Assist King Artem Milevskiy Making a Fresh Start in Croatia

Aleksandar Holiga@@AlexHoligaFeatured ColumnistAugust 17, 2014

L'VIV, UKRAINE - NOVEMBER 15:  Artem Milevskiy of Ukraine celebrates scoring the opening goal during the International Friendly match between Ukraine and Austria at the Lviv Arena on November 15, 2011 in L'viv, Ukraine.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Not long ago he was a superstar in his country, linked to a £13 million move to Liverpool that never materialised. Now 29 years old, Artem Milevskiy, who has a history of poor discipline and a drinking problem, is trying to revive his career with Hajduk Split in Croatia.

Saturday, August 16 marked Milevskiy’s return to football. He came off the bench in Hajduk’s 6-0 thrashing of Zadar. He had been out of work for six months before he came to Split.

Upon his unveiling, just a few days before the match, he explained that he will need some time to get into shape (original article in Croatian here). Slightly overweight and with dark circles around his eyes, he said he wanted to repay the trust invested in him by the people at the club, who reached out and gave him a chance when his career hit a low point. He pledged not to disappoint them or the fans.

The immensely gifted Belarus-born forward joined Dynamo Kiev as a 17-year-old back in 2002. Over the next 11 years he became a marquee player for the Ukrainian giants, winning 13 trophies and five individual awards wearing their shirt: he was the league’s top scorer, provided the most assists and twice voted the Ukrainian Player of the Year.

During his spell with Dynamo, he recorded 80 goals and 55 assists in 228 appearances. He also gathered 50 caps for the national team, partnering the great Andriy Shevchenko up front in Ukraine’s glory days.

Despite being 6'3", he was technically skilful, mainly playing off a target man rather than as a main striker. He often took greater pleasure in making that final pass than scoring himself, gaining him the “Assist King” moniker.

Milevskiy was on the radar of Europe’s biggest teams from 2006, when he guided Ukraine to the European U21 Championship final, but the closest he came to leaving Kiev was in 2010, per Goal's Wayne Veysey, when the club refused to budge on a £13 million asking price that discouraged Liverpool, who were reportedly very eager to secure his services at the time.

Sergei Chuzavkov/Associated Press

Two years later, the interest was renewed, per the Daily Mail's John Edwards, as the player’s contract entered its final year, but by that time Milevskiy wasn’t his former self anymore. Whether it was a series of minor injuries that held him down or his increasing appetite for nightlife, he fell out of favour and only played a cameo role at Dynamo in the 2012-13 season, making only 15 appearances and being demoted to the reserve team.

He left Kiev last summer to sign for the Turkish side Gaziantepsor. But after crashing his luxury Ferrari California at high speed whilst over the drink-drive limit, per Mathew Nash of HITC Sport, his contract was terminated by mutual consent in December 2013. In February, Milevskiy joined FC Aktobe in Kazakhstan, but his contract there was cancelled for reasons that remain unclear after a week.

And then, almost six months later, came Hajduk Split.

The club of great tradition and extremely passionate fans is undergoing a somewhat painful transition that should clear its debts and make it sustainable for the future. Hajduk board’s strict austerity measures mean they can’t afford transfer fees or expensive contracts. Milevskiy didn’t come as an ambitious superstar signing but as a fallen man, struggling to get his career and life back on track.

Although it was very clear that the player is far from competitive fitness, charismatic coach Igor Tudor announced he will be in the team for the league game against Zadar (per Sportske Novosti, original article in Croatian here). He said Milevskiy was showing great zeal in training and that youngsters really enjoy having him around.

He wasn’t lying. On matchday, Milevskiy was introduced just after 60 minutes of play, when Hajduk were already 5-0 up. Supporters cheered his every touch and Austrian winger Sandro Gotal showed greater enthusiasm greeting the newcomer who replaced him than he did celebrating his goal earlier on.

But it didn’t start well at first. Milevskiy was lucky not to receive a yellow card after he pushed one opposition player and tackled another in the space of few seconds. Soon after, Hajduk’s wonderkid Nikola Vlasic failed to pass him the ball for a clear-cut chance, as he could see the Ukrainian was offside.

Just when it started to look like he had lost all the ability he once had, he produced two moments of sheer magic—two “grandmaster" moves, as Tudor referred to them in a post-match TV interview.

First he made a beautiful killer assist over 30 yards that cut open the Zadar defence and allowed Anton Maglica to make it 6-0. The crowd erupted and the scorer hugged Milevskiy, bringing a smile to his face for the first time.

Then he found himself in the box, throwing two defenders off balance with a single dummy. He was face to face with the Zadar 'keeper when he simply froze in one place.

It was as if he stopped to cherish the moment, the kind he hasn’t experienced for months. It only lasted for two or three seconds, but it looked like he was going to ask the 'keeper which corner he would prefer to concede. But instead of just placing the ball right or left, he calmly made a no-look pass to Maglica, who was in an even better position.

Form is temporary, class is permanent.

His team-mate, perhaps surprised by the unexpected assist, missed the open net and failed to record what would have been his hat-trick. But the crowd still loved it. That night, Hajduk fans fell in love with Artem Milevskiy.

Of course, that was a one-off and it could be several weeks before the player gets into shape. But it was also a teaser, a hint at greater things to come if the Assist King takes that love as an inspiration and rediscovers his passion for football.

On Wednesday, Hajduk play the Ukrainian side Dnipro in the Europa League play-off round. Due to the turmoil in the country, Dnipro will play host at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, some 300 miles from their home in Dnipropetrovsk.

For Milevskiy, it will be an emotional return to his old stomping ground, where he spent more than a decade and was a true icon. He wasn’t in coach Tudor’s first team plans for that match—but, after Saturday night, who knows.