Ukraine's Andriy Shevchenko eyes a move to MLS after Euro 2012
GDANSK, Poland -- The player who has produced the best moment of Euro 2012 is married to an American model, named his firstborn son after Michael Jordan and is an avid golfing member of the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., just outside the nation's capital.
Oh, and he would love to join an MLS team as early as next month.
"I'm very interested in playing there," Ukrainian hero Andriy Shevchenko told me over the phone from Kiev two days after scoring both goals in the tournament co-host's 2-1 victory over Sweden. "I've seen the level of the football every year is getting better and better. Also, I really like America. My wife is American, my children are Ukrainian-American. In a few years football can reach the same level as maybe baseball or basketball there. So many young kids are interested in football, and the people in America are starting to get interested too."
He's right. ESPN is enjoying good ratings for its wall-to-wall Euro 2012 broadcasts -- averaging 1.33 million English-language viewers over the first three days, up 214 percent over the same games from Euro 2008 -- in part because the tournament is delivering soul-stirring scenes like Shevchenko's in Kiev on Monday.
One of the top European strikers of the past two decades, Shevchenko spent seven seasons at AC Milan, where he became the club's No. 2 all-time scorer (with 175 goals), won the 2002-03 Champions League and took home the 2004 Ballon d'Or as Europe's best player. But at 35 years old, Shevchenko was thought by some to be too old to make an impact at the highest level in this tournament. Against Sweden he answered those doubts with two terrific goals in a comeback win that set off wild celebrations in Kiev.
"It meant so many things," said Shevchenko, who wasn't even guaranteed a starting spot heading into the tournament. "It's the first game, a historic game for Ukraine in a big competition, and we're a host country. It's a fantastic win. So many people came, and the whole country is watching and supporting us. Some people were crying because they were so happy."
In the moments after the final whistle, as Shevchenko celebrated with his teammates, he thought back to his days as a nine-year-old in the same stadium. Back then, he was giddy with excitement at being a ballboy for Dynamo Kiev. "I remembered seeing all the hero players on the pitch and being close to players like Igor Belanov and Oleg Blokhin," recalled Shevchenko, who was on Dynamo's youth team at the time. "It was a great day when I knew I would go to that stadium."
Twenty-six years later, an emotional Shevchenko hugged Blokhin, now Ukraine's coach, on the same field after the opening victory. Ukraine is in first place in a difficult group with England, Sweden and France, the latter of which it meets on Friday (noon ET, ESPN2/3/Deportes). But finishing in the top two to reach the quarterfinals is a distinct possibility. "Now we have the chance to qualify," said Shevchenko. "We need to win one more game, or we can with a draw in the next two games. The French are next, and England is one of the best teams in Europe and also the world."
For an older player like Shevchenko, playing in Ukraine's first European Championship at home could have gone either way. With the spotlight squarely on him, Monday could have been confirmation that he was past his prime -- especially if he hadn't been chosen to start -- but it also was an opportunity to produce a magical sports moment, which is exactly what he did. Yet Sheva's famous Double by the Dnieper didn't come without hard work in the months leading up to the tournament.
"For me it's so important because this is my last competition with the national team," he said. "I've waited a long time for a big competition like this. I prepared for six months, slowly, slowly to come in and be in my best form. It's a moment to show everyone my quality, my ability. For me, the most important thing was to prepare physically. It's the best motivation to play in a competition in your own country in front of your own fans, your own people. I'm just feeling great, and the team played so well."
Shevchenko has plenty on his mind in the short term, obviously, but he says MLS is an intriguing prospect for him. His contract with Dynamo Kiev will be over in July, when he'd be able to move to MLS without requiring a transfer fee. "I told everyone I'll decide after Euro 2012 what I'm going to do, whether I'll carry on in football or maybe finish, whether I'll move in Europe, stay in Ukraine or have the opportunity to come to the U.S. and play in the league there."
On the one hand, Shevchenko will be 36 in September. But on the other, he just showed against Sweden that he can still score important goals in the world's most competitive soccer tournament. An 18-month contract (and no transfer fee) might well be worth it for an MLS team looking for scoring help.
Shevchenko wouldn't specify any particular MLS clubs that interested him, but New York says it plans to sign a third Designated Player next month (though Red Bulls officials have said they would prefer to sign a young player for that slot). D.C. United might be another intriguing possibility. Shevchenko regularly spends time in the D.C. area with his wife, Kristen Pazik, and their two sons: Jordan, 7, and Christian, 5. Shevchenko and Pazik were married in Bethesda, Md., where her extended family still lives. D.C. United may have a Designated Player slot opening soon, with DP Branko Boskovic's contract ending next month.
Shevchenko doesn't sound like he'd be picky about U.S. cities, but he does know the nation's capital well. "We come and visit [D.C.] every year," he said. "Kristen has a big family living in Bethesda. I love golf, and we're members at Congressional." He likes to follow U.S. sports, too, and he and his wife named their older son, Jordan, after the Chicago Bulls star. "Jordan is one of the best athletes of all time in the world," said Shevchenko. "I really like him, and Jordan is a great name, too."
And something to think about way down the road if Sheva's young sons develop into soccer players like their pops: He says he'd let them decide if they want to play for the U.S. or Ukraine.
For now, though, there's plenty for Shevchenko to think about. Monday's victory over Sweden was a whirlwind of triumph, emotion and even a scary moment later that night. (The car Shevchenko was driving with his wife was
As for the Ukrainian team, Shevchenko thinks Euro 2012 could be an opportunity to surpass even the team's surprise run to the quarterfinals of World Cup 2006, in which it finished second to Spain in a group with Tunisia and Saudi Arabia and beat Switzerland in a second-round penalty shootout.
"We have a tougher group here," he said. "In the World Cup we knew we could pass the group stage, because we lost the first game to Spain but knew we could win the next two games. We played to win and were the stronger team. In this group every point is so important. Sweden is also a very good team, and the victory gives us the confidence we need. The people are so supportive and nice to us, and we can play more open. We're not thinking so much about the result but about just playing."
And who knows? In a tournament as tough as the Euro, a little confidence can take you a long way.
• Talk about extremes: On Tuesday night in Warsaw, I saw Polish and Russian fans beating on each other in a tense atmosphere reflecting centuries of bad blood. But 24 hours later in Gdansk, we spent a great evening with thousands of fun-loving Irish fans, who danced with Spanish supporters and proved why nobody beats the Irish when it comes to good times at big soccer tournaments. One Irish guy even climbed a lamp post and danced before dropping his pants to a roar from the crowd. Let's hear it for Ireland, which produces fun drunks instead of violent ones.
• I'm thinking we really should do a reality show on our traveling crew of four guys doing work for Fox Soccer. We've got an American, an Irishman (reporter/producer Keith Costigan), a Mexican (cameraman/producer Mario Arredondo) and a Pole (fixer/driver Chris Kurylowicz). I had never met these guys before Sunday, and now we're having a blast, working hard, sleeping little and finding some time every once in a while to grab a beer. Good times.
• Pants update: I'm on Day 6 of wearing only one pair of pants after I stupidly forgot to pack any additional ones last week. Haven't had the time yet to get any replacements, but my Baldwin dry-selvages are holding up just fine. Good thing, since I probably won't have a chance to buy some decent new ones until we get back to Warsaw next Tuesday. (TMI?)