Andriy Shevchenko: ‘Our mentality, Ukraine’s strong character: we’re always going to fight’

Estimated read time 7 min read

Andriy Shevchenko is thinking back to a summer of joy, promise and kinship that feels a lifetime away. It was 12 years ago that Ukraine co-hosted the European Championship and a continent could, in many cases for the first time, discover the nation’s riches.

“That was a happy time for Ukraine,” he says. “A country together, smiling people enjoying their love of football. That tournament united people a lot and we felt proud. We tried to show the best of ourselves so that visitors could come and enjoy a beautiful competition. The memory of that time is like a bright light.”

In 2012, Shevchenko lit the flame with two goals against Sweden at Kyiv’s Olympic stadium. Now, in a meeting room 400 metres away from the scene of those heroics, he is tasked with leading Ukrainian football back through darkness.

Five months ago, he was elected president of its football association and it is no small achievement that, on 17 June, he will be able to watch the national team begin their Euro 2024 campaign against Romania in Munich. Ukraine have had to improvise heavily through the constraints of wartime but they will arrive in Germany with a mission and a message.

“This is a very important point in time for us,” he says. “It’s vital our team, our federation, participates. We can talk about Ukraine and show the country is fighting while also trying to live. It’s such a difficult moment and we have a duty in sport to do the maximum we can.”

The same sense of duty pushed Shevchenko to run for his new position. His name and presence are enough to hold a room far beyond his homeland and he is canny enough to know that. He is Ukraine’s voice in the corridors of Uefa, Fifa and beyond. These are places where Russia, even in exile from the international stage, continues to exert influence and Shevchenko’s ambassadorial clout may be crucial in ensuring football’s authorities hold their existing line.

“I want to help my country, I want to be here, and that is why I put myself forward,” he says. “That is my plan: supporting and loving Ukraine for so many reasons. We have many friends and partners who back us, and we have to keep the pressure on every day.”

For all his obvious cachet, he emphasises on several occasions that his role is more administrative than political. There is a huge job to do domestically: Ukraine’s footballing raw materials are in little doubt and nor is its heritage, but cultivating the former while building on the latter feels an uphill struggle when the country is under constant attack.

Ukraine’s Illia Zabarnyi and Volodymyr Brazhko celebrate after qualifying for Euro 2024.View image in fullscreen

“The main target when I started was qualifying for Germany and making sure the logistics were in place,” he says, running through the landscape he inherited. “Then there are the other points you have to face: organising league games, improving the financial situation, the fact a lot of talented young players have left the country because of the invasion and we need to connect with them again. That’s one of the biggest challenges in our future because we want those talents to play for our national team.”

They will have big boots to fill. Ukraine beat Iceland in March to ensure their spot in Group E and given they could not play a single qualifier on home soil the feat was exceptional. But there is quiet hope that, on the more even playing field of a major tournament, a sparkling side whose core play in England and Spain can achieve something special.

Shevchenko will publicly stretch no further than targeting a last-16 spot but he has faith in the team’s manager, Serhiy Rebrov, with whom he formed a telepathic strike partnership for their country and an outstanding Dynamo Kyiv side. The return of the old one-two is an obvious romantic note in Ukraine’s difficult story.

“We see football in the same way,” he says. “Our mindsets are very similar. We had talent, but that goes with education, hard work, focus and discipline. What I always like about Serhiy is his professionalism. His dedication to the job is outstanding.”

They scored 12 goals between them in the 1998-99 Champions League, seeing off Real Madrid in the quarter-finals. A year previously the pair ran riot in a 4-0 win at the Nou Camp. In those days they held Europe in the palms of their hands. “When we met we were immediately like that,” he clicks his fingers. “He already knew where I was and I knew what his next step would be. Playing with him was so easy, we had that understanding and kept working on it.

“And of course I know what he’s thinking now about the team and the way it has to play. He took them in such a difficult situation, especially with England and Italy in the qualifiers, but we fought to the end and it worked. Not just through fighting, either, but by playing good football.”

Shevchenko had his own five-year spell in charge, taking Ukraine to the Euro 2020 quarter-finals before they were soundly beaten by England in Rome. “Modern football, attractive football, something people remember us for,” was always his aim.

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In Ukraine, he sees a country that has produced three Ballon d’Or winners – Oleh Blokhin, Ihor Belanov and himself – and whose two biggest clubs, Dynamo and Shakhtar Donetsk, have won major European honours.

“We haven’t won a Champions League but our teams have always been tough to play against,” he says. “Our mentality, our strong character: we’re always going to fight and compete. This has been our identity for a long time and now it’s coming out even more.”

Given the present-day context, Shevchenko believes Ukraine is “in a very good shape football-wise”. The under-19 and under-17 sides reached their European finals tournaments and the country will contest its first men’s Olympic competition next month. The local league has, despite constant stoppages due to air raid warnings, completed a second season since Russia’s full-scale invasion and crowds have begun to return under strictly monitored conditions.

Almost 3,500 fans were able to watch the Ukrainian cup final between Shakhtar Donetsk and Vorskla Poltava, held in Rivne, four weeks ago. That was impossible to imagine in February 2022. “We’re facing incredible challenges even to finish games, but our football society feels very united now,” he says. “There’s a high determination to understand and solve our problems.”

Thinking back to those few hot, heady weeks in 2012 it is impossible not to feel despair about what happened next. Russia annexed Crimea 18 months after Ukraine’s home tournament and shortly afterwards a swathe of the Donbas region, including Donetsk, was seized by separatists. The wider world failed to anticipate the ramifications; Russia staged the 2018 World Cup with relatively light interrogation of its actions in Ukraine.

“For us, everything started in 2014,” Shevchenko says. “Since then, there’s been no chance to stop it. The reaction of the whole world was very slow, but they opened their eyes two years ago and are still supporting us. We’re facing a very difficult moment. You hear the sirens every day, things are difficult on the front line, and obviously people are tired. But our people are strong and will carry on.”

If football was a costly distraction six years ago, he believes the sight of Ukraine’s players walking out in Germany will be “a message that reminds the world we’re still fighting in every direction”.

Shevchenko sees a chance for his sport to wield its power for good, just as it did when Europe’s fans converged on his country. “It’s important how you use this power,” he says. “It’s about whether you use it in the right way, to connect with people and send peace messages, or if you use football to cover war crimes or things like that.

“Football is a very powerful tool: we have to use it in the right way.”


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