Remembering Shakhtar’s brilliant Brazilians who conquered Europe

Since the early 2000s, Shakhtar Donetsk has been a home away from home for dozens of talented Brazilians. It’s been 10 years since the experiment hit its peak.

It all started back in the summer of 2002. On the back of their first ever Ukrainian League title in 2001-02, Shakhtar Donetsk were looking to bolster their squad with a handful of signings from abroad.

Amongst the inbound players that summer was Brandão, a 22-year-old Brazilian forward signed for the modest price of £900,000.

Far from a big-name signing, the young Brandão had a middling goalscoring rate in Brazil, and though he was Shakhtar’s most expensive purchase that summer, he was clearly bought with the future in mind. Five goals in his first season suggested as much.

But he would soon became a catalyst for something bigger.

In 2004, after two consecutive runner-up finishes in the league, Shakhtar brought in Romanian manager Mircea Lucescu to implement a new philosophy at the club. Lucescu had enjoyed success in Romania, Italy and Turkey, and the club identified him as the man to build upon the foundations of Shakhtar’s first league title.

The new manager also had an important talent — more important, perhaps, than the trophies on his CV.

At a young age, the well-educated Lucescu had learned no fewer than six foreign languages, one of which was Portuguese. He could therefore communicate fluently with players like Brandão, beginning a Portuguese-language club at Shakhtar that would soon dramatically expand.

FC Porto Shakhtar Donetsk

During his first season in charge of the club, the polyglot Lucescu was given a huge transfer kitty to bring in foreign players. Amongst them were no fewer than five Brazilians: Ivan, a young left-back who joined on loan; Batista, an experienced midfielder from Galatasaray; Matuzalém, a record £12million signing from Brescia (one of Lucescu’s former clubs); and a pair of supremely talented young midfielders named Elano and Jádson.

In total, those five Brazilians cost Shakhtar around £25million.

The impact was immediate: Shakhtar cruised to the league title, winning 26 of their 30 matches, and the influx of Brazilians had a positive impact on the presumably-no-longer-homesick Brandão, who doubled his goal tally over the previous campaign.

Nor was the success a flash in the pan.

Shakhtar continued winning and, seeing how well their investments had performed, continued buying Brazilian.

Following the 2004-05 title victory, the club paid Athletico Paranaense £7million for midfielder Fernandinho — now of Manchester City — who helped Shakhtar retain the league title in 2005-06. That was followed a year later by the £2.7million acquisition of striker Luiz Adriano, who would ultimately prove a ridiculous bargain.

Shakhtar Donetsk's Luis Adriano celebrates scoring the opening goal of the game

By 2008, the club had won the league in three of Lucescu’s four seasons. During this time, however, the club had failed to make significant ground in Europe. In those four seasons, Shakhtar never made it past the Champions League group stage.

Come the first half of the 2008-09 season, that struggle continued. Despite winning three of their group stage matches, and despite shelling out more money on yet more Brazilians, the Ukrainian side could not catch Barcelona or Sporting and were dumped into the UEFA Cup.

It would prove to be a blessing in disguise.

On February 19, 2009, Shakhtar played their first UEFA Cup match of the season, welcoming Tottenham to the Olimpiyskyi stadium.

Harry Redknapp, who had been public in his criticism of the competition, fielded a weakened Spurs side, and Shakhtar — with the mercurial Jádson in the number 10 position — ran rings around the sluggish figures of Tom Huddlestone and Michael Dawson. The Ukrainian side eventually went through 3-1 on aggregate, with Jádson scoring the pick of the goals.

In the round of 16, it was Luiz Adriano’s turn to take centre stage. The prolific forward, who would go on to become the club’s all-time top scorer (128 goals between 2007 and 2014), scored the winner against CSKA Moscow, an old rival of Shakhtar’s from the days of the Soviet League.

Marseille were then swept aside 4-1 in the quarter-finals, with the likes of Jádson and Fernandinho dominant once again.

The team, to all appearances, had struck a perfect balance. The fluid, Brazil-heavy attack was bolstered by a rugged European defence containing players like the excellent Darijo Srna and Dmytro Chygrynskiy.

In the semi-finals, Shakhtar faced a familiar foe in Ukrainian side Dynamo Kiev, but the two matches had little to do with Ukrainians. All three Shakhtar goals in the 3-2 aggregate victory were scored by Brazilians, with Fernandinho, Jádson and winger Ilsinho all getting on the scoresheet and Willian, now of Chelsea, putting in a superb performance.

Ilsinho’s late, late winner in the second leg was a tournament highlight and a fitting way to send Shakhtar to their first European final.

The final itself was a daunting prospect for any side. Shakhtar would would travel to the imposing Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium, home of Fenerbahçe in Istanbul, and would face an in-form Werder Bremen, who were playing brilliant football largely thanks to their own mercurial Brazilian.

Unfortunately for Bremen, however, Diego was banned for the final, allowing Jádson and co. to steal the limelight.

Luiz Adriano’s brilliant chip opened the scoring, before Bremen’s Naldo — Brazilian, of course — equalised with a free-kick, sending the game into extra time.

It only took seven minutes of the overtime for Jádson, one of the competition’s best players, to score the winner. Future wrestler Tim Wiese was unable to keep out the low shot, and the 2-1 win gave Shakhtar their first European trophy in what was the last match of the ‘UEFA Cup’ before it became the ‘Europa League’.

“It is bigger because it is the last,” said Lucescu after the match. “Maybe we can keep the trophy and not have to make a copy of it!”

But although the UEFA Cup success arguably represented the high water mark of Shaktar’s Brazilian experiment, the club had by that point began selling their South American stars as often as they were buying them.

Matuzalém and Elano left long before the European triumph, while Brandão, the striker who started it all, moved to Marseille in January 2009 not long before the Tottenham tie.

“We have bigger aims,” Lucescu enthused after collecting the UEFA Cup trophy. “We now want to do things in the Champions League: reach the quarter-finals or maybe the semi-finals.”

In the 2010-11 season, they did indeed reach the Champions League quarter-finals, playing brilliant football with new stars like Douglas Costa and humbling Roma in the round of 16 — before losing to eventual winners Barcelona. The club also won a domestic treble that year.

But wherever Shakhtar go from here — civil war has forced them to relocate, making the club a less appealing destination for Brazilians — it’s unlikely they’ll put together a team quite as exciting as the history-making samba stars of 2008-09.

By Benedict O’Neill

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