SINCE 1990, Ukraine has often been a politically volatile nation. From becoming an independent nation in 1991 to the current ongoing territorial battle with pro-Russian separatists over the Donbass region, you cannot keep Ukraine out of the news, one way or the other.
Controversy and volitivity are words that you can also use to describe some of the ongoings in relation to Ukrainian football. On and off the pitch, the political situation has bubbled over and into the beautiful game, causing friction between fans and opposition players, as well as clubs ceasing business entirely, like Metalurh Donetsk, because of the ongoing war in the east.
Another Donetsk club, Shakhtar, has also been shaken up by the recent conflict. Forcibly moved out of the region, the Miners have had to effectively play two-and-a-half seasons worth of away games, predominantly in Lviv and Kharkiv.
While the club has lost its home, the state-of-the-art Donbass Arena, and most importantly its fans, they have carried on their operations in a modest manner thanks to the backing and stability of owner Rinat Akhmetov, a wealthy steel magnate.
One of Ukraine’s richest men and a son of Donetsk, Akhmetov took over the reins of the club in 1996 following the death of former club president Akhat Bragin, who was killed in a stadium bombing in October 1995. He promised to use his resources to turn the club into one of Eastern Europe’s finest. Twenty-two years on and millions of hryvnias later, he was as good as his word and the world knows Shakhtar Donetsk. I say the world and not Europe because of one key reason – their affinity with Brazil.
It sounds strange by all accounts, but an Eastern European defence and an-all Brazilian attack won the UEFA Cup in 2009. That team was Shakhtar Donetsk’s – a samba school in the east of Ukraine.
With only one Ukrainian Premier League title since he took over the club, Akhmetov wanted to appoint a manager with the incentive of building a dynasty and an image. Former Beşiktaş boss Mircea Lucescu was appointed as the club’s new manager in May 2004, and the Romanian’s vision was made from his biggest obsession – Brazilian football.
This obsession began in 1970, where the Romanian national team, which Lucescu was captain of, toured Brazil for a series of friendlies with the nation’s top clubs, including Fluminense.
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On the brink of a great era for Fluminense, the Rio giants wanted to take the former striker on a several-month loan deal from his club, Dinamo Bucharest, as of May. Unfortunately, the communist regime in Romania made it impossible for him to leave the country, so he had to admire the game from afar, becoming a self-confessed fan of Fluminense.
Thirty-four years on from those friendlies in Brazil, and a now fluent Portuguese speaker, Lucescu was given the chance to build his Brazilian dream in Ukraine. In exchange for Lucescu’s vision, Akhmetov offered his finances, freedom and time to the Romanian to turn Shakhtar into the dominant force in Ukraine.
The foundations for building a dynasty were in place, but Lucescu could not do it all himself. In 2000, then in charge of Galatasaray, Lucescu signed the Brazilian goal machine Mário Jardel from FC Porto. In doing so, Lucescu would meet an acquaintance that would be at the centre of his dynasty – French-Brazilian agent Franck Henouda.
Outlining his vision and his aims for the Miners, Henouda agreed to help Lucescu form ‘the most Brazilian club in Europe’. The first through the door was probably one of the greatest players in the club’s history. Jádson, then aged 21, was brought from Atlético Paranaense in January 2005 and Fernandinho, a team-mate of Jádson’s at the Furacão, was then signed in July of the same year. These two would be the cornerstones of the team and the face of the new Shakhtar Donetsk – Eastern European hardness at the back, young Brazilian liveliness at the front.
Lucescu had virtually formed a business plan for the club. As youthful Brazilians were the target, not only would the club benefit on the pitch but off it too. The sell-on value of each player bought would be high, given their performances were of a higher standard than the Ukrainian league.
To convince stars of the Brazilian under-20 national team to move to a destination such as Ukraine was never going to be easy, but given that the players initially thought their stay in Ukraine would not be long, the ability to play on the European stage consistently, whilst winning several domestic trophies, gave Shakhtar the upper hand. The club understood that they would be a stepping stone club because of the calibre of talent that they possessed, so offering the chance of growth in exchange for finance was no issue.
Following three league titles in four seasons, the 2008-09 season saw the Miners boast a wealth of South American talent, including Ilsinho, a right-sided all-rounder, Willian, an exciting attacker signed under the noses of Lyon for €14 million, and striker Luiz Adriano, who had finally found his feet in Ukraine after a season of adaptation.
While the club left the Champions League after finishing third in their group, they left with a bang and a sign of things to come. A 3-2 victory over a much-changed Barcelona at the Camp Nou on the final match day of the Champions League group stage gave Lucescu the belief that they were onto something in the UEFA Cup.
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With bitter rivals Dynamo Kyiv running away with the league, Lucescu put all his eggs in the UEFA Cup basket, with the hope of putting Shakhtar and his Brazilian contingent on the radars of millions.
Beginning with a 3-1 aggregate victory against Tottenham in the round of 32, the Miners went all the way to the final in Istanbul, defeating CSKA Moscow, former Champions League winners Marseille and Dynamo Kyiv in an all-Ukrainian derby, with Ilsinho scoring the winning goal in the 89th minute of the home leg.
Their admirers began to grow, especially in the case of Fernandinho, who was the outstanding player in all the Miners performances on course to the final, scoring four goals in nine matches and dominating games home and away. Dmytro Chygrynskiy, too, who at the end of the season secured a move to Barcelona for €25million, was popping up on scout reports around the continent; it was not only the Brazilian boys benefitting from the high-quality coaching skills of Lucescu.
The UEFA Cup final in Istanbul saw the Miners come up against Werder Bremen, whose team included the highly-rated Mesut Özil and Peruvian goal-pig Claudio Pizarro, so the divide in quality is not as large as it seems on paper.
With five Brazilians in the starting line-up, and the game set at 1-1 after goals from Luiz Adriano and Bremen’s big Brazilian defender Naldo, extra time saw the Ukrainian side score a goal that Brazil would be proud of. A sweeping attack from back-to-front, left-to-right, saw Jádson finish off a fine move in the 97th minute after a cross from Shakhtar stalwart Darijo Srna.
The winners of the UEFA Cup celebrated as a complete collective, with Rinat Akhmetov rightfully involved in the on-pitch celebrations given how much time and money he invested in making the Donetsk region become the samba school of Europe.
One such investment was the Donbass Arena, a 52,000-seater stadium which opened, appropriately, the season after their UEFA Cup success. Five years on from Mircea Lucescu’s appointment, the club had turned itself into one of Eastern Europe’s football superpowers, and now had their own arena to further their status.
With the UEFA Cup theirs to keep forever and a new state-of-the-art stadium to showcase their abilities, Shakhtar now held more bargaining chips for convincing young Brazilians to flock to Eastern Europe. Two of those young Brazilians – Douglas Costa and Alex Teixeira – came through the doors of the Donbass Arena in January 2010 for €6 million each. The latter was courted by Inter throughout the season, but again the Lucescu-Brazil factor swayed the speedy winger to showcase and build-up his stock more consistently under more-giving circumstances.
Shakhtar’s reputation throughout the world had boomed given their performances in European and domestic competitions. So much so that in 2011, the Brazilian Football Federation had finally taken notice of their main protagonists.
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Fernandinho and Willian received their first Brazil call-ups in August and November 2011 respectively. Interest from top European clubs grew – mainly from their current sides, Chelsea (via Anzhi Makhachkala) and Manchester City – and transfers to the named clubs followed in 2013.
The Miners reaped €35 million and €42 million from each sale and reinvested the money in the little Bernard, a tricky winger from Atlético Mineiro, for €25 million and defensive midfielder Fernando from Grêmio for €11 million. Both players, primarily Bernard, had been capped by Brazil in the build-up to their moves to Ukraine.
Luiz Adriano also followed in 2014, after becoming the Miner’s all-time leading goalscorer following seven years of graft. A move to Italian giants Milan subsequently followed in July 2015.
The class of 2010, Douglas Costa and Alex Teixeira, were sold in July 2015 and January 2016 for €30 million and €50 million to Bayern Munich and Jiangsu Suning respectively, also being capped by Brazil in their final seasons at the club.
Not only have Shakhtar become a consistent performer on the pitch – domestically and abroad – they have won off it too; theirs is a fully functioning, well-oiled machine and generates money at an absurd rate, given where they are situated. Everything that Mircea Lucescu and Rinat Akhmetov wanted had come true.
With his job seemingly done, following the resurgence of Dynamo Kyiv, Mircea Lucescu left the club in the summer of 2016 with his eyes on a new challenge in Russia. Twelve years had seen 22 trophies, thousands of goals, victories, tens of Brazilian players come and go, and the Romanian become an institution.
It is somewhat appropriate that his replacement was a Portuguese speaker. Akhmetov has almost become brainwashed by the legacy left by Lucescu, for the better. Paulo Fonseca, previously of Braga, was given the job in circumstances of exile. Constantly on the move, and less bargaining power because of Ukraine’s on-goings, Fonseca has continued to mesh the Brazilian contingent, and almost restart their careers, a la Dentinho, and the impressive current crop of Ukrainians, namely Viktor Kovalenko, to push Shakhtar towards another Ukrainian title.
The war has seemingly pushed Brazil out of Ukraine, at least for now, given players have left or not joined because of it, but for the ones that have remained, they have given their faraway supporters hope that a new era could be on the horizon amidst the destruction of their region. The Rio sun has set on Ukraine for an undisclosed period.
By Jack Suggit @JJBelotti