Andriy Shevchenko will today have the honour of leading Ukraine into a quarter final of a European Championships for the first time in his nations history.
The side will hoping to go one better than the quarter final they achieved at the 2006 World Cup, it’s current furthest progression at a major tournament. There again Shevchenko led from the front, this time as captain.
There is no escaping it, the history of Ukrainian football is inexorably intertwined with the name, Andriy Shevchenko.
Following its breakaway from the Soviet Union, Ukraine played Hungary in its first official match on the 29th April 1992.
Just two years and ten months later, an 18 year old Andriy Shevchenko first took to the field for his country. Another year later he scored his first goal, along the way becoming his nations youngest ever goalscorer.
Skip forward almost sixteen years and a now 35 year old Shevchenko acted as the talismanic captain of his side as they battled it out on home soil at the 2012 Euro’s. His two goals against Sweden in the sides historic 2-1 win were the last he ever scored for his country and gave Shevchenko the remarkable distinction of concurrently being both his countries youngest and oldest goalscorer.
Following the conclusion of the tournament he retired from football, meaning that his final ever game a player came for his country, another distinction few others can claim.
Following his retirement he stepped away from the game for a few years to try his hand in the world of politics, but after a hiatus of little over three years he was back with the national side. Initially as an assistant manager before taking on the role of manager in July 2016, a position he has held ever since.
All of this got us thinking, just how many of the of the matches in Ukraine’s entire history has Andriy Shevchenko actually been involved in?
Prior to Sheva appearing in his first international at 18 years old, Ukraine had taken part in just 19 games ever as a nation. The next two decades would see him play over 100 games as a player.
Friendlies and the very occasional dead rubber qualifying game were missed from due to club commitments, 43 of them over his long career.
As well, Sheva had to sit out a number of games for various injuries, a further 15 of those.
These absences combined to mean that between his debut in 1995 and his retirement from football in 2012, Shevchenko missed 58 games for Ukraine, almost entirely friendlies.
His period away from the national team, between leaving as a player and rejoining as a coach, saw them play 35 games of a fairly disastrous period and he has been at the helm ever since.
When added all up it means Shevchenko his either been directly on the field, more often than not captain, or leading his nation from the sideline in 61% of all the games Ukraine has ever played.
When the friendlies he missed as a player are factored in, the overall percentage of purely competitive Ukraine fixtures that Sheva has been involved is significantly higher.
For close to 30 years now the chances are if you watched a Ukraine game, Shevchenko would be at the heart of it.
It’s already clear that should he elect to stay with the national team beyond the tournament there will be little to stop him. From the abysmal display of zero wins in the 2016 European Championships that saw him take over the job he has transformed the side into a well drilled machine with not a little of that trademark Shevchenko eye for goal.
While many have dismissed Ukraine as simply lucky to be at this stage, it’s clear that the belief of having their nations footballing talisman at the helm is driving this group of players onto new heights.
Words by Andy Gallagher