Shevchenko At Chelsea: When A God Became Mortal

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Recently I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the passage of time. Until last weekend, when the season ended, I was playing eleven-a-side football for an amateur team here in Berlin; at the age of thirty-seven, and having grown tired of hobbling through half the week, I decided to throw in the towel. My ankles are thanking me already. If you have ever had any pretensions to be an athlete, it’s a strange moment when you realise that your body can no longer do what you commanded it to. You reach for the light-switch and keep clicking; till you see that the bulb’s blown out, and there’s no way to replace it. Playing football’s not my livelihood, though, and nor has it largely defined me since I was a child; as a result, it’s pretty easy, then, for me to walk away from the experience. With this in mind, I have no small sympathy for Andrei Shevchenko.Gary Neville once described Cristiano Ronaldo as “a bully”, in that he ruthlessly exposed and then exploited the weaknesses of any defenders who stood against him. As AC Milan’s first-choice centre-forward, Shevchenko wasn’t so much a tyrant. Like Ronaldo, he was able to overwhelm opponents with whichever tool he chose – speed, strength or skill. During seven seasons in Serie A, he sometimes seemed to score as freely as if he were taking part in Sunday League. His exploits there were so remarkable that he remains the club’s second-highest goalscorer. And then, after subjecting the continent to a decade of dominance, he moved to Chelsea.

Even if you glance through them, the history books will be fairly scathing about the two seasons Shevchenko spent in West London. During that time, he managed 22 goals in 76 games — those aren’t, of course, the numbers of a man at his peak, still less the numbers of a man who scored 19 goals in 28 league matches just the year before. The brutal truth seems to be that the Ukraine international lost his peak somewhere between the departure lounge in Italy and his arrival at Stamford Bridge, and he never got it back. It would be the fastest deterioration of form anyone had seen till Fernando Torres moved from Liverpool to Chelsea a few years later. Like Torres, Shevchenko would traipse around grounds both home and away, suddenly heavy-legged, now humiliated by the types of players he regularly used to degrade. While Torres’ decline could be readily ascribed to injury – with many pinpointing the moment that he collapsed in agony during Spain’s celebrations after the 2010 World Cup final – Shevchenko’s body simply seemed to give up on him.

And so it should have done. He had been playing in Dynamo Kiev’s first team as a teenager, in a side that relied greatly upon a spectacularly fast counter-attack. If you look back on YouTube, you’ll find Barcelona being eviscerated by Dynamo both home and away – 3-0 in Kiev, 4-0 at the Camp Nou – and Shevchenko is central to both doses of mayhem, scoring a hat-trick before half-time in the second of these encounters. Each time you saw him in the UEFA Champions League, he seemed to be playing at a tempo at a notch above everyone other than Sergei Rebrov, his main accomplice in attack. That’s the type of furious industry that exacts a severe toll upon the limbs, and so it proved.

The oddest thing about Shevchenko’s acquisition is that it directly derailed the momentum of one of the best sides the Premier League had ever seen. Chelsea had won two league titles in a row, and narrowly missed out on a third to United – had Mourinho got his way and not picked Shevchenko at all, they might well have won three straight. The forward, a good friend of owner Roman Abramovich, was apparently brought to the club against the wishes of Jose Mourinho, who seemed understandably reluctant to play him – Mourinho’s tactics, like those of Dynamo Kiev a few years before, relied on remarkable pace on the break. Now, though, they had to watch as their new centre-forward attacked at the speed of a man trudging through wet concrete.

While Mourinho and many Chelsea fans were presumably greatly frustrated by all this, there can’t have been anyone more frustrated than Shevchenko himself. The worst shadows to chase are your own; the middle-aged novelist haunted by the success of the majestic debut novel she penned in her mid-twenties, the ageing tap-dancer unable to rattle out the same tempo he did in his teens. The summer of his arrival at Stamford Bridge, Shevchenko tasted more harshly than most the reality that youth is only on loan. In the grand scheme, his legacy will easily absorb those two uncomfortable years at Chelsea; after all, in 2003 he returned the UEFA Champions League to AC Milan after nine years, and became the third Ukrainian to be named the European footballer of the year. Yet his time in West London will remain the most bracing of occasions: when, with disbelieving millions watching in either glee or horror, a god became mortal.

Poet, journalist, musician. Musa can be seen writing for ESPN, The Economist and more

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3 Comments on “Shevchenko At Chelsea: When A God Became Mortal”

  1. Chizoba. says:

    Totally agree with you. Andriy was phenomal at my beloved AC Milan. The move to Chelsea halted his career. While at Milan, he was god.

  2. Kamil says:

    Hi. First of all: thank you! I was one of those blessed fans that could admire Andriy playing for ‘my’ team for several excellent years.
    He was a GOD indeed. When It comes to central forwards, he was an absolute top. Left leg, right leg, head, it didn’t make any difference for him. Speed and strength perfectly combined together. Ultimate striker.
    Everything was so phenomenal, until, he decided to join Abramovich. It was a painful blow, I have to admit. Instead of becoming AC MILAN’s highest ever goalscorer, he became a joke in PL.
    Hard to disagree with you. Playing at the highest level for many years did the destruction for sure. However,… It’s true that his last season in Italy (before moving to England), was not the best ever, although apart from 19th goals in Serie A, he was a top Champions League scorer (9 goals), and, as far as I remember, he was AC MILAN’s assist leader for that season. It shows the quality he still possessed.
    The crucial aspect of Andriy’s “deterioration” was not as much the fact he was not in his peak already, but the decision to change the league when he was 30. Even with the quality he possessed, moving from Italy to England, with such dramatic difference between the style of football in these leagues, was simply too much for him. It is definitely much easier to adopt when you are at the beginning of your career, not in your thirties.
    You have to consider the difference between Italy and England when it comes to life off the pitch as well. Not everyone is ready, as a person, to make that step. Especially when you have to adopt promptly, because of very high expectations. Italy was already his home, and then, to very much extent, he had to start from ‘beginning’.
    Anyway, all of above words are ‘just’ our assumptions. Nevertheless you made my day with your post. Shevchenko is still somewhere there, deep in my hart, and I’m really grateful for his years in Italy.
    Thank you for your warm comments towards Andriy. It’s so nice there are others who saw and admired his incredible quality.

    Kind regards.

  3. SAMNAS NASSY says:

    FANTASTIC. HE WAS MY ROLE MODEL.

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