The Wednesday Portrait: Andriy Shevchenko
by Brian Phillips · November 14, 2007
The element of “spirit” in football can be perceived in this: that when he played for Milan, Andriy Shevchenko looked bigger, I mean physically bigger, than he is, and now, playing for Chelsea, he looks smaller than he is; as though, wherever we were sitting when we saw him before, we’ve moved fifteen rows back. There’s something time-wrecked and sunken about him now, a kind of visible high qualm across the shoulders: he runs like an apology, plays like the football equivalent of staring into space. It’s hard to watch him at times, because the decline of great players usually happens in stages, goes gradually enough that we are finally let down gently, but in Shevchenko’s case the change came killingly fast. It’s a strange thing, the end of a great player’s career. It’s as if he’s given immortality for ten years and then has it taken away. We see the spirit drain out of him, and he looks, suddenly, more mortal even than the rest of us, more subject to doom and fragility, more uncertain, more alone.
For Shevchenko, who played with such vicious grace in Italy, this seemed to happen too fast; all at once, in fact, somewhere around the day he moved to London. We weren’t prepared for it, and he wasn’t, either, I think. It isn’t that he’s grown older or actually weaker than the other players on the pitch—greatness isn’t only a function of testosterone, and in any case there was always a kind of neutral vitality and sexless genius to the way Shevchenko played—but that he’s been surprised by his own diminishment, and seems more hindered by the surprise than by the diminishment itself. He’ll either recover and, for a while at least, improve, or disappear into his money and old sentimental YouTube clips, and leave us to decide how to remember him. In any case, it’s painful to see his talent pass out of the game this way, to see him play like someone frozen by the thought that time passes for him, too.
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