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Shevchenko the symbol of Ukraine success

He was already his homeland's most famous son and his double against Sweden was just the latest notable example of Andriy Shevchenko's remarkable sense of timing.

Andriy Shevchenko celebrates his second goal against Sweden
Andriy Shevchenko celebrates his second goal against Sweden ©Getty Images

Shevchenko is one of the most revered names in Ukraine. No town is complete without a statue of the great man situated in a prominent position, including Kyiv whose university bears his name. Taras Shevchenko, the 19th-century poet and one of the founders of Ukrainian literature, is now a symbol of Ukraine. On Monday night the chances of another statue bearing the name Shevchenko being erected in Kyiv increased exponentially.

Around the world, Ukraine has long been associated with Shevchenko of course – although not the author. From my own limited travelling experience I remember men and boys wearing T-shirts with the name of the Ukraine team captain on the back in countries as far afield as Paraguay, the Philippines, or Mozambique. To all these people, Andriy Shevchenko is the modern symbol of Ukraine.

Contrary to popular opinion, Shevchenko was not a village boy who had to travel 100km to train with FC Dynamo Kyiv but a Kyiv resident who moved to the city from his birthplace Dvirkovshchyna at the age of three. Success came quickly; he was part of the Dynamo team that lifted the Soviet Under-16 league title in 1991 and a glittering career for the young Shevchenko was predicted by no less an authority than Ian Rush, the Liverpool FC striker giving the young pretender his boots as a present.

Later that year came an event that would prove pivotal in Shevchenko's life as the Soviet Union – and with it the league – broke apart, leaving clubs such as Dynamo to play against local lower-league sides in the absence of opposition from Russia and other countries. As a result most of the top players moved abroad yet, if this was a serious blow for the Ukrainian league, for the products of the top clubs' youth academies, it gave their fledging careers an invaluable kick-start. The most gifted prodigy was Shevchenko, who made his Dynamo debut aged 18.

That group of teenagers would form the bedrock of the new Ukraine national team for the next decade and beyond. Shevchenko has been there through the highs and lows, never refusing the call and never being accused of playing half-heartedly.

Before the team he now captains took their UEFA European Championship bow against Sweden in his home city on Monday night, Shevchenko had scored 46 goals in 108 international matches. Appropriately, then, when his side most needed it after Zlatan Ibrahimović had given Sweden the lead, two powerful Shevchenko headers came to Ukraine's rescue to give the co-hosts the points and send a packed Olympic Stadium into raptures.

Now 35, Shevchenko’s status as a national treasure has long been assured following a glitteringly successful career at Dynamo, AC Milan, Chelsea FC and now Dynamo again. That makes Shevchenko an icon for millions of Ukrainian fans, equally respected by the older generation – who remember players like Oleh Blokhin and Ihor Belanov – and teenagers who barely caught his golden era. There are many discussions about Ukrainian history, language and politics, but the football team is universally supported.

That makes Shevchenko not only the country's most prominent symbol overseas but also the most popular man in his homeland, a responsibility he carries with remarkable lightness. "I'm just happy, I feel ten years younger," he said after his latest triumph. "It's like a dream."