|Dates: 11 June-11 July. Venues: Amsterdam, Baku, Bucharest, Budapest, Copenhagen, Glasgow, London, Munich, Rome, Seville, St Petersburg. Coverage: Live on BBC TV, BBC Radio 5 Live, iPlayer and the BBC Sport website and app. Click here for more details|
“I remember all the games with him,” says Oleksiy Byelik, a former international team-mate of Ukraine manager Andriy Shevchenko.
“Once we played against Georgia in 2006 World Cup qualifying. Before the game, the manager Oleg Blokhin announced the starting line-up and gave us instructions. Then, after the team meeting, Shevchenko gave me his own instructions. We won 2-0, Sheva and I scored a goal each.”
A decade later, in 2016, Shevchenko – Ballon d’Or winner, Ukraine legend, failed parliamentary candidate – would take control of the national team and those personality traits displayed as a player would again come to the fore.
“He was always the leader,” says Byelik. “It was like that on the pitch and off it, too. That’s why it’s no surprise he became a coach.”
Now, five years on, one of the 21st Century’s great players is leading his country at a major tournament as a manager and has them on the verge of a place in the knockout stages, having successfully “killed the player inside”.
Turbulent times – on and off the pitch
That quote, given to FourFourTwo magazine in 2019, says a lot about transitioning from being the greatest player your country has produced to becoming the national side’s manager.
Plenty have attempted to make a similar step, many have failed.
“On one hand, [being an icon] does help,” Shevchenko added. “However, on the other it only brings even higher expectations, for me personally and also for the team.”
It was far from a certainty that he would end up in the role.
Immediately after hanging up his boots, he announced he would join a political party “Ukraine – Forward!” for the parliamentary election, aiming to share “the experience I gained in Europe to do something for my country”.
But his party won only 1.58% of the vote and failed to gain any representation in the Ukrainian parliament.
When that bid failed, Shevchenko returned to football, first as assistant and then as manager of the national team.
Politics and sport are never far apart, though, and throughout his time on the coaching staff the country has been involved in a conflict with Russia, sparked by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s military intervention in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
There have been major implications for Ukrainian football.
Shakhtar Donetsk were particularly affected, forced to play their home games in Lviv, later Kharkiv and now Kyiv while their Donbass Arena was shelled during the fighting. It is hardly conducive to a settled international setup.
Perhaps it was no surprise that the national team, hosts along with Poland for Euro 2012, endured a disastrous Euro 2016 – Shevchenko present in the role of Mykhaylo Fomenko’s number two – and scepticism grew when he took over as manager and was unable to earn qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
But his impact is now being felt and, despite his lack of experience, his coaching career has gone far better than his short-lived political one.
What kind of manager is Shevchenko?
In his inaugural press conference in the Ukraine job he talked of wanting to change the playing style, moving away from counter-attacking and trying to take control of matches.
His team were unbeaten in 2019 as Shevchenko modernised a side which had previously been largely reactive and reliant on defence.
Helped by a reputation formed while starring, most notably, with AC Milan, where he was named the world’s best player in 2004, respect was never going to be a problem.
The former Chelsea striker’s idea was to make the game more fluid and he had the right type of players to adapt to his approach. Generational change within the squad has been helped by Ukraine winning the U20 World Cup in 2019.
Just as important as his tactical input has been the psychological impact he has had.
|Sunday, 13 June||Netherlands (in Amsterdam)||Lost 3-2|
|Thursday, 17 June||North Macedonia (Bucharest)||Won 2-1|
|Monday, 21 June||Austria (in Bucharest)||17:00 BST|
He counts Valeriy Lobanovskyi and Carlo Ancelotti as his most influential coaches and Lobanovskyi, his manager at Dynamo Kyiv, taught him there were “no trifles in football – there’s nothing you can ignore as a minute detail”.
“He and his staff changed the mentality in the team,” says Volodymyr Zverov, a TV journalist with the 1+1 channel.
“They try to explain to the players that they can compete with the very best. And it works. For example, Vitaly Mykolenko, a left-back at Dynamo Kyiv, completely ate Cristiano Ronaldo when they drew 0-0 with Portugal in Lisbon in qualifying.”
“He made the players confident,” Byelik says. “Our team has begun playing better, they’re better organised. I’m sure that his legendary status helped him. There is a great atmosphere in the team.”
Ukraine finished above Portugal to top their group en route to Euro 2020, ending the campaign without defeat. Suddenly, Shevchenko went from being criticised to being described as one of Europe’s best young coaches, and there were even reports of a return to AC Milan.
“Milan is always in my heart and one day, when I decide to change, I would love to train them,” he said in May.
A place in history – or a year too late?
There was a fear leading up to the tournament that a team which conceded only four goals in eight qualifiers may suffer from the year’s delay to the Euros caused by coronavirus.
Since 2020, Ukraine have struggled, losing the majority of their games in the Nations League (including 7-1 to France and 4-0 against Spain) and also starting the World Cup qualifying campaign with three 1-1 draws – against France, Finland and Kazakhstan.
When the team drew 1-1 in a May friendly against Bahrain, Shevchenko came under increased pressure just weeks before the final tournament.
“One year ago Ukraine had a well-balanced and fast team with key players who were mentally ready for big tasks,” said Zverov.
“However, when they rescheduled the Euros that was a loss for Ukraine.
“Key players from the 2018 to 2020 period, such as Yevhen Konoplyanka, Andriy Yarmolenko and Taras Stepanenko suffered due to injuries and goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov lost his place in Shakhtar’s goal.
“In Ukraine, they hope a new leader will appear.”
But after a spirited 3-2 defeat in their opening game against the Netherlands, Yarmolenko was back to his best in a 2-1 win over North Macedonia, a result which puts them in contention for a place in the last 16 when they take on Austria on Monday.
Alongside principal goal threat Yarmolenko in the starting line-up will be Oleksandr Zinchenko, the Manchester City left-back often deployed as a creative midfielder for his country, and one of Ukraine’s emerging generation.
“Zinchenko is one of Ukraine’s key players, as the tactics are based on keeping the ball,” says Zverov. “However, he doesn’t have team-mates here at the same level as at Manchester City.
“That’s vital to realise: Zinchenko alone can’t win games for Ukraine. Nobody can.”