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War, football and glory – The rise of Shakhtar Donetsk

Shakhtar is one of the most popular clubs from the former Soviet Union and the Ukrainian champions are famous for their Brazilian contingent.

Shakhtar Donetsk
Shakhtar Donetsk have beaten the odds to qualify for the Champions League knockout stages

Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk held German champions and European giants, Bayern Munich, to a very respectable draw on Tuesday night. Shakhtar constantly lose their best players to other top European clubs and despite this, they put up a good fight and do not go down easily every time they participate in Europe.

The current season has been very difficult for the defending Ukrainian champions thanks to the war in Ukraine. Because of the war, many of the non-Ukrainian players in the Shakhtar squad were reluctant to join their squad for pre-season and eventually, Shakhtar were forced to play their home games in Lviv, which is over 600 miles away from their base in Kiev.

Despite this, the fans of the club have turned out in huge numbers to watch their club play. This is not the saddest part though, because Shakhtar’s beautiful home ground in Donetsk, Donbass Arena was shelled in the war and has taken severe damage.

So how exactly did an unlikely club from Ukraine gain so much worldwide recognition and attention in the last decade? How did Shakhtar Donetsk become one of the finest football clubs from the former Soviet Union? 

The rise of the Rio de Janerio of Europe

The club won their first league title in the 2001/02 season under the captainship of former Bayern Munich star, Antoily Tymoschuk, but it was only after the appointment of their current manager Mircea Lucescu in 2004, that they started to find success consistently. 

The club adopted a specific strategy during this period and over the years it has found them unprecedented success in Ukraine. The strategy was to look for young talented players in Brazil to form the base of their attack, while the defense was built on mostly local players to adjust for the rule forcing teams to have a certain number of local players on the field.

Lucescu was in charge of Internazionale during the 1998/99 season and during this period he had the pleasure of working with the legendary Brazilian footballer – Ronaldo. Working with the Brazilian legend sparked Lucescu’s appreciation for the South Americans and that inspired him to adopt his successful Brazilian player philosophy at Shakhtar. The Romanian was also the one who signed 18-year-old Andrea Pirlo from Brescia to Internazionale and this gives a clear picture of his eye to spot good talent. 

It is hard to imagine a bigger contrast with the beaches of Rio de Janerio because the Ukrainian city of Donetsk is an industrial hub dominated by mining and yet, over the years legions of Brazilian footballers have come to the city. Brandao was the first Brazilian to arrive at Shakhtar two years before Lucescu. Under Lucescu, Brandao became a better player and he eventually moved to French giants Olympique Marseille in 2008.

Willian (L) of Chelsea and Fernandinho (R) of Manchester City, are former Shakhtar Donetsk players

The Romanian considers the signing of Brazilian defender Matuzalem in 2005 as the key signing which triggered the club’s Brazilian player policy. Lucescu was so committed to his plan that he even learned Portuguese to help coach his Brazilian contingent. Over the years Shakhtar have brought many Brazilian players to the limelight before they left the club to pursue their European dreams elsewhere.

Some of the famous Brazilians to have played for the club include Elano, Fernandinho, Willian, Jadson, Matuzalem and Eduardo da Silva (later adopted Croatian citizenship).

The current Shakhtar squad has 13 Brazilians which is one more than the number of Ukrainians in the squad and seven of these Brazilians, namely; Luiz Adriano, Douglas Costa, Bernard, Fernando, Fred, Wellington Nem and Ilsinho have played for Brazil’s senior squad.

Shakhtar’s starting lineup against Bayern Munich earlier this week is a perfect example of their Brazilian player strategy. The team that started the game had six Brazilians and all of them played in midfield or attack, while the backline and goalkeeper together comprised of four Ukrainians and one Croatian, Darijo Srna – the club captain.

Success under Lucescu

Shakhtar Donetsk manager Mircea Lucescu took charge in 2004

After appointing Lucescu as their manager in 2004, ten seasons have passed and in the meantime the club has won the league an eye-popping eight times, including five in a row from 2009/10 to 2013/14. In addition to this, the club has won the Ukrainian Cup five times and the Ukrainian Super Cup six times. In spite of all his achievements in Ukraine, the biggest feather in Lucescu’s cap was their Europa League triumph in the 2008/09 season.

Shakhtar were demoted to the Europa League from the Champions League after finishing third in a difficult group consisting of Barcelona, Sporting CP and FC Basel. They defeated strong teams like Tottenham Hotspur, CSKA Moscow, Olympique Marseille, Dynamo Kyiv and Werder Bremen to lift their first European trophy.

Shakhtar Donetsk celebrating their Europa League victory in 2009

In recent years, Shakhtar have defeated strong teams like Barcelona, Chelsea, Arsenal and AS Roma in European competitions and this is a testament to how much the Ukranian club has evolved in the last decade.

Shakhtar’s success under Lucescu came with the financial aid of their owner Rinat Akhmetov. The 48-year-old, is one of the wealthiest men in Ukraine and as of February 2015, he was listed as the 216th richest man in the world. The business tycoon has invested heavily in his club (eight of the top 10 biggest transfer fees in Ukrainian football belong to Shakhtar and all of them were in the last 10 years).

Shakhtar Donetsk’s original home ground – Donbass Arena

The future of Shakhtar and the post-Lucescu era

Shakhtar have already become a regular participant in European competitions, but it remains to be seen how much they can prosper with their current Brazilain philosophy, because unless and until Ukraine start producing more talented footballers like Andriy Shevchenko or Anoily Tymoschuk, it will be extremely difficult for a promising club like Shakhtar to topple giants like Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich on a consistent basis.

Lucescu will be 70 years old prior to the start of the next season and at some stage in the near future, Shakhtar will have to prepare for life after the Romanian’s departure. His current contract ends in June and in October 2014, he came close to taking the Romanian job, only to be stopped my Akhmetov.

Nevertheless, the club has taken huge strides forward in the last decade and they will keep hopefully spotting more talented youngsters from around the world. 

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