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How Shakhtar Donetsk have broken the traditional hegemony of European football

Modified 11 Sep 2013, 18:30 IST
Willian celebrates after scoring their first goal during the Champions League match between Chelsea and Shakhtar Donetsk at Stamford Bridge on November 7, 2012 in London, England.  (Getty Images)

Willian celebrates after scoring their first goal during the Champions League match between Chelsea and Shakhtar Donetsk at Stamford Bridge on November 7, 2012 in London, England. (Getty Images)

Few would have given Shakhtar Donetsk a chance to get out of a group containing Italian heavy weights Juventus and reigning European champions Chelsea last season, but they did.

Although they were a household name on the European scene for a while, the manner in which they stepped up to the plate and qualified out of a tough group, made teams around Europe stand up and take notice. So much so, that this year, going into a group containing Manchester United, Real Sociedad and Bayer Leverkusen, they aren’t perceived as a underdogs any longer.

So how did a club from Ukraine, who were perennially second best to the capital club, Dynamo Kyiv, make such a big impact on Europe? How did they become only the second Ukrainian club after Dynamo to win a European title, when they lifted the UEFA cup in 2009? The answer to that question might well be quite simple: money.

After the early 90’s in the newly independent Ukraine, Shakhtar and Dynamo Kyiv became fierce rivals and contested for almost every possible trophy. In October 1995, a bombing at the team’s stadium ended up killing President Akhat Bragin. The very next year, Rinat Akhmetov took over as President and started what has come to be known as the reign of the oligarchs in Europe as he started to invest heavily in the club.

And although they finished second on numerous occasions, their first league title during the 2001-02 season was the stepping point for something much bigger. In 2004, Mircea Lucescu was appointed as the manager and was entrusted with the responsibility of starting an epoch of domestic and European domination. And the strategy chosen for this was the recruitment of young Brazilians and developing an attacking team that could rival the best in Europe.

The number of Brazilians who came to the club was taking a steep rise and at one point, the club were nicknamed “the most Brazilian club in Europe”. Through a combination of talented young Brazilians and a strong core of Ukrainian players, Shakhtar quickly began to emerge as a team to look out for in Europe.

Having conquered Ukraine, they began to mount a charge on the continent and succeeded in 2009, when they became the last winners of the UEFA Cup before it was renamed as UEFA Europa League. With the likes of Andriy Pyatov and Anatoliy Tymoshchuk as a core local base, the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Fernandinho and Willian flourished.

Last year, Shakhtar came into the Championship on the back of having won a national record 19 consecutive league games. Their crisp short passing and their lightning quick speed were no match for Chelsea as they eased past them into the knockout Stage.

Whilst they have done well so far, this year they have already lost Willian, Mkhitaryan, Fernandinho and the experienced Razvan Rat. And it looks like it might well be difficult to regain the form that they displayed a few years back.


Although the sale of the trio of attackers has generated more than €100m, it is difficult to imagine the effect it might have, on the stability of Shakhtar’s squad. After all, this is nothing new for Shakthar, only as far back as 2012, saw them finish bottom of their Champions League group, one which contained minnows APOEL emerge as winners. But they immediately bounced back in the following year and won the league, thanks to the return of Fernandinho.

But Fernandinho is no longer there and Lucescu will be hoping that new leaders emerge. Even with the loss of their attacking trio, Shakhtar have still had a good window, which saw them snap up Brazilian sensation, Bernard for €25m.

Along with him three other Brazilians in Fred, Fernando and Wellington Nem have also arrived, joining an already strong Brazilian contingent in Shakhtar and pushing the number of Brazilians in the squad to 10.

And after a listless start to the year, Shakthar will yet again be there or thereabouts in this year’s Champions League. And it will come as no surprise to anybody if they push Manchester United right till the very end this time around, just like they did last year, with reigning champions Chelsea.

Published 11 Sep 2013, 18:29 IST
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