x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Brazilians adding flair to Shakhtar Donetsk's industry in Champions League

The industrial city has a Samba feel on the pitch, with players from South America at the heart of the side, writes Ian Hawkey.

Shakhtar's Brazilian stars Alex Teixeira, Fernandinho and Luiz Adriano
Shakhtar's Brazilian stars Alex Teixeira, Fernandinho and Luiz Adriano

The first-time visitor to Donetsk, arriving from western Europe or the Americas, can find the city puzzling.

Symbols of opulence and new investment loom up alongside roadsides in need of repair.

Donetsk prides itself on its progressive outlook, promoted as a dynamic place to do business. But it is hard to ignore its historically dominant industry.

Mining is commemorated in statues, and the hilly soil tips of the surrounding landscape.

Andrey Stakhanov, an icon of Stalin's Soviet Union did his subterranean digging in the region, a worker celebrated for his Herculean labour and his stunning productivity underground.

About a third of the mines in the Donbass region have closed in the last 20 years, as the coal industry declines. Local heroes tend to come now from other professions.

Among them the footballers of Shakthar Donetsk, the champions of the Ukrainian league seven times in the past nine years.

They are nicknamed the Pitmen, in a nod to the area's heritage, and are currently the Shakhanovites of domestic records.

Saturday's win over Metallurg Zaporizhya in Ukraine's top-flight was Shakhtar's 23rd league victory on the trot.

They go to the home of the European champions this evening at the top of their Champions League group, fresh from beating Chelsea 2-1 in Ukraine two weeks ago.

It would be easy to assume that first-time visitors to Donetsk from a country like Brazil might feel especially bewildered, find the old Soviet architecture austere, the culture alien.

That may have been the case for some of the first Brazilian footballers to voyage to eastern Ukraine, but over the past decade, close to 20 Brazil-born players have been recruited by Shakhtar.

That is enough to create a comfortable community, an identity for the club that has transformed it into an attractive destination for talented South Americans.

Some, like the gifted Willian, see Shakthar as the launch pad to a future at a more decorated European club.

Others, like the midfielder Fernandinho, happily thrive as long-term chiefs of the expatriate colony, on handsome wages and surrounded by compatriots playing a pleasing brand of football.

There is no proven formula to establishing an outsider club in the upper rungs of the European hierarchy, but Shakhtar, who hold that ambition, have two important aspects in their favour.

The first is money. The businessman Rinat Akhmetov took control of the club 15 years ago, and his legacy, already assured by the 2009 Uefa Cup triumph, was displayed to a global audience when the excellent Donbass Arena, Shakhtar's 51,000-capacity stadium, was used for a semi-final, among other matches, at Euro 2012.

The magnate, who made his fortune in banking and spread his interests to across various local and overseas industrial concerns, is ranked by Forbes as Ukraine's wealthiest individual.

Unlike Chelsea's governing oligarch, the Russian Roman Abramovich, Akhmetov is a loyal employer of head coaches. Mircea Lucescu, the Romanian formerly in charge of Inter Milan and Galatasary among others, has been with Shakhtar since 2004.

The frequency of domestic success and the Uefa Cup triumph were natural insurances against dismissal, but the stability he fostered has also contributed to the smooth functioning of the team, men who know each other's movements instinctively.

At their best, Shakhtar devastate opponents with their speed of pass. The Brazilian troupe are key to that.

The modern Champions League is dotted with upstart achievers who stole a march on bigger, more fabled clubs partly because they established strong recruiting networks in Brazil.

Deportivo La Coruna did so effectively at the turn of the century, Porto, the European champions in 2004, have strong links to Brazil and had Derlei, Deco and Carlos Alberto in their Champions League-winning side and Bayer Leverkusen, surprise runners-up in 2002, specialised in the Brazilian market in the years up until then.

So might Shakhtar be the dark horses of the 2012/13 Champions League, the club in the vanguard of a financially empowered Eastern Europe? Lucescu, with a quarter of a century of managerial wisdom, is always reluctant to make bold forecasts and used to deprecatingly refer to himself as the "quarter-final specialist" - he made the last eight of the Champions League with Inter, Galatasaray and then with Shakhtar in 2011 - but it may be that he now has at his disposal his finest squad yet.