“All things must come to naught.” On a night when Ukraine’s magnificent defensive efforts looked likely to cause a famous upset, these fatalistic words might have been uttered by Ukraine’s manager Andriy Shevchenko, and not, some 180 years earlier, by his namesake Taras. Taras Shevchenko, the revered and revolutionary-spirited Ukrainian icon, wrote hundreds of poems expounding on what he considered to be a quintessentially Ukrainian quality of grand, heroic efforts that briefly touch glory before tumbling to defeat; Andriy made the point in 90 minutes.
Heroics were always going to be necessary against a Spanish team that had registered three wins from three in the group stages, scoring seven goals and conceding only twice. Ukraine might have felt lucky to be here, if ‘feeling lucky’ was a thing Ukrainians were prone to: they had limped into the round of 16 with two draws, one loss, and a goal difference of negative one. But there were signs on the field that the Shevchenko revolution was beginning to bear fruit – “a hope in the steppe he has bequeathed,” Taras might have said. But this game looked like it might be a step too far.
Spain had to leave Bilbao for the first time this competition, but they started the game like they were still in their own backyard, pinging the ball around a blustery Hampden Park like old friends waiting for the barbeque to warm up. Ukraine appeared to be still looking for a lighter when Moreno floated a delicious ball – borne like a mote on a cold blast of wind – over their entire back line for Morata to put away on the volley. We were barely ten minutes in, and Ukraine looked like they had met their match.
But Shevchenko has taken a team famous for steely control, and may yet forge a new blade from it. Taras Stepanenko’s revolutionary zeal had earned him a red card earlier in the tournament, but here he showed his mettle more constructively, sweating out the acres in midfield as Ukraine began to smother the Spanish threat. Time after time he disrupted the Spanish advances, intercepting passes, nicking the ball off famously twinkly toes, or sliding into full-blooded but impeccably timed challenges. Stepanenko choked the Spanish freedom down, and with Zinchenko and Malinovskyi never far away, he was able to set up the counter attacks that had eluded Shevchenko’s men in previous games.
Of Ukraine’s many monuments to its national poet, perhaps none captured the spirit of the man as well as the Ukrainian Interbrigade Company Taras Shevchenko, who rolled into Spain in 1936 to fight the fascists. For two years they fought alongside the Republican forces, often outnumbered and outgunned, and glorified by the Spaniards for their courage and heroism. Andriy Shevchenko’s unit were displaying the same traits on the field in Hampden Park, but Iberian appreciation was notably absent. Instead a note of frustration began to creep into the game, with Sergio Ramos earning a yellow card for scything down Roman Yaremchuk during a dangerous Ukrainian incursion. It was to prove a fateful moment.
Spain have had as many VAR controversies in this tournament as Ukraine had goals, but the incident 15 minutes into the second half of this game will have football fans the world over believing again in truth and justice. A Spanish attack resulted in a corner, which Isco floated in on the 61st minute. As the ball arrived in the six-yard box, Sergio Ramos exploded out of a tussle with Mykola Matviyenko and rolled around on the ground. Penalty. The Ukrainians swarmed towards the referee, except Matviyenko, who simply looked bemused and pointed to the place where once he did stand. VAR-replays showed that Ramos had not only initiated the contact, but defied the laws of physics in the process of going to ground - no penalty, a second yellow card for diving, and, as Spain’s talismanic captain trudged from the field of play, you could sense the Ukrainian players thinking “maybe… maybe…”
Off came Moreno, Martínez replaced Ramos in defence, the armband went to Busquets, and Ukraine smelled blood. When it came, 10 minutes later, it was a goal born in 1989 – Stepanenko robbed Isco and fed Yarmolenko down the right. Running at the disoriented Spanish defence, Yarmolenko’s sweeping cross found Konoplayanka, and the 31-year-old stabbed the ball home to level the scoreline. The three men were born two years before Ukraine achieved its independence, and in the rapturous celebrations, you could see how much it meant to the Ukrainian fans to witness the first goal from open play that Ukraine had ever scored in the finals of a major competition. Even from his tomb upon a grave mound high, Taras Shevchenko would have been able to hear the Ukrainians roar.
Spain were rocked. The sense of hope and change which accompanied their tiki-taka tournaments from 2008 to 2012 has been trumped in the years since by a style of football which spurned collective progress in favour of forcing mistakes and rapacious counter-punches, and Luis Enrique’s more direct style of play has yet to lead to glory. Here, the Spanish were fortuneless and ploughing fallow land, each new attack blunter than the last. Asensio and Alcácer warmed up demonstratively, but Enrique went for experience, pulling off Asencio for Santi Cazorla, who looked as surprised as anyone to be pulling his socks up over his heavily scarred right ankle for a third appearance this tournament.
It was his gentle-voiced genius that made the difference. After 85 minutes of defensive concentration, Ukraine fell asleep, and were robbed of all while sleeping. The ball fell to an unmarked Cazorla outside the Ukrainian box. Zinchenko was slow to close him down, and the little Spaniard dribbled past him with surprising ease. Stepanenko stuck out a boot, and Cazorla sidestepped it, nutmegging the exhausted midfielder in the process. With what has almost become a trademark dribble-stumble, Cazorla was carried into the Ukrainian box and through several lunging tackles, the football seemingly never under, nor out of, his control. He didn’t even look up as he deftly chipped it past Pyatov – who could only watch the ball’s untrammelled flight into the far corner as the game-winner tumbled to the earth.
Cazorla disappeared under a pile of ecstatic red shirts, and the Ukrainian players stared stunned across the pitch - their fan’s tears poured out in vain, their hopes scattered over the field, their erstwhile glory crumbled into dust. They had toiled and fought and found a new share for their old plough, but on that field what crop had grown? Rue had grown. Spain were through.
There’s a mural on a wall in Kharkiv. An old man looks us fiercely in the eye, brandishing his heavily chained fists, while a younger man wraps him in an embrace that is both comforting and comforted. These are the so-called ‘Brothers Shevchenko’ – Taras, the father of a nation, and Andriy, Ukraine’s most favoured footballing son. All things must come to naught, it seems to be saying, but the fight can be its own reward.