‘I won Ballon d’Or – my first football had to be destroyed by my soldier father’

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    What are your first memories of playing football?

    For many, it's zipping and sliding across a muddy field, with a stiff, winter's breeze cutting through their hair as they punt a cheap football towards a goal marked out by jumpers or bikes for goalposts. Youngsters like themselves coming up, asking to join in, only to be ushered towards the person who owns the ball, because everybody knows they're the one who lets you play or not.

    They were confusing and innocent times those of us who fell in love with the sport remember as if they were yesterday. Well, life was very different for 2004 Ballon d'Or winner and former AC Milan and Chelsea striker Andriy Shevchenko. One of his first interactions with a football was equally innocent, but infinitely more terrifying.

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    Shevchenko, 47, grew up in the tiny village of Dvirkivschychna, but Moved to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev when he was younger. Like any other youngster, he lived and breathed football.

    Such world class talents, worthy of winning the Ballon d'Or, the Champions League, Serie A and five Ukrainian league championships, would have started playing from a young age. Yet, unknowingly, his love for the game nearly endangered himself and his family.

    In 1986, when Shevchenko was not even of secondary school age, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat exploded, killing 50 people but affecting thousands. Despite being more than 200km away from the disaster, Shevchenko and his family moved to the sea of Azol, more than 50kms away from home.

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    After the disaster happened, a young and unaware Shevchenko found a football and brought it back home. "The memory was going back when I was nine years old and something terrible had happened," Shevchenko said in an exclusive interview with Daily Star Sport, when asked about that scary moment while speaking on behalf of the Oxbridge Foundation.

    “They kept it [the disaster] secret from us, because they did not know exactly what had been going on. My father was serving in the USSR military at that time. There was a rumour and then we started to understand what was going on.

    “That ball, when I brought it back home, my dad had a device which managed to measure the amount of radiation on the ball. I was a little bit shocked by that, because it had been immediately thrown away and destroyed.

    “That was actually a very dangerous situation from what I remember. It affected so many children in Ukraine because in one day, the country decided to move all of us out of the schools and we were evacuated." In his book, My Life My Football, he described the ball as "a small atomic bomb" that was "hidden in my greatest passion."

    Because he was so young, the former Ukraine manager's recollection of those terrifying moments is fuzzy. However, confusing memories were brought back to him when he watched the popular Amazon Prime series 'Chernobyl' which dramatised the events leading up to the explosion.

    “I watched the series Chernobyl and that helped me to refresh my memory when that situation happened," he added. "There was the risk that the reactor would explode again, from something that was going on inside it.

    “I remember that time because we would be taken out immediately and, in one day, they decided to move all of us. All of us were affected because we had to leave our family."

    Considering the constant back and forth and uncertainty, football was often the last thing on his mind. However, when it was safe to do so, his coaches at the time reinstated his love for the sport. "We came back and I was not thinking to play again," he said. "But my coach talked to my parents and reminded them that I could start playing football again."

    No child would want to see their football be taken away to never be seen again. In the end, Shevchenko was so good, the main ball he can look back on with pride is the Golden Ball he has in his vast trophy cabinet.

    Andriy Shevchenko was backing the launch of the Oxbridge Foundation to provide educational opportunities for students impacted by the conflict in Ukraine.

    • Premier League
    • Chelsea FC
    • AC Milan FC
    • Champions League
    • Chernobyl
    • Serie A
    • Military
    • Family
    • Russia Ukraine war
    • Ukraine
    • Exclusives

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