For the past five years he has thought of nothing but the European Championship in his country. It was his dream to play in the tournament and to help his homeland in any way that he could. After a disastrous spell at Chelsea and an injury-riddled past few seasons at Dynamo Kiev, many had written him off as a has-been. But in the city where he first made his mark as a world-class striker, Andriy Shevchenko led Ukraine to a stunning 2-1 comeback victory over favoured Sweden in what will go down as one of Ukrainian football's finest moments. It could not have been any sweeter.
The match was a pulsating encounter, with plenty of chances for both sides and an electric atmosphere at Kiev's Olympic Stadium. It must be said that, despite all of the question marks surrounding them, over the 90 minutes Ukraine were the better side. As Oleh Blokhin himself remarked, this outfit is thoroughly different from the side that reached the last eight of the 2006 World Cup. While that edition of the Yellow-Blues ground out results (see the dour 0-0 draw with Switzerland), this time around Ukraine came here to play proactive football. With plenty of young attacking talent and the talismanic Shevchenko leading the line, Ukraine demonstrated their potential and sent a message that they are not to be written off.
There were no surprises in Blokhin's starting XI except for perhaps Sheva himself. The legendary striker did not start any of the three warm-up friendlies and was not expected to last 90 minutes. But the chance to let Shevchenko start in front of the home fans was too perfect to pass by. He was supported by Voronin, who had an excellent match and was a constant menace for the Swedish defence. The two young wingers, Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka, were also impressive and crucial to Ukraine's counter-attacks. Nazarenko partnered Tymoshchuk in the centre of midfield and often took on the role of the playmaker. Oleh Husiev, despite playing as a full back, attacked so much down that the right that he effectively became a wing back and allowed Yarmolenko to cut inside.
Ukraine's quick counter-attacks made the Swedes uncomfortable, and they had their first great chance on 23 minutes. Nazarenko drove through the middle of the pitch and found Sheva on the right, and after a one-two with Yarmolenko Shevchenko found himself in on goal. He pulled his shot well wide, however, and the chance went begging. Later in the first half, the Ukrainians threatened on the counter-attack again, but this time Yarmolenko's shot was deflected for a corner. Sweden had their opportunities as well, the best being Ibrahimovic's header of the post in the 39th. But neither side was able to make a breakthrough, and it was scoreless at half-time.
It all seemed to be falling apart for Ukraine shortly after the interval. Yarmolenko failed to clear a cross, allowing Ibrahimovic to fire home from close range. Cue the Sheva show. Just minutes later, Yarmolenko made up for his mistake with a fantastic cross into the box, and Shevchenko got in front of Mellberg and beat Isaksson on his near side with a powerful header to equalise. Sweden had hardly had time to settle when, barely five minutes later, Shevchenko again headed past the Swedish goalkeeper, this time with an equally powerful header to the near post from a Nazarenko header.
Sweden had some excellent chances to equalise, but this was always going to be Sheva's night. The stadium, the nation, and the entire Ukrainian diaspora living all around the world gave him a standing ovation as he was substituted late on. This was the perfect beginning to the tournament: three points and a performance for the ages from Ukraine's all-time top scorer to add to what has already been a brilliant career. With the unexpected role of being top of the group, Blokhin will now have to decide whether to go with more of the same or slightly adjust his side for the match against France. But these are questions I will address in the future. This moment in footballing history belongs to Andriy Shevchenko.