shevchenko, primarily as a man, but also as a footballer, was professional, reserved and goal-oriented, in life like in the 18-yard box. “People give too much importance to this kind of thing,” he said, very significantly, in response to the outrage of all Milan devotees.
Thus, Andriy Shevchenko may have been a man with a child’s face, but he had the necessary maturity to understand that life extends beyond the football arena. And though many like to regard football as a matter of 'life and death', Sheva understood that we’re only talking about a game.
Words by Federico Manasse: @FedericoManasse
'Federico is a columnist, editor and sketch artist for Italian Football Daily. He also writes for the Football Pink and his own website, Fede's Calcio.'