Why do so many Brazilians play for Shakhtar Donetsk?
When Shakthar Donetsk beat Real Madrid 3-2 away from home in the group stages of the Champions League, they had more Brazilians in the starting line-up than Ukrainians. The club from the Donbas region is renowned for fielding a lot of players from Brazil. This season 13 players out of their 30-man squad were born there.
Before diving into the ins and outs of Shakhtar, let´s quickly look at the club´s history. The club was formed in 1936 but was far from a powerhouse for most of its existence. Shakhtar only won the Soviet Cup 4 times, with no league titles to their name. In 1995 billionaire businessman and oligarch Rinat Akhmetov decided to buy the club. Akhmetov was born in the city of Donetsk and wanted to help bring success to his hometown club with heavy investments. Only a few years later, Shakhtar won the Ukrainian first division in 2002 for the first time in their history. What followed was not only an era of success, it was an era shaped by manager Mircea Lusescu. The Romanian was appointed in 2004 and had a clear plan of how he wanted the club to operate on and off the pitch. Lusescu´s strategy in the transfer market was to sign talented attack-minded wonderkids form Brazil. On the pitch, the manager would set up a defence of local Ukrainian players, while the tricky Brazilians were in charge of the build-up play. In the league, at least 4 players from Ukraine had to be on the pitch at all times, which probably prevented Lusescu from playing even more foreign talent. However, the manager focused on attacking players, because they were good enough technically, to play quick passing football and dominate the opposition. Shakhtar focused on youth development and signing players in the early stages of their careers. On their official website, it´s even mentioned in their club-philosophy: "We believe in youth as a universal source of change, ambition and achievement. We believe that youth is the time of life when talent and skills are most brightly shown."
But why would a Brazilian join a club in Eastern Ukraine? Well, Shakhtar Donetsk had transformed into the perfect club, for young, ambitious, talented footballers. The manager knew exactly what he was doing, he even learned to speak Portuguese to make sure that communication wasn´t ever an issue. The players didn´t have to perform on the spot, they were given time to acclimatise to European football, develop their footballing abilities, earn higher wages and - with Shakhtar´s newly found success on the international stage - even play in the Champions League or the UEFA-Cup and maybe even catch the eye of a scout from the big European clubs. Additionally, there were already lots of players from their country at the club, which made it easier to settle in. With a working strategy in place, Donetsk quickly dominated on a domestic level and even became the first Ukrainian football club to ever win international silverware. They won the UEFA-Cup in 2009 after beating Werder Bremen 2-1 in Istanbul and were the last team to do so before the competition was rebranded. On that special night, two familiar names made it into the starting eleven - Willian and Fernandinho.
Shakhtar knew, that their superstars were not going to stay with them forever. But even the departure of their most valuable assets was part of Lusescus´s plan. The club has made some tidy profits over the years: Fred joined Manchester United for €59 million, Alex Teixeira left Ukraine to play for Jiangsu Suning in China for €50 million and Fernandinho swapped Donbas Arena for the Etihad for €40 million.
Shakhtar Donetsk have established themselves not only in Ukraine but also on the big European stage. They are now the second most decorated club in the country after Dynamo Kyiv. They have 13 titles and 13 cups to their name and have become Champions League regulars - they reached the group stage 9 times in the last decade. Many footballers in the top European leagues have Shakhtar on their CV, e.g. Willian (Chelsea, Arsenal), Douglas Costa (Bayern Munich, Juventus), Luiz Adriano (AC Milan) and Bernard (Everton). However, recently the club had to adapt their strategy. Mircea Lusescu left in 2016 after being on the touchline for over 500 games. Signing Brazil´s best wonderkids is not as easy as it used to be, as the European elite are becoming more and more aware of this model. Real Madrid have spent big on players like Vinícius Júnior, Rodrygo and Reiner, while Barcelona and Manchester City picked up Arthur and Gabriel Jesus directly from the Brazilian top flight. Shakhtar simply can´t compete with these teams, so it´s going to be interesting what this special club can come up with this time.