SHAKHTAR DONETSK’S BRAZILIAN CONNECTION: LUCESCU’S VISION, TROPHIES AND MORE

In the Brazil squad traveling to Russia for the 2018 World Cup, there were two players that plied their trade in Ukraine with Shakhtar Donetsk, while three others had played there previously in their careers. In the squad of four years prior, there was one, but with two having played in Ukraine before. Since the turn of the century, Shakhtar Donetsk has become a viable middle-ground for Brazilians in Europe.

In their bid to become Ukraine’s finest football club, Shakhtar turned to the world’s most prominent footballing nation for their talent. Their current squad includes 10 players from the South American nation, with two other players on their books who are loaned out to other clubs. Three of their 10 highest goalscorers ever – including Luiz Adriano, the outright leader on this list – are Brazilian. Their five most expensive sales are Brazilian players while six of their 10 most expensive purchases are, you guessed it, Brazilians.

In short, Brazil and Shakhtar Donetsk have a relationship that suits both parties. For the club, they’ve enjoyed the flair and trickery of the players, many of whom have legendary statuses at the club while for the players, who often arrive as young stars ready to make a name for themselves in European football, it’s a good place to learn.

This connection between club and country started all the way back in 2004, when Mircea Lucescu, the club’s Romanian manager was able to fulfil his Brazilian obsession. This fascination towards Brazil started all the way back in 1970, when Lucescu, captain of the Romanian national team, toured Brazil for a few matches in the country. Left so impressed, the forward had an interest in playing for Fluminense, but a deal never materialized.

The communist regime in Romania prevented Lucescu from playing in Brazil, but his liking towards the country, their football and culture made him an eternal fan. He continued to keep tabs on them, and when he moved to Shakhtar Donetsk as a manager 34 years later, he was able to begin his Brazilian revolution. With help from Rinat Akhmetov, the club’s billionaire owner, he was able to make Shakhtar an attractive option for young Brazilian footballers.

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Brandão was the first Brazilian to play for them in 2002, but it was Jádson, aged 21 at the time in 2005, who truly got the wheels running. He was the first to make the move under Lucescu, having signed from Athletico Paranaense. Soon to follow suit was his team-mate, Fernandinho, and this would be the start of something historic in Eastern European football. The ideal route for young Brazilians before was to see them go from home to a country more renowned. Places like Spain, Italy or Germany were more suitable, but Shakhtar did things differently.

One of the main elements was, of course, money. It is believed that the club, financed by their wealthy owner Akhmetov, were able to offer bigger and yet sustainable pay packages to these youthful talents – something as competitive as what they’d get elsewhere in Europe and something far bigger than what they would get in Brazil. They also had far better facilities than their home country, providing state-of-the-art training facilities and giving players access to the best equipment and medical treatment to aid their performances.

The unique Donbass Arena was an example of just how ambitious the Donetsk side were, and that stadium was a reward for their success. The UEFA Cup victory in 2009 was a turning point for Lucescu and the club. At the time, they were behind Dynamo Kyiv – their biggest domestic rivals – in the title race and put in all their focus on succeeding on the European stage.

From the knockout rounds onwards, they pulled a few big scalps. Tottenham Hotspur, CSKA Moscow, Marseille and Dynamo Kyiv were all overcome from the Round of 32 all the way to the semi-final, and in the final, Werder Bremen were beaten. Played in Istanbul, it was two Brazilians that won the trophy for them. Luiz Adriano, the club’s greatest goalscorer scored the first goal, while Jádson, the pioneer of this revolutionary project, scored the winner in extra-time to win the match 2-1.

Now under the international eye for their success in Europe’s secondary competition, Shakhtar’s brand and overall appeal rose accordingly. Having already seen a number of their compatriots do well in Ukraine – including five who started in the UEFA Cup final – the club was easily able to attract newer talent from the region with the ability to create a homely feeling.

Now, moving from a Brazilian club to Shakhtar and then from Shakhtar to another bigger club became a preferred path for many, with the Ukrainian outfit often refusing to complicate outgoing transfer proceedings. They established good links in Brazil, with several scouts frequently looking for the next viable talent who could move on to Ukraine. Most of the players that make the move aren’t players that are rarely heard of, rather, the club focuses on names in the country’s various youth teams.

Several reports even suggest those scouts work closely with Brazilian agents to get an early deal sorted. In exchange, those agents get a small cut of the future sell-on fee. It’s a model that suits more than just player and club and it’s a model that has proven to be successful without much hassle.

Other Eastern European clubs, including Ukraine’s own Dynamo Kyiv and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, have tried this out, but no one quite has the same reputation of success as the Donetsk side. Seeing several success stories, including that of players like Willian, Fernandinho, Douglas Costa and Fred, who have gone on to play for Chelsea, Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Manchester United respectively, has only created more encouragement.

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Fernandinho, in particular, is one of the most influential names when it comes to this topic. He was the deputy captain in his final years at the club and was often seen as a connection between the Ukrainian players and the Brazilian ones, seeing as he could speak both languages. The midfielder was in the good books of virtually every person at the club and his presence was well-appreciated.

Factor in the management’s own drive to continue this project and it’s evident why this continues to be a successful model. Lucescu was already a fluent speaker of Portuguese during his time, and after his departure in 2016, the club moved for Paulo Fonseca, a Portuguese manager. The current manager is Luís Castro, who replaced his compatriot at the helm and continues the good work. This trend of sticking with Portuguese speakers is likely to continue for long.

Many believed the political crisis in Ukraine in the middle of the last decade would cause their relationship to end, but it has not gone down that lane, despite a blip. The strong history and incentive provided by the club prove to be a good option for young players for a pathway towards the top level of European football, and it seems as though this will be an attractive prospect for young players for several years to come.

Their move to Kyiv to get away from the political drama eased tensions and helped business continue like before. At the time of the conflict, top players including temporarily refused to come to training until the issue was sorted, but since they moved to and settled in Kyiv, the influx of Brazilian talent restarted. There was a time in 2014 where it seemed as though a move to Shakhtar for Brazilians was not the highest preference, but just two years later, all doubts were cleared.

Since 2016, bright players like Tetê, Maycon, Vitão and Dodô, amongst others, have all made the move and the model rolls on. Although the war has prevented Shakhtar from making use of their world-class infrastructure in Donetsk, the fact that they consistently compete in the Champions League each season still ensures that interest in playing for them remains for long.

To further understand why Shakhtar do what they do, taking a look at their transfer activity in the 2015-16 season is a good place to start. They made €96 million in player sales, which featured the €30 million departure of Douglas Costa to Bayern Munich and €8 million sale of Luiz Adriano to AC Milan – both in the summer, while Alex Teixeira made a record €50 million move to the financially-bolstered Chinese Super League, where Jiangsu Suning were able to acquire his signature. Teixeira’s sale was the highest fee Shakhtar ever received for a player at the time.

The club made a €44 million profit from Teixeira’s sale, and similar numbers have been recorded with other players. Costa’s departure to Bayern Munich brought in a €22 million profit on what the Ukrainians paid for the winger in 2010. Fred, the club’s current record departure, also brought the club a €44 million profit while others like Fernandinho, a €32 million profit, and Willian, a €21 million gain, have ensured that this model is sustainable.

Naturally, seeing as much of their success in recent times can be attributed to these players, not everyone is a big fan of this method. Former Dynamo Kyiv manager, Alyaksandr Khatskevich, once said, “Shakhtar is more Brazilian than Ukrainian,” when asked whether he was trying to make his side the most prominent Ukrainian team in Europe. That comment caused a bit of a storm in Ukraine.

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Additionally, problems of racism have been rife for several years in Eastern European football. Most recently, there was the case of Taison, who was controversially sent off for angrily reacting to racist abuse. In the 74th minute of a league match against Dynamo Kyiv, he put up his middle finger in response to the fans and then kicked a ball in their direction. The abuse was previously reported by his team-mates and steps one and two of UEFA’s protocol – a stadium announcement and then taking players to the changing room – were activated.

However, the incident occurred before step three could be activated and in a vile move, he was banned for one match by the Ukrainian FA. Several figures came in support of the player – even national team manager Andriy Shevchenko – but incidents like these are frequent in this part of the world and often prove to be deterring factors, especially for younger players.

This wasn’t the first instance of racism in Ukrainian football. Earlier this year, Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi was a target of racial abuse in a Europa League match against Dynamo Kyiv, while in previous years, Metalist Kharkiv have also been found guilty. Visiting clubs often advise their fans of incidents that may occur and this has often created a negative feeling towards football in the country.

For now, however, despite the recent halt, Brazilian footballers’ connection with Shakhtar Donetsk is going well. Like previous years, there are several players with great potential that have been touted to go far in European football, with the most exciting being Tetê. The 19-year-old winger is expected to make a big impact in the future having made a significant impact early on. He only signed from Grêmio last February and made an immediate impact: scoring twice in the Ukrainian Cup final and then against Dynamo Kyiv the following week.

Tetê has a €150 million release clause, an indication of how highly the club values him. His signing itself was a complicated task, with Shakhtar delving into two months of negotiations to get their man for €15 million. When the time does come for him to leave, it’s certain that they’ll look to get another big fee for him.

Another exciting player is Marcos Antônio. Also 19, he signed from Portuguese club Estoril, having moved there from Athletico Paranaense – a club Shakhtar have good relations with – in 2014. The midfielder is often compared to Fred, who forged a strong career for himself in Ukraine, for his lung-bursting runs and control in the middle of the park. He has previously played for the national team’s under-20 side, highlighting his potential and considering the fact that he’s still very young, there will be plenty of eyes on him in the coming years.

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All in all, there are 12 Brazilian players on Shakhtar’s books and the idea of helping them grow in Ukraine before potentially selling them for big fees is still on. The club stuttered in the Champions League season, but this team will feel as though they have a good chance of beating Benfica when the Europa League resumes this February. Another European run could do a great deal of good for the players and only help boost the club’s profile.

Since revolutionizing their transfer model in 2004, Shakhtar Donetsk have enjoyed great success. Eleven league titles, eight Ukrainian Cups, and the cream of the crop, the UEFA Cup in 2009 followed. That success in Istanbul was the first continental win for a Ukrainian club since Dynamo Kyiv’s Cup Winners’ Cup win in 1986, and to date, no Ukrainian club except Shakhtar have managed to go all the way in either of UEFA’s two club cup competitions.

Inspired by Lucescu’s interest in Brazilian football, Shakhtar Donetsk picked up a model that has helped them and will continue to do so for several years. In the end, a move for a young Brazilian to the club suits both parties, and this unique relationship looks set to stand the test of time for a few more years.

BY KARAN TEJWANI

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