Andriy Shevchenko tells close friend Jamie Redknapp about his mission in Ukraine

How Andriy Shevchenko first found his homeland was under attack was when his mother, Lyubov, phoned from her home in Kyiv.

‘I was sleeping,’ says the Ukrainian, fiddling with a blue biro. ‘I got a call. It was my mum. She…’

Shevchenko stops. He throws the pen across the table and walks to the window to compose himself. ‘I’m sorry. This isn’t easy. I promise you.’

His voice still cracking, he continues: ‘She said, “The war has started”. We couldn’t believe that Russia would take that step and start the war. We were in shock.’

The sound of shelling and shooting and screaming have become a constant for Shevchenko’s family.

His mother is no longer in Kyiv, the capital where the Russian noose is tightening, but she remains on Ukrainian soil after refusing to leave the country – her country.

He found out from his mother that the war had begun when she called him from her home in Kyiv

An emotional Andriy Shevchenko has opened up about Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine

Fierce battles have raged across the country as Ukrainians fight to defend their homeland

Fierce battles have raged across the country as Ukrainians fight to defend their homeland

‘You feel every bomb that touches the ground because the house is shaking,’ says this teary 45-year-old, smacking the table for emphasis. ‘This is what the war is now. It’s in that stage where the Russians surround the city and are just bombing. They don’t stop. It’s relentless. 

‘It doesn’t give the Ukrainian people the chance for humanitarian corridors. My mum is there. My sister is there. My uncle. My aunty. My cousin. My friends – some in the frontline. They stand for our country, for our freedom, for our choice, for our pride. We defend. We fight. We have to. We don’t have a choice.’

He scored 48 goals in 111 games as their striker, making him their greatest ever goalscorer. He spent five years as their head coach, taking them to the quarter-finals of Euro 2020 last summer. He scored the winning penalty in the 2003 Champions League final for AC Milan and celebrated with the flag of his country draped over his shoulders. Shevchenko is proud to be Ukrainian and says he’s never been prouder to hail from the land of blue and yellow.

Like any son, he tried to convince his mother to cross that border. Due to a health condition, she requires specific medical care. Yet she stayed, along with millions of other mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who refuse to leave what is theirs.

‘The position of President Volodymyr Zelensky was very important,’ Shevchenko continues. ‘He could have left. But he sent a clear message to say he would stay and that we had to defend our country. That united the Ukrainian people. He stayed with them, and we won’t give up.

‘We fight for our choice, for our freedom, for our democracy. When you see the people in the street, going with no arms to stop the tank, that is so powerful. We’re going to defend to the end. Russia is not welcome.’

Shevchenko tells the story of his mother's call from Kyiv to say that the war had started

Shevchenko tells the story of his mother’s call from Kyiv to say that the war had started

The Ukrainian legend (left) sat down with his close friend, Sportsmail's Jamie Redknapp

The Ukrainian legend (left) sat down with his close friend, Sportsmail’s Jamie Redknapp 

Shevchenko is sitting in a library near Ottershaw, Surrey. He’s speaking with his friend of 15 years, Sportsmail’s Jamie Redknapp, who asks how he’s explained the situation to his four boys, Jordan, 17, Kristian, 15, nine-year-old Alexander and seven-year-old Ryder.

‘I just tell the truth,’ Shevchenko says. ‘The right way is to tell the truth. I feel so sorry for journalists who are losing their lives. Those on the frontlines are trying to tell the truth to the world and being killed. Jordan, my eldest, went with me to protests (in London). He’s been involved. He knows what’s happening. It’s tough, for me and my family, but I know how difficult it is for the people in Ukraine who are constantly frightened for their lives.

‘Ukraine’s independence is only 30 years old. When I first started playing football, that was just when we became independent. From the first day to now, I’ve always been proud to be Ukrainian, and someone else is not going to dictate to us.’

He played for two years at Chelsea, scoring 22 goals for the Blues

He played for two years at Chelsea, scoring 22 goals for the Blues 

That ‘someone else’ is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Shevchenko refuses to say his name throughout this interview. He doesn’t deserve one for his inhumanity, as far as this Ukrainian is concerned. Shevchenko is speaking up because he wants the truth out there.

The truth is there was a six-year-old girl called Tanya, who died from dehydration in the ruins of her home in Mariupol, alone and in agony after her family were killed before her. It is tragic tales like Tanya’s that Shevchenko says intensifies his desire to help.

‘This is what happens every day,’ explains the Ukrainian who isn’t simply sympathising from afar and watching the news. He speaks almost daily with Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko. He’s offering sanctuary to refugees via the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme. He’s set up his own Just Giving page, under a campaign called ‘Play Your Part’, in which he wants to raise a minimum £2million for organisations including Laureus Sport for Good, UNICEF and the UN World Food Programme.

His wife, Kristen, is actively involved in helping families get out of Ukraine too. ‘The world being behind Ukraine and showing solidarity for the people is incredible,’ Shevchenko says. ‘This means so much to us. For all the Ukrainians who stayed there, it’s important for them to know that they are not alone.’

The 45-year-old is Ukraine's top scorer of all-time but is now turning his attention elsewhere

The 45-year-old is Ukraine’s top scorer of all-time but is now turning his attention elsewhere

Shevchenko explains that his mission now is to stop the killing of innocent Ukrainian children

Shevchenko explains that his mission now is to stop the killing of innocent Ukrainian children

On the wall of the library is a fairly fitting quote from Winston Churchill. ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going,’ it reads.

Several books beside Shevchenko sound like they could relate to our conversation, too. There’s ‘A Call To Arms’ by Allan Mallinson, ‘Road To Victory’ by Martin Gilbert and ‘A Place Called Freedom’ by Ken Follett.

Not to mention Risk – that board game of diplomacy, conflict and conquest – sandwiched between Monopoly and Scrabble in the corner.

There are reminders of the turmoil wherever he turns and Shevchenko has not stopped thinking about the hell on earth unfolding in Ukraine since it started.

‘It’s been 22 days,’ he says, keeping count. He has friends who are Russian. He shared pitches with Russian players. He had a Russian owner in Roman Abramovich at Chelsea. Redknapp asks: ‘With all of that in mind, can you tell me what you feel inside now when I ask you about Russia?’

Shevchenko: ‘I said from the beginning, I did not believe that this could happen. We had a long relationship and I don’t think it will ever be the same. But I also know there are a lot of Russian people who want to stop the war.’

Shevchenko admits that 'from the beginning' he did not believe the war could happen

Shevchenko admits that ‘from the beginning’ he did not believe the war could happen

Sitting in a library in Surrey, Shevchenko opens up to Redknapp about his country's struggles

Sitting in a library in Surrey, Shevchenko opens up to Redknapp about his country’s struggles

Redknapp: ‘You’ve had messages from friends?’

Shevchenko: ‘Yeah and my message is always the same: go to the street. I know it isn’t easy. It’s dangerous in Russia. But the only way to stop the war is to tell the truth. Most people in Russia don’t know the truth.’

They only know the propaganda, like the remarkable pro-war rally held at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on the same day we sit down with Shevchenko. Reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies, Putin talked of this being their ‘historical destiny’.

What Russia cannot ignore, however, is their suspension from competitive sport. Contacts described Shevchenko as a ‘diplomatic’ person when asked what we should expect from him ahead of this interview.

Yet there is no neutral stance from this sportsman when it comes to the topic of Russian expulsion. ‘I absolutely agree with taking the Russian athletes out of competitions since the war has not stopped,’ Shevchenko says.

‘We have to put the pressure on. The Russian president – I don’t want to say that thing’s name – said that this is a ‘special operation’. It’s not a special operation. It’s the killing of the innocent. It’s people surrounded. It’s cities bombed.’

On the morning we meet, Shevchenko has spoken with Andriy Yarmolenko, the Ukrainian who scored the winner against Sevilla the night before. It was a joyous occasion in the Europa League at the London Stadium but given what’s happening back home, West Ham’s goalscorer is understandably conflicted.

‘I always tell the boys: keep playing,’ Shevchenko says. ‘You play for your country. This is a great message. The sport world is very united. It is against the war. (Oleksandr) Zinchenko, (Vitaliy) Mykolenko, Yarmolenko, (Roman) Yaremchuk, it’s very important that the boys keep playing. I’m calling them. I’m supporting them. We’re united. It’s the message of my campaign – play your part. Do whatever you can. Please, keep talking about Ukraine. We feel like we are not alone. If you support our athletes, you support us.’

Most football fans have shown their support for Ukraine. Some of Chelsea’s – the ones who used to cheer Shevchenko when he was their striker between 2006 and 2009 – have tainted tributes by singing Roman Abramovich’s name instead.

He shovelled millions into their club, setting them up for unbridled success, but has ties to the warmonger that is Putin. As wrong as the actions of those supporters are, Shevchenko does not want to see Chelsea become another casualty of this unwanted war.

‘The history which Chelsea built cannot be cancelled,’ he says. ‘The Chelsea fans will always stay behind the club because they love the club. I know it’s a difficult moment. But I am also in a position where, with what is happening to my country, I want to appeal to everyone to play your part. Remember what is most important. I want only one thing: to bring the peace in my country, to stop the killing of innocent people, to stop the killing of kids. We all know war is cruel. But we cannot stand for that.

‘I’m a father of four. You are a father of three, Jamie. We cannot stand for that. Innocent children are dying. For no reason. This is what I work for – to stop this war. This war does not make reasons.’

To his credit, Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel has not hid from this. After a game at Burnley was marred by morons singing for Abramovich during a tribute to Ukraine, he said this was ‘not the moment to do this’.

Asked about Tuchel, Shevchenko says: ‘There is a personal feeling. But I’m not looking at sport now. I know what’s happening. But in this moment, sport is secondary for me. I’m not looking there. I’m concentrating on my country. People take their position but for me, the message which has been sprayed from the sport society is clear: stop the war.’

Redknapp: ‘Is it a case of the quicker the Chelsea sale is completed the better, then that can be forgotten so it doesn’t distract from the main story?’

Shevchenko pauses. He’s fidgeting with the blue biro again. ‘It doesn’t exist. For me, it doesn’t exist. I’m concentrating on delivering this message. I understand what’s going on with Chelsea. I get it. For the good of the club and the fans, this situation should get resolved. I hope it is. But I’m concentrating on Ukraine.’

A famous quote from Bill Shankly talks about football being more important than life and death – a way of emphasising how much this game means to us all. Right now, Shevchenko isn’t bothered about the beautiful game while something so ugly is going on.

Shevchenko was born in the village of Dvirkivshchyna, Yahotyn, close to Kyiv. He tells a story from his childhood involving his late father, Mykola, who was in the tank regiment of the Soviet Army.

In any other ‘normal’ interview about his glorious career in the game, this would be the top line. ‘When Chernobyl exploded, it was the USSR and the regime kept everything very quiet. But my dad knew because he was in the military. He brought this machine home that tests radiation. I’d been playing football in the playground and I kicked a ball up and it landed on top of the building. I found a way to get up there and there were six or seven footballs.’

Jackpot, thought a young Shevchenko, like any kid would. ‘I took everything. I brought three balls home with me and my friends took the others. When I got back, my dad took this ball and tested it for radiation.’

The meter’s reading was scarily high. ‘We had to throw the ball into the fire. That’s a true story.’

So Shevchenko’s childhood was different to yours and mine, and now there are millions of Ukrainian children whose lives will never be the same either.

‘Every second since the war started, a Ukrainian child becomes a refugee,’ says Shevchenko. ‘Every second. The number will only go up. My dad was a tough man. Tough, tough, tough. Circumstances have made the Ukrainian people now very tough.’

Taras Shevchenko was Ukraine’s greatest poet who died in 1861. A bust of this bard can be found overlooking the ruined remains of a destroyed tower block in Borodyanka. The words of one poem called ‘The Caucasus’ have been circulated on social media recently: ‘Our soul shall never perish. Freedom knows no dying.’

Shevchenko knows the words. He looks down and thinks about them. ‘This is the message that has been in our hearts for a long, long, long time,’ he says.

With that, Shevchenko’s mobile phone starts to vibrate. It’s from Ukraine – one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of calls he is now receiving and making on a daily basis. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I have to go. Is that okay?’

In January, Shevchenko was head coach of Genoa in Italy’s Serie A. Maybe someday he’ll be a football manager again, studying the tactics of upcoming opponents and standing on a touchline on a Saturday. Until there’s peace, however, he’ll be a Ukrainian in England doing what he can to ease the humanitarian crisis in his homeland.

Andriy Shevchenko’s JustGiving page:

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