Istanbul, 2009. Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk are playing German giants Werder Bremen in the final of the UEFA Cup, with both sides looking to seal their first-ever success in the competition. For Shakhtar, there was more at stake – they would have the chance to become the first Ukrainian side to win a European competition, while Werder Bremen were fighting to win their first continental honour since the now-defunct Intertoto Cup in 1998.
The Shakhtar starting line-up consisted of no less than five Brazilians, which was the way club president Rinat Akhmetov had gone about his business since taking over responsibilities at the club – sign young, budding Brazilian footballers for a low price and later sell them, after enormous development, to one of Europe’s elite for a mammoth fee.
The model provided success on and off the pitch, and that night in Turkey was evidence of it. Werder Bremen had enough star power themselves, fielding a side featuring Peruvian hitman Claudio Pizarro, who was at the peak of his powers, an emerging Mesut Özil, and a powerful Brazilian themselves in the form of centre-half Naldo, amongst many other quality names.
Just like any other major final, this was an intense affair. The first goal came through Luiz Adriano as he cunningly duped Naldo, beat the offside trap and comfortably chipped it over the stranded Tim Weise in goal. Ten minutes later, Naldo made up for his incompetence in defence by striking a fierce free-kick, which Andriy Pyatov fumbled with, subsequently pushing the ball into his own net. With clear chances too few and far in between, the game went into extra-time to determine the outcome.
It took just seven added minutes and the first opportunity at goal to give Shakhtar the lead for the second time on the night. After good build-up play, the ball fell to captain Darijo Srna who was in an advanced position on the right flank, and he put in a troublesome low cross into the feet of Jádson. He didn’t manage to get the most power behind the shot, but got lucky as another goalkeeping error allowed Shakhtar to take the lead and eventually win the game.
On a historic night, the Ukrainians would lift the UEFA Cup, but it wasn’t one of the Brazilian goalscorers to be awarded the Man of the Match honour, it was their captain, Darijo Srna.
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Srna put in arguably the best performance of his career on that evening, constantly bombarding the right-wing and performing his duties in defence. As one of the longest-serving players in the side, having joined the club in 2003, who became a beacon of consistency and a model of what the ideal footballer should be like on and off the pitch, the Croat had the privilege of lifting the trophy at the end of the night, sealing his right as a club icon. Later going on to describe it as the finest moment of his esteemed career, this was a deserved success for a man from humble beginnings and persistent effort.
Born in Metković, a small town on the outskirts of Croatia along the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to Bosnian and Serbian parents, Srna plied his way to success in the sport despite his family’s adverse conditions, effects of the Yugoslav war, and the lack of interest in football in his society, with handball being the primary game in his region.
Local club NK Neretva picked him up first, often playing him higher up the pitch in his younger days, where he excelled, earning him a move to one of Croatia’s biggest clubs, Hajduk Split, where he would spend less than a year at their academy, with his talent earning him a spot amongst the senior setup.
Four years in Split saw him become one of the stars of the team, a feat unexpected considering his naivety. Always playing with an edge, he was an integral part one of the club’s most successful phases in recent years, winning the Croatian league once, in 2001, and the cup twice, in 2000 and 2003. In his final season at the Dalmatinski ponos, he was voted their player of the season and also won his first cap for his country.
Consistent performances saw some of Europe’s elite gain interest in him, and a move to Germany, with either Borussia Dortmund or Kaiserslautern, seemed likely. However, to the surprise of many, he would opt for a less recognised option, with Ukraine’s emerging Shakhtar Donetsk being his choice.
His signing was a statement of intent from Rinat Akhmetov, who had taken over as president in October 1996, with his previous role at the club being former President Akhat Bragin’s right-hand man. Bragin was killed in a mysterious bombing incident at the Shakhtar Stadium, which could well have taken Akhemtov’s life as well. Bragin wasn’t a popular figure domestically, and this incident, which saw 11 pounds of plastic explosives detonated with thousands of supporters in the stadium, hit the club hard.
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With enough knowledge and experience about the eastern side, Akhemtov spearheaded the club’s rise from oblivion to progress on the European stage, and in order to do that, he implemented a new policy on transfers. In addition to that, he initiated their own youth academy and refurbished their ageing stadium. He also started appointing foreign managers, and in 2003, at the time of Srna’s signing, it was former Barcelona and Real Madrid midfielder Bernd Schuster at the helm.
Srna’s initial months at the club were met with sporadic appearances in the first team, with Schuster often preferring his usual starter Andriy Vorobey ahead of him. Convinced that he had no future in Ukraine, he was determined to leave the club by the time the transfer window arrived, citing his failure to adapt to the new surroundings. However, Akhmetov’s faith in him didn’t wane, and he guaranteed him a better chance at the club by asking him to stay on. Srna, in one of his most important decisions, obliged.
By the end of the transfer window he was given more opportunities in the first team and played a crucial role in the side’s success in the Ukrainian Cup – his first trophy at the club, despite being suspended in the final. This would signal the commencement of a new era in Ukrainian football, with Shakhtar’s policies creating a dynasty in the Eastern European nation. Following the departure of Schuster to Levante, they hired Romanian boss Mircea Lucescu to lead them into this new phase.
Around the same time, Srna was also becoming a cult figure amongst the Croatian national team setup. Having made his debut in 2002, he was selected to be on the plane to Portugal for the European Championships in 2004 and played twice, against Switzerland and England, with both appearances coming off the bench as Croatia felt the absence of their golden generation, crashing out of the competition in the group stages and earning just two points from their three games.
Lucescu’s saw Srna as crucial to his plans. Now a permanent fixture at right-back, he was the first name on the team-sheet, his fitness and reliability an example to the rest of the players in the squad. In his second season at the club, he played 42 times in all competitions as Shakhtar won the title for only the second time in their history, subsequently breaking a two-season Dynamo Kyiv stranglehold. With the club on the rise, it would signal a power shift in the country, as Dynamo’s resistance would be tested and eventually broken.
Their domination would continue although there was a tougher challenge provided by Dynamo this time. After winning the title by a clear seven points during the previous season, both sides finished level on points this time around – gaining 75 each from their 30 games. They also had the same number of wins (23), draws (6) and losses (1), and although Shakhtar had a better goal difference – by the just two, no less – a deciding game between the two at a neutral venue, chosen to be the Metalurh Stadium, had to be played in order to crown a domestic champion.
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In a dramatic encounter, Shakhtar won the game in extra time following a goal by Nigerian forward Julius Aghahowa. A 2-1 success meant that they were champions for two seasons running, and after another remarkable season, Srna was off to the World Cup in Germany as a champion.
The Croat was at his brilliant best during qualification for the finals, scoring five times in nine appearances. At the tournament, Croatia were grouped against defending champions Brazil, AFC Asian Cup holders Japan and OFC Nations Cup holders Australia. They began their campaign with a defeat to Brazil and followed that up with draws against Japan and Australia, heading home winless, although Srna did score a magnificent 30-yard free-kick in the game against the Socceroos, an event largely forgotten due to Graham Poll’s blunder in that match, where he booked Josip Šimunić thrice before sending him off.
Back in domestic football, his success over the previous years had garnered talk of a move away, with Lazio and Benfica keen on giving him experience in a more recognised league, but he reiterated his desire to remain at the club. Years passed and he continued to be their best player, with league titles and cup wins coming in thick and fast. As the captain of the side he was central to most of their success, which encouraged Slaven Bilić, a former teammate at Hajduk Split and now the coach of his national team, to give him the armband on the international scene as well.
The 2009 UEFA Cup success was the pinnacle of his career. Following that win, Shakhtar would move to the state-of-the-art Donbass Arena. The Donbass would see its own share of success as Srna captained the side to a domestic treble in the 2010/11 season, the first in the nation’s history. This was met by a double the following year as Shakhtar’s ambition and ideology was proving to be successful.
Between 2009 and 2012, Srna was at his peak. Often regarded as one of the best players in the world in his position, the days of uncertainty were far behind him. A source of inspiration to his peers and fans alike, Srna was one of the most dangerous in Europe on the right flank. With his skill continuously developing, he was a threat at set-piece situations and could score and create chances from open play. Despite never playing in a top European league, his leadership qualities, determination and endless energy had several clubs chasing his signature even after he turned 30.
The 2010/11 season brought with it another milestone in his and Shakhtar’s legacies as they would reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time in their history. They finished top of their group with 15 points, ahead of Arsenal, trounced Roma 6-2 in the round of 16, but fell to eventual winners Barcelona, who overcame them 6-1 over the two-legged encounter. Despite the sour ending, it was a huge achievement for Ukrainian football, Shakhtar becoming the first side since Dynamo in 1999 to go that far in the competition.
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Euro 2012 in Poland and his adopted country of Ukraine was the first time Srna led his side out in a major international competition, but Croatia were in a tough group, once again failing to make it past the first stage as Italy and Spain took the two qualification spots. Despite a better showing this time with a few more innovative footballers such as Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić and Ivan Perišić, they still lacked the necessary experience. It was the same story at the World Cup in 2014 as they failed to make the best of their chances, finishing third in Group A behind hosts Brazil and Mexico.
While Srna has been a class act on the pitch, he has replicated the same off it, too. Ukraine’s political issues also affected its football, and since 2014, Shakhtar have been forced to play their home games more than a thousand kilometres away in Lviv, resulting in low attendances at games. A resident and icon of Donbass, he has played his role in helping the victims of the war.
In November 2014, Srna bought 20 tonnes of tangerines from the farmlands in his native Metković and shipped them to over 23,000 elementary school children who were affected by the war. In April 2016, he purchased a hundred laptops for the children in the region who were being educated in boarding schools, which included orphans and children with special needs.
In a statement of his own, he showed his decency and proved his loyalty to the city: “For two years now, the president of Shakhtar has been providing assistance to his compatriots in the Donbass. And he does that from the bottom of his heart. Our native fans reside in Donetsk, in the Donbass. Throughout those years, they believed in me and our team, having found themselves in trouble lately. So, I also want to help them! Children are our future! And they should have a possibility to learn and develop, especially in the current difficult times”
His professional career continued to be successful, but his international career came to an end at Euro 2016, where they lost to Portugal in the last-16. He also lost his father in the middle of the competition, which meant he had to leave the camp to attend the funeral but made it back in time for the next group game. His performances never slowed down, and after the defeat to Portugal, his international record ended at 22 goals from 134 appearances, becoming Croatia’s most capped international.
Now only a club-level footballer, Shakhtar, away from their home for three years, sealed their first league title since 2013/14, and at the age of 35, Srna was still being touted to some of Europe’s best. Barcelona reportedly wanted to strike a temporary deal with him to help them overcome their problems at the back, but a move never seemed to materialise.
Having played 526 times for the Ukrainian giants, Darijo Srna is an inspiration for both club and country. A hero in Ukraine for his work on and off the pitch, he is one of the most committed footballers in the world, not to mention most professional and gifted. It is clear where his position in football stands: an outright legend of the sport, one who deserves a lot more recognition than he often receives.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26