Shakhtar Donetsk: A Very Modern Football Club

It might not be a fairytale club of old, but Shakhtar Donetsk's policy of bringing Brazilians in bulk to Ukraine seems to be working, and may well be unique...

Last Updated: 06/12/12 at 12:49 Post Comment

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Wandering around Donetsk, you wouldn't instantly realise that you had arrived at the home of footballing revolution. Vast coalfields intersperse with towering steel factories, some of which have laid empty since the fall of the Soviet Union. By way of replacement, the metallurgy and food industries have moved in, creating a a throbbing mass of smoke, steam and noise. Donetsk may be affectionately labelled the 'City of a Million Roses', but it is a thoroughly generous moniker.

However, right in the centre of the city, in the Lenin Comsomol Park, is a monumental structure with a difference; this is no factory, and the Donbass arena is home to European football's 'form team'. Since 2002, Shakhtar Donetsk have won seven league titles, ten domestic cups and crowned these achievements with the UEFA Cup in 2009. They had not won a league title prior to 2002, either before or after Ukraine's independence.

Recently, things have just got silly. The club won the Ukrainian Premier League title last season by losing just one game, and last month's defeat to Arsenal Kiev was momentous because it halted a run of 24 consecutive league victories. In this period, they scored 70 goals and conceded just 11. Shakhtar have not just broken Dynamo Kiev's dynasty but set the bar for domestic dominance. The Champions League has also seen Shakhtar's emergence. Despite being drawn alongside Juventus (unbeaten Serie A winners) and Chelsea (European champions), a point in their final group game at home to the Italian giants will secure top spot in Group E. This is one of world football's most exciting projects, and Shakhtar Donetsk may be the definition of the modern football club.

No longer can progress be achieved in football without significant financial support. At 46, Shakhtar's owner and President Rinat Akhmetov is listed as the world's 26th richest man with a net worth of over £16billion, which makes heavy investment in the club little more than small change. Crucially, Akhmetov is also a fan of the club. This is not a foreign investor who fancied playing with a west London toy, relieving tedium with a real-life version of Football Manager. Akhmetov was born in the local hospital, the son of a coal miner, and in the last four years is calculated to have given £68million to socio-economic charities in his local area. This is the ultimate tale of 'local boy done good'.

Akhmetov's effect has transformed Shakhtar. The club holds the top eight positions in the top ten Ukranian record transfers, and of the four Ukrainians in the club's first-choice side, all are regulars for their country. Shakhtar's matchday squad for their last Champions League game contained 15 internationals.

The owner's involvement also contains a degree of the soap opera, seemingly inevitable in our modern game. Akhmetov inherited the president's role in 1996 when former President Akhat Bragin was murdered by a rival in a bombing on the club's former ground in a row over business dealings. Akhmetov was late in traffic and therefore survived the blast. And we moan about players not shaking hands.

Shakhtar's imprint on the modern culture of football must be recognised for their acceptance, and indeed utilisation, of the shallowness of the sport. Rather than use solely Ukrainian talent or source from across Europe, the club have instead taken the unprecedented step of focusing their player recruitment in Brazil, a country 7,000 miles away with a culture and climate effectively opposite to that of Eastern Europe.

Akhmetov noticed that there was a rich vein of talent in Brazil (not exactly rocket science), and that younger players tended to drift to Europe's biggest clubs where they would often feel homesick and receive precious little match experience initially, often limiting their development. Instead, the owner instigated a continuous migration of Brazilians to the club, where they would reside for a period of time before moving upwards to one of Europe's giants. For this, the players would be paid wages higher than elsewhere in Europe and receive generous signing-on fees.

Striker Brandao was the first to make the move in 2002, and under the coaching of Romanian Mircea Lucescu (who joined in 2004) the forward established himself enough to earn a move to Marseille in 2008. By that stage, Elano had already arrived and moved on to Manchester City, and the seeds had been sown.

Today, nine Brazilians are plying their trade at Shakhtar (plus Eduardo, the naturalised Croatian). Some, such as Willian and Fernandinho, have established themselves enough to be nearing their big move, gaining international caps in the process. Others, such as Dentinho, Douglas Costa and Alan Patrick, are further down the ladder in terms of development, but their route is a well-trodden path.

The players themselves are more than aware of the status quo, as explained by Fernandinho: "Of course, all the Brazilians that were here in 2005 were something that weighed heavily on my choice to come, but of course money is the main thing. Financial opportunities of the European clubs outweigh the means of Brazilian sides."

Football has relatively few truly symbiotic relationships, but this may be one. The young players are able to adapt to the European climate and footballing style in the presence of fellow countrymen, providing eventual buying clubs with an evidence base to reduce their risks of a 'flop' buy. The players will potentially gain their desired glamour move, but in doing so will earn Shakhtar an augmented transfer fee (Willian's rumoured move to England will be at a cost of more than £20million) and the club has clearly benefited from the evident talents they possess. As Shakhtar's performances in Europe improve, the transfer fees are simply increased. It is a wholly impressive exercise.

Foreign revolutions have existed elsewhere, but not to this extent and not in such circumstances. Barcelona have had 17 Dutch players since Johann Cruyff, and Arsenal have recruited 24 Frenchman in their history, but these examples have coincided with manager nationality or nearing locations. Brazilians have also travelled to other parts of Eastern Europe, but not in such numbers. The three Brazilians in Spartak Moscow's squad is the nearest rival. This is, quite possibly, unique.

It may seem sad that certain things are no longer possible in football. Another Wimbledon may not ever climb the divisions and win the FA Cup through extraordinary team spirit, and another Nottingham Forest will not win European Cups simply through an inspirational manager. But although it may be a slightly warped vision of a fairytale story, Shakhtar's emergence as a European force is, to me, still mightily impressive.

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