The name of Serhiy Scherbakov may not be as well known as Puskas, Maradona or Cruyff but for a period in the early 90’s, Scherbakov was one of the world’s best footballers. The Ukrainian midfielder burst onto the public’s attention in his breakthrough season with FC Shakhtar Donetsk in 1988 as a highly gifted and spirited 17 year old. Under the watchful eye of Valery Yaremchenko, Scherbakov’s pace and trickery marked him out as one of the game’s brightest talents. Over the next two seasons, Scherbakov made himself into one of the first names on the team sheet and irreplaceable player for Shakhtar so it was hardly surprising that a call up to the USSR national team’s under 20 squad for the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championships in Portugal came in.
That tournament, which kick started the careers of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Roberto Carlos and Andy Cole, would be the making of Scherbakov and catapult him further toward stardom and global recognition. He helped the Soviet Union to a third place finish and walked away with the Golden Boot after scoring five goals. Back at Shakhtar, Scherbakov would win player of the season in 1992 and earn him a call up for the newly formed Ukraine national team alongside the likes of Andriy Husin, Viktor Onopko and Serhiy Rebrov. He would play only two games for his country but was proud to be pulling on the Ukraine shirt during a time when other well known Ukrainian’s were choosing Russia over their homeland.
In 1992, Scherbakov would win player of the season for Shakhtar Donetsk, with his fine performances for the club earning him a call up to the freshly independent Ukraine National Team. He played only twice for his country before Sir Bobby Robson came calling. Now coach of Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon, Sir Bobby was looking for an attacking midfielder who could play alongside the gifted duo of Luis Figo and Krassimir Balakov. Scherbakov fitted the bill perfectly and in the summer of 1993, he persuaded Shakthar to part with their prize asset. Scherbakov quickly became a fans favourite and helped get Sporting through to the third round of the UEFA cup where they would face Austria’s Casino Salzburg over two legs. Having won the first leg 2-0 (Scherbakov was on the score sheet), confidence was high going into the return leg in Salzburg. But Robson’s tactical plan was unraveled with a goal in either half that would take the game to extra time and then a late winner by Martin Amerhauser that would knock Sporting out. It would be the end of Sir Bobby’s time as manager with the Englishman removed from his position only days later. With the manager held in such high regard, the players and fans held a leaving dinner for him on the 14th December, a night that Scherbakov will remember for the rest of his life.
After the conclusion of the dinner, Scherbakov was involved in a horrible car crash on his way home which ended his footballing career and almost resulted in him losing his life. He was saved by doctors but his injuries were so severe that he knew he would never kick a ball again. The accident fractured Scherbakov’s skull and his spinal column in three places, paralyzing the player from the waist down. Russian newspapers at the time suggested that Scherbakov may have been drunk at the time of the crash, but no police action was ever taken to back up this claim. At aged 22, Scherbakov’s career was over and his life was in tatters. Sporting and Robson were devastated by the news about a player they saw as one of the best in the world. Robson claimed at the time that if the accident hadn’t happened, Scherbakov would have gone on to be one of the best midfielders in Europe on the same level as teammate Luis Figo.
During his rehabilitation, Scherbakov dreamed of pulling on the Sporting Lisbon jersey again but his dream would never happen, eventually accepting that his time on the pitch was over. Despite his early retirement, Scherbakov has remained close to the game working with several football related charities such as the Federation of Football that unites football lovers that have cerebral paralysis. Scherbakov’s career may have been cruelly cut short but for those lucky enough to have seen him play, they will know that they had the pleasure of witnessing one of the game’s greatest players in action.