Shevchenko mastering Ukraine's transition
Ukraine the best movers in September's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking
The team climbed six rungs to 29th place
Head coach Andriy Shevchenko has overseen rebuilding
There is no question that Andriy Shevchenko was among the best footballers in the world during his playing days. He went up against the game's elite during spells at AC Milan and Chelsea and was even voted European Footballer of the Year in 2004. Yet it was at his hometown club, Dynamo Kiev, that he truly became a national hero.
Two years ago, shortly before turning 40, Shevchenko entered unchartered territory by taking charge of Ukraine's national team, despite having only signed on as assistant coach a few months previously. He was faced with a huge challenge, tasked with getting the side back on track after their disappointing group stage exit at UEFA EURO 2016.
"For me it's a big honour and a big responsibility," said Shevchenko when he was officially appointed in February 2016. "I'm starting my comeback today after a four-year break. I'll do my best to repay the faith that has been put in me."
Now, 32 months later, it is safe to say that Shevchenko's qualities are not limited to playing the game but have translated to the touchline too.
Shevchenko's career statistics
111 international caps, 48 goals
Ukraine's all-time top scorer
European Player of the Year 2004
15 club titles, including the UEFA Champions League in 2004
Appointed Ukraine assistant coach in February 2016, made head coach six months later
Ukraine are the best movers in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, climbing six rungs to 29th thanks to recent UEFA Nations League victories over Czech Republic, who slipped three places to 47th, and Slovakia, who stayed in 26th. Ukraine have won four and lost two of their six matches this year and even went unbeaten in 2017, winning four and drawing three.
Shevchenko's charges may not have qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ out a group including Iceland and Croatia, but that is not to say their results were bad. Ukraine only lost three times – each defeat inflicted by one of that aforementioned duo – but even that meant too many points were dropped to reach the World Cup for a second time.
It was undeniably a bitter blow for a man as ambitious and accustomed to success as Shevchenko, but he is aware that the path he has guided his team along is still far from over.
Several key players announced their retirement from the international stage in 2016 and had to be replaced, including captain and veteran holding midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, as well as Vyacheslav Shevchuk and Oleh Husyev. Today, 34-year-old goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov is the only remaining member of the old guard still in the team.
The task now is for Shevchenko to improve and integrate the younger players into the side. It helps that many of them, such as Manchester City's Oleksandr Zinchenko, have moved to foreign clubs and gained valuable experience by doing so. Older players, including 28-year-old Andriy Yarmolenko (West Ham United) and 29-year-old Yevhen Konoplyanka (Schalke), give the team the necessary balance. Another advantage is that the vast majority of the national team squad play for Ukrainian heavyweight Shakhtar Donetsk, who are regular participants in the Champions League.
The next generation of players are also already starting to come through, with Ukraine qualifying for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Poland 2019. At the UEFA U-19 European Championship over the summer, Oleksandr Petrakov's troops finished top of Group B thanks to wins over France (2-1) and Turkey (1-0), as well as a 1-1 draw with England, before came up short against eventual champions Portugal in the semi-finals. Nevertheless, in Vladyslav Supriaha and Serhiy Buletsa, two Ukrainian players still made it into the team of the tournament.
"I hope recognition [for Ukrainian players] can come soon,” Shevchenko said in a seemingly prescient interview with FIFA.com just over a year ago. “In Ukraine we have a couple of very good young players and a few established players. I always hope for Ukrainian players to perform well, and perhaps be nominated for one of The Best awards, either for The Best Men’s Player or perhaps The Best Goalkeeper.”
That may still be some way off but, as recent results have highlighted, the seeds have been sown – and Shevchenko himself has had a significant role in that.