Shakhtar Donetsk's Brazilian talent pipeline could be reaching its end
Willian scored a brilliant goal for Chelsea against Barcelona in the first leg at Stamford Bridge and struck the post twice. Douglas Costa, on loan from Bayern Munich, was mightily influential as Juventus staged a sensational comeback against Tottenham at Wembley on Wednesday. Fernandinho is considered to be an absolutely vital player for Pep Guardiola as Manchester City are trying to make history in the Premier League and Europe. And what do all these Brazilians starring in the Champions League have in common? The answer is simple: They all started their European careers at Shakhtar Donetsk.
The Brazilians continue to be important for the Ukrainian champions these days as well. Fred, who seems destined to become Fernandinho's heir at Manchester City, netted a majestic winner from a free kick in the first leg against Roma three weeks ago, and five Brazilians are expected to be in the starting lineup at Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday. Shakhtar have undoubtedly been the most Brazilian team in Europe, at least outside of Portugal.
What is their secret then? Damian Rodriguez and Brandao, signed in 2002, were the first Brazilians in Donetsk, but the story really started in in 2004 when Mircea Lucescu arrived as a coach. The multimillionaire owner Rinat Akhmetov gambled on the Romanian specialist as the right man to help the club to replace Dynamo Kiev as the most dominant force in the Ukrainian league. He also wanted Shakhtar to play attractive blend of football, and Brazilians fit into that vision perfectly. The fact that Lucescu speaks fluent Portuguese was crucial, and a clear strategy was built.
The first two Brazilians of the Lucescu era were acquired thanks to the coach himself. Joao Batista used to play under his guidance at Galatasaray, while Matuzalem arrived from Brescia thanks to the Romanian's excellent ties to the Italian club he worked at in the 90s. Jadson, Fernandinho and Elano, who would also star for Manchester City later on, followed in 2005, and the latter was especially important because he arrived as a national team player. Together they helped to establish a brand that made it easier to sign more young Brazilians.
"Shakhtar were ready to spend a lot on the players themselves. Their scouting system in Brazil didn't try to unearth hidden gems, but rather focused on the most talented prodigies who starred for the youth national teams," Oleksandr Tkach, former editor-in-chief of Tribuna.com told ESPN FC.
"Donetsk competed with top European clubs for their signature and managed to convince them. They offered very good salaries, but also explained that everything will be built around them. The players were told that there are many Brazilians at Shakhtar, and all of them are happy. Therefore, Brazilians expected to feel at home there."
Most of them did indeed feel good in Donetsk and stayed at the club for long years. Fernandinho spent eight seasons at Shakhtar before Manchester City bought him in 2013, Jadson played for seven years before returning to Sao Paulo. Both were inspirational as Shakhtar won their first European trophy, the UEFA Cup in 2009. Luiz Adriano, Willian and Ilsinho, who were all signed in 2007, also starred in those days, and Lucescu fielded five Brazilians in the starting lineup in the final against Werder Bremen. Jadson and Luiz Adriano duly scored the goals in the 2-1 extra-time triumph.
Willian is a magnificent example of the Shakhtar power, because he preferred the Ukrainians to an offer from Paris Saint-Germain. Douglas Costa, acquired from Gremio in 2010, was nicknamed the new Ronaldinho and closely followed by Manchester United who made two offers for him, but found himself in Ukraine. Alex Teixeira also had numerous suitors and chose to develop under Lucescu, moving from Vasco da Gama in 2010. Teixeira, heavily linked to Liverpool for a while, eventually moved to Jiangsu Suning for €50 million, becoming the club's most expensive export. Fernandinho (€40m), Willian (€35m to Anzhi Makhachkala) and Douglas Costa (€30m) all brought a hefty profit to Shakhtar, but it is important to understand that the owner didn't intend to sell the stars in the first place.
Tkach explained: "Akhmetov wanted to make Shakhtar the pride of the region, the biggest attraction in Donetsk. He wanted to succeed in the Champions League and play spectacular football. The Brazilians were part of the concept, alongside the brilliant Donbass Arena, the marketing and all the rest. The initial goal was to keep all the top stars, and they were only sold if the club was forced to do so."
The outstanding project suffered mightily from the political problems in Ukraine. The civil war, that eventually forced Shakhtar to leave Donetsk, live in Kiev and stage their games in different cities across the country, made the club much less attractive to the Brazilians. In July 2014, several players including Alex Teixeira and Douglas Costa, tried to escape the club only to be persuaded to return.
Since then, Shakhtar were unable to sign new Brazilians, until the young right-back Dodo joined them from Coritiba this season. With Lucescu leaving in 2016, the situation became even more difficult, even though the Portuguese coach Paulo Fonseca was specifically chosen because he speaks the right language. All the stars currently at the club -- Fred, Marlos, Taison, Bernard, Ismaily, Dentinho and Alan Patrick -- arrived before 2014. When they leave, Shakhtar are likely to remain without Brazilians.
"The new situation makes signing top South American talents virtually impossible," Tkach says.
Overall, 29 Brazilians represented Shakhtar since 2002, but could Dodo be the last? We are witnessing the end of the empire. It only makes Champions League success even more important this term. If the Ukrainians are to make it through, expect at least one of the Brazilians to shine in Rome on Tuesday night.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin