Ahead of the second legs of this season’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16, it may come as a surprise to learn that the team with the largest following on Brazilian shores is not Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Manchester United, but Ukrainian outfit Shakhtar Donetsk.
Their lead in the popularity stakes is down to their six Brazilian players - Alex Teixeira, Douglas Costa, Fernandinho, Luiz Adriano, Jadson and Willian - all of whom are midfielders or strikers. And if that were not enough, Shakhtar can also count on the services of Brazilian-born Croatia international Eduardo da Silva as well as Bolivian front-man Marcelo Moreno, who came to prominence at Brazilian club Vitoria.
Enjoying the backing of a solid support infrastructure, which has helped the players adapt and thrive in surroundings far removed from those of their homelands, the South American contingent have become vital cogs in the Miners’ machine. “It’s a big help having a flavour of our country at the club, and we’re a very united group,” attacking midfielder Costa told FIFA.com.
Last eight within their grasp
Next up for Costa and Co is 8 March’s Champions League Round of 16 second-leg clash with Serie A side Roma. Progress to the last eight for Shakhtar, a very real possibility given their 3-2 first-leg victory in Italy, would be a first for the club and vindication of the transfer policy they have pursued over the past decade.
Rather than attempt to sign established European names, the powers-that-be at the Miners have focused primarily on Brazilian-based rising stars, with only ex-Arsenal striker Eduardo signed from a club on the Old Continent. Indeed, Costa came from Gremio, Moreno from Cruzeiro, Fernandinho and Jadson from Atletico Paranaense, Alex Teixeira from Vasco da Gama and Luiz Adriano from Internacional, while Willian was brought in from Corinthians.
Not about to sign these up-and-coming talents and then leave things to chance, Shakhtar have reaped the rewards of the aforementioned support network, as well as a long-term, gradual approach. “Following and then being part of this progression has been really good,” continues Costa, who at 20 is the youngest of the Brazilian contingent, with 28-year-old Eduardo the most senior.
“We’re very well looked after. There’s a whole structure in place to allow everything to be done properly and we’ve been able to reflect that out on the pitch. The club is very well-organised and that approach is now bearing fruit.”
What's more, the side coached by Romanian boss Mircea Lucescu have been performing with style as well as substance, one of the benefits of being “Europe’s most Brazilian side”, as the coach himself put it. The vast majority of Lucescu’s attacking armoury is of South American origin, with no fewer than 12 of Shakhtar’s 15 Champions League goals so far supplied by this crop of players, as well as 32 of their 39-goal Ukrainian league tally.
Taking the next step
Having never previously qualified for the knockout phase of European football’s premier club competition, Shakhtar did so in emphatic fashion this season by winning five of their six Group H encounters to top the section ahead of favourites Arsenal. Yet a feat of this magnitude has been on the cards after the club’s 2009 UEFA Cup triumph and a level of domestic dominance built up over the past ten years.
Winners of their first Ukrainian title in 2002, on the back of five consecutive runners-up finishes, the Miners went on to repeat the feat in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2010. They are hot favourites to hold onto their crown this season too, given their 12-point lead over closest pursuers and arch-rivals Dynamo Kiev.
“We’re very well placed in the Ukrainian league and we’re having a good campaign in the Champions League too. We’ve got a quality side and we hope to go a long way. We’re aiming to challenge for major honours,” continued Costa.
“All this stems from putting the time in and doing things the right way. We always receive plenty of support in every home game, with our fans packing the place out and cheering us on. This is a football-mad city and the people are happier still thanks to the results we’ve been getting.”
Finishing the job against Roma in Tuesday’s second leg would give the fans even more to celebrate and add a further seal of approval to Shakhtar’s transfer policy. “[Reaching the next round] would be a historic event for our club and for Ukrainian football as a whole,” said club captain and Croatia international Darijo Srna, in Monday’s pre-game press conference. “We’re in with an excellent chance, but we still need to prove ourselves once more here in Donetsk.”