Andriy Shevchenko: "We are living through decisive times..."

2024-05-29 11:59 The latest issue of the reputable French weekly L'Equipe Magazine was published with a portrait of ... Andriy Shevchenko: "We are living through decisive times..."
29.05.2024, 11:59

The latest issue of the reputable French weekly L'Equipe Magazine was published with a portrait of Andriy Shevchenko on the cover. The main material of the publication - an interview with the President of the Ukrainian Football Association (written by Jean-Christophe Collen) - is presented in a translation with minor abridgements.

Andriy Shevchenko. Photo: Getty Images

...At a certain point, one might think that people in Kyiv live almost like Parisians or Toulouse residents. But then night falls and another air raid siren sounds. Despite a powerful air defence system, the home of the Ukrainian Football Federation is under threat from Russian missiles. Like, for example, the Lokomotiv stadium, which was destroyed one January morning, a few minutes before the children arrived for training. The Federation's office is located right next to a military hospital where wounded soldiers are brought in every day. This is the atmosphere in which Andriy Shevchenko met us.

"Events are people in the midst of circumstances," Charles de Gaulle wrote in his book on military strategy, Towards a Professional Army. We saw more than just a former footballer. We met a man whose mission goes far beyond sport in a very difficult time for Ukraine. Shevchenko, like every one of his compatriots, is aware that we are now talking about the existence of an entire state, about the future of a nation that has fascinated the world with its courage and strength of spirit.

- Last night at the Lobanovsky Stadium, the match of Dynamo Kyiv was preceded by a moving ceremony in honour of the fans of the Kyiv club who died in the war...

- Since 2014 - as the war began for us then - many football fans have died at the front defending Ukraine... We express our gratitude to the people who gave their lives for our freedom. The Federation is trying to help the families of these fans. For example, we organise trips abroad during national team matches. Because, unfortunately, we cannot play at home yet...

- Ukraine's national team won a ticket to Euro 2024 by defeating Iceland in the play-offs at a stadium in Poland. Obviously, it was a very emotional moment for the country and for you personally, the young president of the Federation?

- Yes, it was important for everyone. Football is the main sport in Ukraine, and there has always been a special atmosphere around it. Throughout the entire period of independence, the national team has been a cause for national unity. And today - even more so! Soldiers on the frontline watched the play-off matches against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iceland on their phones, tablets and computers. I received a lot of messages from them, emotional videos straight from the frontline. These were not just football matches, it was much more important. And our national team today is more than just a football team. Yes, it is important for Ukrainian football to take part in the decisive stage of representative competitions. But it is even more important that a major sporting forum becomes a platform from which we can talk about Ukraine and convey our messages to the world.

- So the national team players must feel a lot of pressure for the result...

- They are fully aware of the responsibility for wearing this shirt. For each of them, fighting for the colours of the country is a matter of pride. During the qualifying campaign, the team repeatedly experienced difficult moments. But everyone in the team knew how to react. The guys showed a strong character for the sake of the country, for the sake of the soldiers who hold the frontline. I start any conversation with the national team players by thanking the soldiers, all those who give us a chance to continue playing football.

- After Ukraine won a ticket to the Euros, you received a lot of congratulations from all over the world...

- Yes, that's right, a lot. However, we didn't organise any celebrations about winning the qualification. It was not the right time and the right situation to celebrate. Since the war started, everything has changed for us...

- Everything has changed for you personally as well. The great player, the winner of the Ballon d'Or, who lived comfortably in London, ended up in Kyiv, where he now organises the football of a country at war...

- That day divided the lives of all Ukrainians into "before" and "after"... My activity, our activity, is to continue developing football. In the end, the war did not prevent the second Ukrainian Premier League championship. A cup tournament was held again, the final of which was dedicated to the defenders of the Fatherland. The national championship is held in three men's and two women's divisions.

I see this as a great victory for Ukraine. Even fans are returning to the stands, despite the fact that some matches are suspended several times due to air raids. Especially those held in frontline cities. The longest match, in Dnipro, lasted about five hours! Each arena is equipped with a shelter, where the participants and spectators go after the siren.

- It is very symbolic to continue sports competitions when Russia is planning to destroy your country.

- Yes, it is. We are not giving up. Hard realities are a test of character. We are looking for a way out and find it, adapting to the situation.

- Three Ukrainian footballers have won the Ballon d'Or at different times - Oleg Blokhin, Ihor Belanov and Andriy Shevchenko. The Netherlands and Portugal, for example, have the same number of winners. This in a way characterises football in your country...

- Ukraine has great football traditions! Today, the stars of the past have found worthy successors - Andriy Lunin at Real Madrid, Mykhailo Mudryk at Chelsea, Oleksandr Zinchenko at Arsenal...

- You heard the news of the outbreak of war from your mother, who called you in London. What was your reaction?

- I couldn't believe it. It was a real shock! A call in the middle of the night from my mother, who was in tears of horror, telling me about explosions somewhere very close by. She lives not far from the radar station, which became one of the first targets for the enemy.

- What feelings filled you at that moment?

- You have to understand how huge a country Russia is, how huge its army is. The first minutes were just terrifying: I was afraid of losing my country, losing everything. It took some time to react, to take care of the evacuation of my family... Then there was the news about President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's decision to stay in Kyiv, about the queues of volunteers at military registration and enlistment offices... But Ukraine, our nation, has survived. Not least thanks to the support of our partners, including France.

- The French capital will host the next Olympic Games, and the question of Russian athletes' participation has been raised. What is your point of view on this?

- I think that the war waged against Ukraine does not allow for the participation of representatives of Russian and Belarusian sports in the Olympics.

- I remember one touching image: Andriy Shevchenko playing football with a little girl who had been seriously injured...

- She was seriously injured in the explosion at the railway station. When I visited the hospital where the child was undergoing rehabilitation, I played with the little girl for a while. And she started to smile - according to the doctors, for the first time since she was brought in... In addition to being a great way to communicate, especially with children, sport is also a very effective therapy. For the Ukrainian Football Association, one of its current priorities is to develop rehabilitation programmes for the disabled.

- You recently visited the frontline and met with the soldiers. Is it important for you to express your gratitude?

- Absolutely! It is thanks to these guys that we are alive. So, for our part, we have to thank them with victories on the football field.

- Your compatriots will play at Euro 2024 and compete at the Olympics. There are doubts as to how much they will be able to focus on their performances when their country is at war, when their families are under bombing. Do you think we in France or people in other countries are aware of this?

- It's a human thing. It is quite natural to not really understand such a reality when faced with it. This is not your reality. It can only be understood here. We have to lead a different life, where the main issue is to protect our children, our future... The Football Association pays a lot of attention to this issue. Numerous programmes have been introduced for children and relevant training courses have been organised.

- Do you get enough help from other countries, from FIFA and UEFA?

- Yes, we are supported in those countries where Ukraine plays its home matches - in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany. Many federations provide assistance in organising coaching, summer camps for young people, and refereeing reform. We are implementing joint projects with the federations of England and Norway. We have signed memoranda of cooperation with the football associations of Italy and France.

- But your mission as a football president is not the same as, say, the activities of the head of the French Football Federation...

- Perhaps the current context puts me behind the football scenes. But you, France, support us and please, please continue to do so. We are living in crucial times, all of us, democratic states. We cannot give in, we must defend our values. This is the time to be resilient. For us, it is a question of living or not living... I was at the front, I saw what it was like. However, supporting us is not just a matter of money, it is a matter of principle. It's just that we, Ukrainians, are fighting for our survival right now. It's either to be or not to be...

"You are fighting for us too!" - the French journalist concluded the material with this phrase, shaking hands with Andriy Shevchenko before saying goodbye.

Translation and adaptation: Yuriy KORZACHENKO, Ovdi Pinalov

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