Taras Stepanenko was 17 when he made his professional debut for Metalurh Zaporizhzhya, in a 3-1 defeat by Dynamo Kyiv. He was a fine passer of the ball who almost from the beginning read the game with the assurance of a player several years his senior. Great things were expected of him and he seemed on track when he moved to Shakhtar just before his 21st birthday.
Twelve years on, though, Stepanenko is still at Shakhtar. He may have won seven Ukrainian Premier League titles and seven Ukrainian Cups but there is a sense of a talent that never quite delivered on its potential. He played only 262 minutes in the knockout stage of the Champions League, completed only two knockout matches in the competition, and one of those was a 7-0 defeat to Bayern.
Perhaps he was never quite the elite talent he appeared to be, somebody who had he been born in England might have come to be celebrated as a great servant of a mid-table Premier League side. But it may also be that he rather plateaued, stuck at a team that dominates domestically without the desire or the opportunity to leave his home country for greater challenges abroad.
That is the football way of looking at things. Were these normal times, we would then move on to talking about whether Stepanenko, who demonstrated flickers of his ability at the Euros, might yet have one last job in him, whether he might be able to drive Ukraine to victory over Wales on Sunday and inspire them to their first World Cup since 2006.
There would probably have been analysis of how he shut down John McGinn in Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier, restricting the main creative presence in Scotland’s midfield to one key pass and a 60% pass accuracy, while maintaining an 86% pass accuracy himself.
And there would have been consideration of how Wales, although they too operate with a back three, structure their midfield differently, so it is harder to isolate one man linking to the forwards: Joe Morrell, who usually plays as the central figure, sits much deeper, with the players flanking him, probably Joe Allen and Harry Wilson although Aaron Ramsey may have a role, pushing on. That might mean Oleksandr Zinchenko, having to sit deeper in midfield, rather than occupying the roving left-sided role he did against Scotland and through much of the Euros.
Perhaps there might have been reflections on his personality. Stepanenko has a hinterland. Before going to France for the Euros in 2016, he spoke about how Louis de Funès, an actor and comedian who died in 1983, had shaped his image of the country. He reads a lot, particularly biographies – Alex Ferguson, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Napoleon. He admits he has twice started but failed to finish Don Quixote. He knows his wines, favouring dry Italian reds, particularly valpolicella. His wife, Marharyta, is an excellent chef, having studied under Héctor Jiménez-Bravo. They love escape rooms – “They develop logical thinking, the head starts to work, and they’re a good way to unwind a little”.
He is also a devout Christian, which seems to lie behind the scepticism he has expressed about tattoos. “I already remember the names of people close to me,” he said. “I love them, and the addition of a tattoo would not make me love them even more. Besides, I once read that tattoos are pagan symbols. Although our Brazilians [at Shakhtar] all seem to be pious and they stick on both Jesus and the Virgin Mary. So maybe it’s a personal matter.”
If that makes him sound thoughtful and cultured, there is also a volatility. The head-high lunge that earned him a red card against Moldova in 2013 was pretty much as bad as challenges get, although it was probably born of recklessness rather than malice.
It should also be said he has only been sent off twice at club level, both for two bookings. One of those came in 2016 for his part in a brawl at the end of a game between Shakhtar and Dynamo. The previous year, Andriy Yarmolenko had committed a dreadful foul on him and although the two exchanged shirts at the end of the game, Yarmolenko then tossed Stepanenko’s to the ground, leading to months of bad blood.
But these are not normal times and this is a story with ramifications far beyond football. Stepanenko and Yarmolenko have long since made up and, even if they had not, there would surely have been a sense that a row over a discarded shirt meant little alongside the greater cause for which Ukraine are now fighting.
As Steve Clarke made clear after Scotland’s defeat by Ukraine on Wednesday, all the emotion and all the togetherness in the world does does not matter without a tactical plan, and Stepanenko will be key to that, not only for the position he occupies but for his organisational brain. But among the many messages he received after Wednesday’s win, some were from friends fighting on the frontline.
The sporting narrative says this could be Stepanenko’s time at last; the real world renders those cliches trite. Doing it for Ukraine has never meant so much.