Meet Shakhtar Donestsk’s next-gen Brazilian stars set to light up Europe

In Depth

The 2020-21 season in Ukraine is over and it was one of wild ups and downs for Shakhtar Donetsk. In the Champions League group stage, they beat Real Madrid twice and only missed out on the last 16 by a whisker. But after the winter break, things unravelled.

In their domestic cup, Shakhtar lost 1-0 to second-tier Ahrobiznes Volochysk. In the Europa League, the miners were dumped out 5-1 on aggregate by Roma. And, after losing four games in the second half of the season, Shakhtar finished second to Dynamo Kyiv in the Ukrainian Premier League, breaking a run of four consecutive titles.

Not all at Shakhtar is lost though, the near future is not as bleak as the very recent past might make it seem. A new manager will soon come in to replace the outgoing Luis Castro – reportedly Shakhtar are looking to take Roberto de Zerbi from Sassuolo – and they will have some fine young talent to work with. Where from, you may ask? Well, Brazil. Where else?

Shakhtar’s love affair with South America’s biggest nation is long-running and well-publicised. The first Brazilian to move to Shakhtar was striker Brandao, who came in from Sao Caetano in 2002. But it was only after the arrival of Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu in 2004 that signing Brazilians became a strategic focus. And with Lucescu, a trickle of Brazilians soon turned into a torrent.

The club has been the starting point in Europe for the likes of Fernandinho, Douglas Costa, Elano, Willian, Fred, Luiz Adriano, Alex Teixeira and Bernard, who all went on to earn lucrative transfers or moves to big clubs in one of the top European leagues. Others, like Dentinho, Luiz Adriano, Ismaily, Alan Patrick and Jadson stayed and became heroes in eastern Ukraine, winning silverware left, right and centre.

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Shakhtar Donetsk Werder Bremen

READ: Remembering Shakhtar’s brilliant Brazilians who conquered Europe

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The relationship, then, has been a fruitful one. Yet for a time, the Russo-Ukrainian War that started in 2014 and centred around the Donbass region, in which the city of Donestsk is situated, seemed as if it would break the Shakhtar-Brazil bond.

That, of course, was the most minor consequence of a horrendous war, but it was noticeable nonetheless. Shakhtar were forced to move from their home city and for a while stars like Douglas Costa and Alex Teixeira refused to return to the club.

After re-settling in Kyiv, though, Shakhtar have been able to attract a new crop of talented youngsters from Brazil and rebuild their connection with the country, now with a slightly different twist. There are currently 12 Brazil-born players at the club – two of whom have taken Ukrainian citizenship – and seven of them are aged 23 or younger.

It is clearly part of a plan. Whereas once Shakhtar would bring in players who had starred at the top level in Brazil, they have over the last three years targetted the finest academy players who have also appeared for Brazil’s junior national teams.

Since 2018, Dodo, Maycon, Tete, Marcos Antonio, Marquinhos Cipriano, Fernando and Vitao have all arrived for relatively low fees, most of them in their teens when they made the move and some without a single professional appearance to their name in their homeland. All of them have significant potential, but they are long-term development projects, signed with the idea that they would flourish at Shakhtar over a period of years rather than weeks or months.

The most prominent among them at the moment is Tete, who came in as an 18-year-old from Gremio before he had made a professional debut. Last year, he told Placar that he “was a bit sad to not have played for the club that raised me, that made me a man. I arrived [at Gremio] at eight and left at 19.”

He has been able to put that behind him, however. In the two wins over Real Madrid before Christmas, Tete was one of Shakhtar’s outstanding players, opening the scoring in Valdebebas with a well-placed, left-footed effort and giving his compatriot Marcelo a torrid time. In the league in 2020-21, Tete was his side’s second-top scorer with seven goals in 16 starts.

Alongside Tete in the starting line-up for that first game with Madrid at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano were midfielders Maycon and Marcos Antonio and right-back Dodo, all of whom played leading roles in Shakhtar’s season.

Left-footed defensive midfielder Maycon and Dodo, who is a full-back in the traditional, marauding Brazilian mould, are the most experienced of the youngsters. Both had played one full season of professional football when they arrived at Shakhtar in 2018 and Maycon had lifted a Brazilian title as a key player in Corinthians’ 2017 team.

Antonio, who is still only 20, took a more circuitous route to Ukraine. After coming through at Athletico Paranaense, the same club as Manchester City’s Fernandinho, he stopped off for a few months in the Portuguese second tier with Estoril where he “gained experience in a hard-fought league”.

He is perhaps the most technically adept of the lot, a graceful midfielder with a metronomic passing style and excellent vision. After signing in 2019, he was a vital part of the Shakhtar side that progressed to the Europa League final four last summer.

Marquinhos Cipriano, Fernando and Vitao, meanwhile, have had significantly less impact on the first team since their respective signings, but for Vitao as a centre-back that would be expected and the other two may just take slightly longer to adapt and develop.

With the equally talented Israeli 21-year-old Manor Solomon, who is attracting admiring glances from Arsenal, also in the squad, there is plenty to look forward to in the coming years for fans of the new, young Brazilian Shakhtar project.

They are taking longer to come good than some of the Brazilian stars that Shakhtar may have housed in the past, but the current crop will be looking to push on next season and put together a strong European campaign once more.

If they can, expect to hear about some big-money offers from sides in the big five European leagues for the likes of Tete and Antonio. Given what Shakhtar paid for them as callow adolescents, it will represent clever business if they can move them on for big money, or even if they become solid, long-term servants of Shakhtar themselves.

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