YALTA, Ukraine, September 18 – Ukraine’s recently-retired football star Andriy Shevchenko strongly defended his controversial new political career, denying he is making money and saying he has already ploughed $1.2 million of his own funds into the project.
Shevchenko told Agence France-Presse in an interview at the weekend that he was certain his Ukraine Forward! party would win seats in parliament in legislative elections on October 28 when it will be just one of many factions jostling for space in the Verkhovna Rada.
“I did a lot for the country as a footballer and my decision today to go into politics is above all for the benefit of the country. This gives me strength and certainty to look calmly into the future,” he said.
“Of course I was not (paid). I have a certain credit with people which I earned in the course of my career. This confidence is the most precious thing for me,” he said during the interview in the Black Sea resort of Yalta.
He described the move into politics as the “best transfer” at the end of his glorious career that spanned stints at his beloved Dynamo Kiev, AC Milan and Chelsea and culminated in Ukraine’s hosting of Euro 2012.
But the striker bewildered even admirers in July when he announced he was quitting football to join the new Ukraine Forward!, a pro-business party run by Nataliya Korolevska that some suspect has been set up by the authorities.
The party still has a low profile in Ukraine and some commentators alleged that the clean-cut superstar, who is a hugely popular figure, must have been offered substantial sums to join the nascent force.
But Shevchenko, who turns 36 later this month, insisted that he was in fact putting his own money into the party and a political vision of the future was behind his decision to move into politics.
“The party is financed by myself, (party leader) Nataliya Korolevska, (her deputy) Yevgen Suslov as well as our comrades and our members. I have spent 10 million hryvnia ($1.2 million) so far,” Shevchenko said.
Yet Ukraine Forward! and the striker nicknamed “Sheva” face a tough challenge to win the minimum five percent of votes needed to get into parliament.
They are lagging behind not just the Regions Party of President Viktor Yaunkovych and the united opposition of jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko, but also the UDAR (punch) party of fellow Ukrainian sports star, the boxer Vitali Klitschko.
“We will make it into parliament I am sure,” said Shevchenko, grinning broadly.
The party also has to shake off allegations it is a front created by the ruling Regions Party aimed at siphoning votes off the Tymoshenko-led opposition.
“It was not the best header by Shevchenko,” was one of the nastier jokes going round on Ukraine’s Internet after his entry into politics, playing on the fact the footballer was never known for his cerebral side.
The latest poll by the Rating sociological group places Ukraine Forward! in sixth place with 3.7 percent of the vote behind the nationalists and the Communists as well as the main contenders.
Shevchenko is playing a pivotal role in his new party’s campaign, travelling across the country, and pictures of him next to Korolevska are now a familiar feature of pre-election Ukraine.
He admitted that the campaigning had made him tired and burdens were “completely different” to those of football.
“When you become a public figure in the world of football, everything is limited to your professional life. Politics is so serious and it is especially hard when you are making the first steps.”
“The timetable is tough.”
The pressures on Shevchenko are particularly serious as his wife is expecting their third child. But the footballer turned politician says this is motivating him to transform the landscape for youth sports in Ukraine.
“The sports grounds have all disappeared, children have nowhere to develop themselves in sport and 70 percent of Ukraine children cannot pass the simple physical tests,” he said.