It’s hard to imagine a bigger contrast with the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. The Ukrainian city of Donetsk is surrounded by slagheaps, was once named Stalino and is a gritty industrial hub dominated by mining.
Yet it is in this unlikely location where for the last few years a legion of Brazilian soccer players has prospered to turn the local team, Shakhtar Donetsk, into arguably the finest in the former Soviet Union.
Backed by the financial clout of club owner Rinat Akhmetov and inspired by the leadership of manager Mircea Lucescu, the club are a force to be reckoned with.
“They all are really talented, hard-working and well-adapted for our playing style,” Akhmetov said. “They all are also full of desire to keep on progressing and that means that we are moving in the right direction.”
The city is marked by Soviet high-rises and no architectural jewel. However, thanks to Akhmetov it now boasts the Donbass Arena, one of the finest soccer grounds in Europe.
Shakhtar won the UEFA Cup in 2009 but the club is now enjoying what could be its best ever season — outclassing rivals Dynamo Kyiv to head the Ukrainian domestic league and into the last 16 of the Champions League.
Current star Fernandinho, who hails from the balmy climes of Londrina in southern Brazil, remembered the shock of arriving in Donetsk seven years ago.
“When I was a 20-year-old guy and crossed the ocean to find myself in a completely uncommon country I could hardly imagine that I would stay here for more than three seasons,” he said.
“But it became a rapidly growing club and everything changed quickly for the better. We achieved some serious results and my opinion about Shakhtar and its prospects has also changed,” Fernandinho said.
“Today I’m 27 and my current contract with Shakhtar runs until 2016. It would not be a sensation if I decided to finish my career here,” he said.
Fernandinho acknowledged that money was the main driving force for young Brazilian players in their transfer moves to Europe.
“Of course money is the main thing,” he said. “Financial opportunities of the European clubs outweigh the means of Brazilian sides.”
Forward Brandao was the first Brazilian player to come to Shakhtar, making his first appearance two years before Lucescu became manager in 2004. Under Lucescu’s coaching, Brandao developed his playing skills, which attracted the attention of French giants Marseille, who lured the Brazilian in 2008.
Lucescu said he considered defender Francelino Matuzalem, whom Shakhtar purchased in 2005, as the key signing which triggered the club’s “Brazilian” development.
“The Matuzalem transfer became a turning point for Shakhtar as we started to create the new team around this player, who immediately became its true leader,” said Lucescu, who even learned Portuguese to help coach the Brazilians.
“I’m really happy to have an opportunity to take very young players into the team and raise their skills to the level of the Champions League in just two or three years,” Lucescu said.
His practice of nurturing young talents allowed Shakhtar to overcome the departure of stars like Matuzalem and Elano.
Another Brazilian star, Willian, was hugely disappointed when his transfer to Chelsea fell through because the clubs were unable to agree financial terms.
“Willian was really upset when the deal collapsed but he behaved as a true professional,” Lucescu said. “He managed to overcome his disappointment and now we see at the pitch that Willian is as he once was.”