With over 100 goals to his name in less than five seasons in the notoriously ultra-defensive Italian championship, Andriy Shevchenko is the supreme goal-poacher. The first and only Ukrainian to earn a Champions League winner's medal, 'Sheva' is also the first foreigner ever to finish top scorer in his debut season in Italy. Now he is aiming for another breakthrough by firing Ukraine to their first-ever appearance at a FIFA World CupTM. And as his opponents will tell you, once this man has locked onto a target, there is precious little chance of it eluding him.
Back in the days when he terrorised defences in the Ukraine with Dynamo Kiev, their fans dubbed him "the lethal weapon" in recognition of his uncommon eye for goal. Then, when he joined AC Milan in 1999, the tifosi paid tribute to his South American-style class by singing: "He may not be Brazilian but he scores like one in a million!"
When "Shevagol" runs out onto the pitch, he has just one thing in mind: goals. "When a striker has the ball, he must think of nothing but scoring. It's got nothing to do with egotism, it's just doing his job. My sole aim is to score goals, not for myself, but for the team," Shevchenko explains. One of many sides to suffer from this single-mindedness are Barcelona, against whom Sheva struck a hat-trick in a 1997/98 Champions League tie as Kiev romped to a memorable 4-0 victory at the Nou Camp.
Capocanoniere in his very first season
In June 1999, having accumulated five league titles and two national cups in his native land, Shevchenko left Kiev to join AC Milan for 25 million dollars (21 million Euros at the time), but not before he had learnt Italian so he could communicate as well as possible with his new team-mates. "That's also part of my job," he declared.
That dedication was rewarded when, a few months later, he finished top scorer in Serie A in his debut season (with 24 goals). A consummate professional, he has not disappointed the thousands of tifosi who welcomed him as the natural heir to the great Marco van Basten, former Milan striker and now coach of the Netherlands.
Andriy's early years had not gone quite so smoothly, for at the age of nine, this lad from Dvirkivshchyna, not far from Tchernobyl, was one of thousands of local children forced to flee to the coast with their families to avoid the horrendous after-effects of the nuclear power plant disaster. On a sporting level too, the path to glory was fraught with major obstacles, as in the same year of 1986, he failed a trial for entry to a specialist sports school after making a hash of a dribbling test. But luckily for the young Sheva - and for the game of football -, Alexander Shpakov, a scout for Dynamo Kiev, spotted him playing in a youth tournament.
It was at another youth tournament in 1990, when Shevchenko was just 14 years old, that the legendary Welsh striker Ian Rush, breaking goalscoring records for Liverpool at the time, offered him a pair of football boots as reward for his uncanny eye for goal.
Blooded in the domestic top flight by Yozef Szabo at the tender age of 17, Shevchenko eventually succeeded in breaking through under the iron rule of the infamous Valery Lobanovsky. This former coach of the USSR team was something of a Ukrainian folk hero, managed Ukraine between March 2000 and December 2001, and also turned Dynamo Kiev into a European force. "He was like a father to us all. He was our master," revealed Shevchenko, moist-eyed as he mingled freely amidst 100,000 supporters at Lobanovsky's funeral.
A promise to Lobanovsky
On 28 May 2003, Andriy made good his promise to his mentor by becoming the first Ukrainian ever to win the Champions League. Not only that, he scored the decisive penalty in the shootout for Milan against Juventus. "I will never forget scoring that goal," he declares. The sharpshooter clocked up his 100th Serie A goal this season and a closer look at those strikes shows what a fantastic all-round finisher he is. With 36 goals coming from his right foot, 17 from his left, 26 from headers, 2 from free kicks and 19 from the penalty spot, including 21 braces and 3 hat-tricks, Sheva really is the worst nightmare of Serie A defenders.
First capped by the Ukraine in March 1995 against Croatia, his influence on his countrymen is enormous, even if he is yet to lead them to a major tournament. That sole blot on his copybook looks close to being erased too, as courtesy of his four goals so far in the qualifiers for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, including a brace against Turkey, Ukraine are currently sitting pretty atop their group.
In contrast to his team-mates, including close friend Massimo Ambrosini, who all live in leafy Milanese suburbs, "Shevagol" has set up home in downtown Milan, a stone's throw from the public gardens, so that "my mother can walk to the shops."
Having recently extended his contract with Milan up to 30 June 2008, Shevchenko remains uncomplicated and hardworking, not to mention a perfectionist. On the homepage of his website, he announces to his fans: "Don't make me an idol. I am yet to reach my best." Now that is a tantalizing prospect, if ever there was one…