There are times when winning teams are forced to change tack and make changes, unwanted or otherwise. Yet as multiple Ukrainian league champions Shakhtar Donetsk have shown, when it comes to the formula that has made you great in the first place, it is often best to leave things untouched.
An increasingly prominent force in Europe, Shakhtar are continuing to reap the benefits of the adventurous recruitment policy they began pursuing in 2002, when they first invested in Brazilian players, many of them virtual unknowns on the international scene.
Leading the way was the centre-forward Brandao, who made the move to Donetsk from unfashionable Sao Caetano. Since then more than two dozen of his compatriots have taken the trail he blazed, helping Shakhtar become a powerhouse of eastern European football.
Many of them have since been snapped up by Europe’s big spenders, among them the gifted Willian, who has just completed a move to Chelsea, and the midfielder Fernandinho, now with Manchester City. In the meantime, the Donetsk side continue to mine the rich seam of talent offered by Brazilian football, recently acquiring the services of FIFA Confederations Cup winner Bernard from Atletico Mineiro.
“The coach has a preference for younger players so he can bring them on and develop their game. They’re also at the age when it’s easier for them to adapt,” former Shakhtar midfielder Elano told FIFA.com.
Elano was one of the first Brazilians to join the club, lured east by Mircea Lucescu, a key figure in this remarkable story. “He lives and breathes football,” added the player. “He’s always watching videos and as you can see, all the Brazilians who come here are very talented and really make a name for themselves. That’s why they keep on winning everything.”
A passion for football
The Romanian coach took on the Shakhtar job in 2004 and immediately asked the club to bring in five more Brazilians, Elano among them, to join the pioneering Brandao. As the midfield man, who is now with Gremio, explained, Lucescu makes a point of asking his new arrivals to keep him informed of any potential transfer targets on the market: “He was always asking about players and their style of play. He’d help them too, like he was just another member of their family. He was always there for you to talk to.”
Lucescu’s approach has been so successful that more and more Brazilian talents have since joined the team, as new arrival Bernard explained: “The coach can’t get enough of Brazilian football. That’s why there are 12 of us here now.”
Figuring in that round dozen are naturalised Croatian striker Eduardo da Silva, who at the age of 30 is the oldest member of Shakhtar’s Brazilian-born contingent. The 27-year-old Ilsinho is second on the list followed by Luiz Adriano, who is 26 and has spent seven years at the club, more than any of the current crop of Brazilians. The rest are all 25 and under.
The results of the policy are there for all to see. Shakhtar have won seven league titles under Lucescu, not to mention four Ukrainian cups and the last UEFA Cup before it was renamed the UEFA Europa League.
The Romanian’s fusing of two different football cultures has paid off handsomely and is reflected in the make-up of his team. With the exception of Ismaily, a defender who joined Shakhtar from Portuguese club Braga, the rest of the Brazilian posse occupy midfield or attacking positions, while Lucescu’s rearguard is made up primarily of European players, most of them Ukrainians.
As he told Brazilian website SporTV.com, the proud Romanian is very protective of his charges: “Over the years Shakhtar has become a team with a very strong Brazilian identity. I put this squad together and I’m almost like a father to them.”
The fourth wave
Lucescu is particularly excited by the arrival of Bernard, who helped Atletico Mineiro lift the Copa Libertadores a few short weeks ago. “He can really play,” said the Romanian. “He knows what it means to play at the highest level and I can’t wait to see what he can do in Europe.”
Bernard is the highest-profile member of what is Shakhtar’s fourth wave of Brazilian imports, with ex-Internacional man Fred Santos, former Fluminense attacking midfielder Wellington Nem, and Fernando, latterly of Gremio and a fellow FIFA Confederations Cup winner, all joining him in Donetsk over the last few weeks.
Even though the journey from Brazil to Ukraine has proved to be one worth making in recent years, these new faces have still had to weigh up the merits of making such a long trip and adapting to the change in culture. And in the case of Fernando, a current Brazil squad member, there was also the issue of the effect it might have on his international career.
“To be honest, that was going through my head when I was travelling here,” said the young holding midfielder. “I did wonder if they’d forget about me, if I’d just start to fade out of sight.”
“They’re a very organised club and they’re playing in the Champions League,” he said. “They’ll be playing at a high level with a coach who sees things differently to the rest. He’ll be bringing one or two new things in, he’s been there for a long time and he speaks a bit of Portuguese too.”
The innovative Lucescu has big plans for his new Brazilian signings. “We want to win the Champions League,” he said, an objective that Bernard for one does not find daunting: “He’s spoken to me about the club’s goals and they’re the same as mine. Shakhtar always have an obligation to win.”