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.