There were plenty of doubters before the tournament, but now that Andriy Shevchenko has led Ukraine to glory over Sweden, he has firmly left his mark on the Euro 2012.
Despite doubts over fitness and form coming into the Euro 2012, Ukraine Captain Andriy Shevchenko has reaffirmed his status as a national hero. After scoring both goals in a 2-1 win over Sweden on Monday night in Kyiv, Shevchenko has silenced his critics, and justified his place in the Ukrainian side.
Though his selection for Ukraine’s tournament squad was never in doubt, his spot in the starting 11 was uncertain.
In the season leading up to this summer's tournament, his form was inconsistent. He played just six games and scored two league goals in the second half of the 2011-12 season for Dynamo Kyiv, managing to go the full 90 minutes only twice. Going into the tournament he had scored only once for Ukraine in the last two years, in a friendly against Bulgaria last October.
All eyes on Euro 2012
Indeed Shevchenko, who was substituted in the 81st minute Monday night, has said that his focus has been less on club football and primarily on playing in the Euro 2012 in his home country. His lack of consistent playing time has declined with age - he turns 36 in September - but it has in part been to secure his fitness heading into June.
Andriy Shevchenko celebrates after scoring against Tunisia at the 2006 World Cup
His dedication to his country, though, remains. Since making his debut in 1996, Shevchenko has appeared in at least one game for Ukraine every year for the last 17 years. He became the first Ukrainian to reach 100 caps in 2010.
"Arguably he is the most famous Ukrainian in the world at the moment," said Jonathan Wilson, a journalist for The Guardian newspaper who has written extensively on football in Eastern Europe, in an interview with DW. "But as a footballer, he's 35, he probably can’t manage two games in four days, he’s starting to creak, and he himself admits that he’s put off his time in order to play in this tournament."
Shevchenko admitted as much in an interview earlier this month with The Guardian, saying, "For the last five years I've hardly thought about anything but the European Championship that will be held in my country, it's fair to say this has extended my career. It's my dream."
Hero in Kyiv
Shevchenko, who is no stranger to criticism after a big-money move to Chelsea in 2006 ended largely unsuccessfully, shrugged off all criticism and doubt with a brilliant opening performance.
Though the speed and explosiveness that made him a star at Italy's AC Milan a decade ago have clearly diminished, his timing and tactical awareness remain sharp.
After Sweden’s star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic opened the scoring in the 52nd minute Monday, Shevchenko responded quickly with two headed goals from well-timed runs into the box in the 55th and 62nd minutes. He had just three shots on goal all game.
In the process, Shevchenko, who became Ukraine's youngest ever scorer at age 19, bookended his national team career by also becoming his country's oldest ever scorer at 35 years and 256 days.
The standing ovation he received upon his exit was well-deserved, and although he may not be able to maintain such extended playing time in the upcoming group stage matches, he has already firmly left his mark on this summer's tournament.
"I can't dream of a better night," he sad to the AP news agency after the game. "I feel 10 years younger today."
Shevchenko had not scored two goals in a competitive match for Ukraine since 2004, when he was named European Footballer of the Year.
Author: David Raish
Editor: Matt Zuvela