Shaky Shakhtar Not Digging for Victory

Surrounded by thick morning mists, the train arriving in Donetsk slows down as it snakes through the slag-heaps. A century and a half of wrenching coal from the depths of the Donbass has left the ground fragile. This is the land of Stakhanov and his 227 tonnes. Far below, the ominous rumbling of the train is completely deafened by an ear-splitting drill, pushing ever closer through the dust and the darkness to the centre of the world.0

The most famous football team in Donetsk need approaching with similar caution. Tottenham Hotspur, who face Shakhtar Donetsk in the UEFA Cup next week, take notice. Put simply, Shakhtar are probably the most fascinatingly enigmatic side in eastern Europe. A fixture in the Champions League group stages in recent seasons and last year’s domestic Double winners, Mircea Lucescu’s outfit, at least on paper, pose a serious threat to Spurs’ hopes of progression. Yet the enigma of Shakhtar lies somewhere other than in their undoubted footballing qualities.

They are very different from the other teams in Ukraine. Football here is essentially a question of overcoming a series of problems. In no particular order, these include boardroom and financial stability, finding and keeping players, developing a fan base, securing a stadium and training facilities and, somewhere way down the list, trying to play decent football. Shakhtar, almost uniquely, appear to have managed to resolve all of these questions.

In a league where the past month alone has seen Vadym Rabinovych selling Arsenal Kyiv for a single hryvnia (just over eight pence) to the city’s mayor, who in turn nominated his 30 year-old son to run the club, the simple fact that Shakhtar have had the same president, Rinat Akhmetov, since 1996 is an advantage in itself. Of course, Akhmetov’s status as the richest man in the country — and possibly Europe, depending on who you choose to believe — has helped in the resolution of the other issues.

With a fortune estimated by Forbes at $7.2 billion backing them up, small wonder that Shakhtar are due to move into the $250 million Donbass Arena by the end of the year (whilst FC Kharkiv play 200 kilometres from home in Sumy), and have long enjoyed the myriad comforts of the Kirsha training complex in the forests outside Donetsk and the deep leather seats of the bright orange Shakhtar team coach (with an unnamed team rumoured to have resorted to public transport, waiting at a bus stop with footballs in nets slung over their shoulders, in order to travel to games at the end of last season).

Yet this fails to do Shakhtar justice. Oligarchs (a term which Akhmetov, incidentally, apparently loathes) have been heavily involved in all aspects of Ukrainian sport for several years now. Whilst teams such as Kharkiv and the bus-stop unmentionables are without doubt continually stretched for cash, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk are owned by Ihor Kolomoysky’s Privat Group, and the afore-mentioned Rabinovych, late of Arsenal Kyiv, is seriously wealthy. That this wealth has reportedly been accumulated through some seriously dubious activities, including (allegedly) selling tanks to the Taliban, is unfortunately pretty much par for this particular course. Meanwhile, Dynamo Kyiv president Ihor Surkis (whose brother Hryhoriy sits as head of the Ukrainian FA) certainly isn’t one of those unfortunates passing their days waiting for intermittent public transport.

The difference-maker with Shakhtar, rather than simply money, has been continuity, focus, and above all a plan. Akhmetov knows what he wants and where he believes the club belongs, but crucially has been prepared to delegate to outside expertise — Lucescu included — when it comes to the particulars. The appointment of former UEFA referee ĽuboÅ¡ Micheľ as head of the club’s international competitions department late last year provides an excellent example.

When combined with the natural advantages of a strong fanbase (Shakhtar consistently pull crowds above 20,000 in a league with an average attendance around 8,000) only really equalled by sides in Luhansk and Lviv — none of which are in a position to challenge the top of the Ukrainian table — and a youth development system, run by a team of Dutch coaches, which is fast catching up with the famed Dynamo academy, the rise of Shakhtar cannot be considered accidental. In a city balancing precariously on creaking old mines, this is a club resting on some pretty solid foundations.

Shakhtar, then, do not share most of the problems besetting the rest of Ukrainian football. This is where things get interesting. In the absence of common issues, the club instead seems determined to create some of their own. Some of these, in fact, may prove to be as damaging in the long run as those already mentioned.

Firstly, the last twelve months have seen a subtle shift in transfer policy. Whilst Shakhtar — led by the steely gaze and concrete basin of CEO Sergey Palkin — have, in truth, always loosely adopted a ‘buy high, sell higher’ approach to negotiations, the Nery Castillo fiasco seems to have prompted a new and rather questionable approach.

After coughing up a club record €20 million to Olympiakos for the Mexican striker who then failed to score a league goal, even when stealing a penalty against Naftovyk from team-mate Cristiano Lucarelli, Palkin refused to let Castillo leave on the cheap, despite it clearly being in the best interests of all concerned. With a loan to Manchester City finished and moves to Real Betis and CD Guadalajara not even started, Shakhtar still seem unswervingly set on recouping all of their initial outlay on Castillo.

Worryingly, the story now seems set to repeat itself with Brazilian forward Luis Adriano, who Palkin earlier this month priced out of a move to Palmeiras despite the player’s clear desire to depart. The whole sorry saga has, in short, had the effect of making their policy more rigid, rather than inspiring flexibility. This insistence poses a real danger, as Shakhtar’s main hope of continuing to attract the international quality which has played a defining role in their success thus far (with midfielder Fernandinho voted Ukraine’s best player last season) is to function as a stepping stone, a launch-pad for a European career.

If players are convinced that the club these days will play Castillo-style hardball when it comes to moving onwards and upwards, rather than the previous pragmatism which saw Elano and Julius Aghahowa leave for the Premier League and Ciprian Marica for the Bundesliga at opportune moments, then those players will look elsewhere. The prospect of spending seven years in Donetsk before being allowed to depart, as in the case of new Marseille signing Brandão, only does it for some of us.

Secondly, and equally seriously, the club hierarchy seems to have fallen out of love with Lucescu. A true great of the modern European game, the 63 year-old Romanian has presided over the most successful period in the club’s history since his appointment in 2004, winning three league titles, one Ukrainian Cup and the Ukrainian Super Cup. Even more importantly, he has inculcated a controlled yet dynamic style of play, defined by rapid counter-attacking, proper use of full-back width, constant movement and an insistence on the ball always being played out of defence.

That a coach of such standing should opt to work in Ukraine has led to partisanship being put aside and his being welcomed just about everywhere (even if his team are far from popular outside the Donbass heartlands), with one notable incident being his press conference following a 3-0 away win at Naftovyk in the second round of last season, where most of the journalists – and club staff – present seemed more interested in getting his autograph than actually asking him anything.

But the club’s slow start to this season caused rumbling noises to filter down from the boardroom, resulting in all parties refusing to publicly commit to each other, and although Shakhtar’s form picked up going into the winter break, his previously excellent relationships with Palkin and Akhmetov have taken a severe hit.

Speculation has run high that the latter felt Lucescu was making too many excuses (principal among them bemoaning the fact that Shakhtar’s first two games were both away in Lviv, traditionally a tough trip) for the team’s poor performance rather than making any changes, whilst the manager himself is reported to feel himself entitled to more patience, given his previous achievements.

In any case, a highly successful coach appears to have been thoroughly alienated for little good reason, and there is a strong possibility that Lucescu will leave in the summer, possibly to attempt an Istanbul hat-trick of Turkish league titles with Fenerbahçe, having previously achieved the feat with both Galatasaray and BeÅŸiktaÅŸ. Shakhtar’s loss will be the Bosphorus’s gain.

Finally, despite (or perhaps because of) being practically the only side in Ukraine capable of sustained attractive football, Shakhtar seem determined to give their opponents a fighting chance. The pattern is by now well-established — the team invariably starts games sluggishly, sometimes managing to score but more often allowing their opponents to do so. They then re-emerge for the second half considerably more focused and turn on the style before losing concentration completely in the final ten minutes, giving the opposition time to come back.

This pattern long predates Lucescu, who has made heroic but largely futile efforts to stamp it out, and is in evidence in both domestic and European matches. Their Champions League game at home to Barcelona in October provided the perfect illustration — Shakhtar held onto a deserved lead until the final ten minutes, when they forgot to keep playing to the whistle and allowed a hitherto-subdued Lionel Messi to score twice. Another example of their unwarranted generosity is their league campaign, where after last season’s Double they managed just one win in their first nine games before winning seven of their next eight, leaving them twelve points behind leaders Dynamo Kyiv at the winter break.

And still they continue to create problems from thin air. They even managed to turn winning the winter Laspalomas Cup in the Canary Islands last month into a debacle about the trophy being too big to safely transport back to Donetsk. The warning notice to Tottenham reads loud and clear — even if you make things difficult for them, it’s nothing to what they can do to themselves. In this city of endless mines, it seems strangely appropriate that Shakhtar — which, after all, means Miners in Russian — should be so adept at digging holes.

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  1. CrouchyTime 14 February, 2009
  2. Dave Stopher 16 February, 2009
  3. Nick Smith 16 February, 2009