Ask anyone to think about Ukrainian club football for a moment and the first team that tends to spring to mind is Dynamo Kiev. They dominated the football scene in the eastern European country for decades, winning over 20 titles while fielding countless national stars over the years, including Andriy Shevchenko and Oleh Blochi. Recently, however, Shakhtar Donetsk have emerged as a second domestic heavyweight and are well on the way to stepping out of Dynamo’s shadow.
The birth of an institution
Shakhtar are, quite literally, a workers' club. In 1936, approximately nine years after Dynamo were founded, Stakhanovets Donetsk was formed as a metal works' sports club. Just two years later the side, made up primarily of mountain labourers, was competing in the Soviet top flight.
The start of the Second World War stalled their progress and it was only in 1945 that the ‘Mountain Men’, as they are also known, began to play again. A year later, the club changed its name to its present form.
Shakhtar plied their trade almost exclusively in the Soviet first division up until the 1990s, only suffering the ignominy of relegation once, in 1971. By 1975 they had returned to rub shoulders with the country's elite and even finished as runners-up. It was to be their highest placing in the league as the club failed to win the title before the break-up of the Soviet Union.
The ‘Orange-Blacks’ did manage four cup triumphs (1960, 1961, 1980, 1983) however, as well as lifting the Soviet Supercup in 1984 and reaching the third round of the UEFA Cup in 1976/77.
The making of a legend
After Ukrainian gained its independence in 1991, the title consistently became a two-horse race between Shakhtar and Dynamo, although the latter usually came out on top. The new league's inaugural season aside, the championship trophy was always won by one of the big two. Between 1993 and 2001, the club from the capital even lifted the title nine consecutive times, with Shakhtar taking the silver medal on six occasions.
It was not until local billionaire Rinat Akhmetov - the country's wealthiest man, who also owns steelworks, investment firms and media companies - took over in 1996 that Shakhtar developed into a more serious rival. In 2009 the oligarch also built the brand-new Donbass Arena, which served as a venue at UEFA EURO 2012. Akhmetov is reported to have already invested 500 million of his estimated 16 billion Euro fortune in the club.
In 2002 Shakhtar won the league title for the first time and although Dynamo hit back with two successive championship triumphs of their own, there was now no stopping Shakhtar’s rise.
Shakhtar were crowned Ukrainian champions a further five times between 2008 and 2013 and secured a hat-trick of domestic doubles in that period. The club’s success and healthy bank balance led to an increase in the number of top-class players donning their colours in recent years. Shakhtar won the UEFA Cup in 2009, becoming only the second Ukrainian team, after Dynamo, to triumph in a European competition. They were also the last side to lift the UEFA Cup trophy before the tournament was renamed the UEFA Europa League. On top of that, Shakhtar also raised a few eyebrows across the continent with one or two notable victories.
The club’s hierarchy are satisfied that their way of running the club has borne fruit. They no longer have to look at the training facilities and youth academy enjoyed by Dynamo with envy and have been buoyed by their ability to attract foreign stars to the Ukraine. Furthermore, Shakhtar invest heavily in promising Brazilian players, with Eduardo the only one to have been brought in from a European rival, namely Arsenal. Numerous other players have arrived at the club from Atletico Paranaense, Corinthians, Cruzeiro Belo Horizonte, Gremio, Internacional and Vasco da Gama, with Shakhtar prepared to wait patiently for them to develop.
While some of the youngsters may eventually be tempted away by English or Spanish sides, it is clear that the club also have a good eye for spotting talent, as well as having the necessary funds to back them up.
Shakhtar still need a few more years until they can think about equalling Dynamo’s haul of silverware, and they will not be satisfied until they do so. It is a state of affairs that is guaranteed to keep fans on the edge of their seats for the foreseeable future.
The Donbass Arena, which cost approximately €176 million to build, was opened in 2009 and hosted five matches during EURO 2012: three group stage encounters, one quarter-final and one semi-final. UEFA awarded the 51,500 capacity stadium its maximum five star classification.