Articles

Wall Street Journal

Europe’s Little Piece of Brazil

South American influence is so important that Ukraine club's coach has learned to speak Portuguese.

IT IS A FACT SELDOM acknowledged that the shortest route from Eastern Europe to Western Europe runs through Brazil. This is the word in Donetsk, a Ukrainian coal-mining town whose surprising soccer club, Shakhtar, will face FC Barcelona today in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals.

“Shakhtar” is the Ukrainian word for miner, and over the past several years club officials have scoured the Brazilian leagues for the players who have elevated the team to the cusp of European soccer royalty. Thirteen Brazilians in all have worn Shakhtar’s orange and black in the last six years. Eight are on the current roster, and they have accounted for 12 of Shakhtar’s 18 Champions League goals so far. The club is known to many as “Europe’s most Brazilian side.”

But which side of Europe? The people in Donetsk don’t feel so European, trading still on post-Soviet identity. There exists a chasm between the coal-dusty values of the city where Nikita Khrushchev came up through the Communist ranks and the evergreen playing fields of La Liga. Still, Shakhtar president Rinat Akhmetov has mandated the migration out of the mines and toward European soccer glory, relying on the Brazilians to show the world that Donetsk amounts to more than a lump of coal.

The Tatar son of a Donetsk miner, Akhmetov is the single shareholder of System Capital Management (SCM), an industrial and financial company that accounts for 10 percent of Ukraine’s GDP. The city’s patron saint, he employs more than 130,000 people. Among SCM’s various holdings, valued at more than $18 billion, Shakhtar is Akhmetov’s favorite toy. He never misses a game, positioned in his VIP box at the stadium, often beside Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, a longtime political ally. When Shakhtar scores, Akhmetov’s minions turn from the field of play and applaud their benefactor as if he had kicked in the goal.

“When it comes to the club, people get cautious,” says Jakob Preuss, a German filmmaker whose recent documentary, The Other Chelsea (http://www.theotherchelsea.com/), probes Shakhtar’s significance to Donetsk. “Nobody messes with Akhmetov.”

And certainly not at the Donbass Arena, the club’s new, $400 million, 51,000-seat stadium, which compares favorably to any sporting facility in Western Europe. The stadium will host European championship matches next year. The Donbass Arena opened two summers ago, with Beyoncé performing for a fee of $7 million. “The coal miners didn’t know who she was,” says Joe Palmer, Shakhtar’s director of strategy.

Beyoncé was another sign of the club’s Western aspiration. Ushers have replaced cops in the stands at the stadium, eradicating the paramilitary atmosphere. UV lamps heat the field during Donetsk’s extended winter, maintaining the playing surface at international standard. And Shakhtar hired Palmer, an English sporting executive and marketing specialist who is wrenching the club from the dollar-vodka doldrums of the Ukrainian league. But it is the Brazilians who have made the critical difference.

When Mircea Luchesko, Shakhtar’s Romanian head coach, first saw plans for the Donbass Arena, he knew what he had to do. “For this stadium to attract people,” he says, “we had to create a spectacle.” Hence the influx of Brazilians, whose on-field creativity is still a novelty in the former USSR. In European soccer, they say that a club may employ only two Brazilians; any more than two and their freewheeling flair threatens to corrode team discipline. This hasn’t happened in Donetsk, where Luchesko, a gifted team psychologist, has integrated his Brazilians beyond the clichés of continental soccer.

The Brazilian players do not loiter on Donetsk’s main square, juggling a soccer ball before the Lenin statue in the falling snow. But they do struggle with the cold. They do miss traditional Brazilian dishes like feijoada and moqueca. They do sometimes take a drum on the road, sounding out Brazilian beats as the team charter pulls into ports of European call. And they have allowed the team to conceive of itself as a rising European power.

Yes, Shakhtar is trying to become more European, but at turns those connected with the club find this a challenging affair. At a recent practice at Kirsha, the team’s 106-acre compound in suburban Donetsk, Ruslan Marmazov, the club’s media director, bristled at a request for greater access to the players. His face reddened as he squared up with a reporter, ready for ’90s-style Donetsk rumble.

Much has changed in Donetsk since those days of open conflict following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, before Akhmetov took control. Life has stabilized, taken on a finer gloss as the money has rolled in and been accounted for. In Donetsk’s Donbass Palace, Ukraine’s most expensive hotel, Akhmetov’s hotel, the legislators and the bent noses puff cigars, smoke clouding the lobby chandeliers. Alex Teixeira, a Shakhtar midfielder from Rio de Janeiro, settles into a deep couch, relating his Ukrainian experience. “It’s cold here,” he says.

By now, most of Shakhtar’s Brazilians have acclimatized. Several have gained a handle on the local tongue, which is Russian, due to Donetsk’s proximity to Ukraine’s eastern border and its disaffection with Western Ukraine’s egalitarian notions. Fernandinho, a team captain and big-legged midfielder, has been in Donetsk for five seasons. Jádson, a midfielder who scored the extra-time game-winner in Shakhtar’s 2009 UEFA Cup clincher in Istanbul, has been with the club just as long. (“It’s safer here than in Brazil,” Jádson says. “There’s no kidnapping.”) They stuck around. Others have not.

The first Brazilians came to Shakhtar for the salaries that they wouldn’t otherwise see with roster spots on mid-level Western European clubs. Akhmetov paid out as though Donetsk was a hardship posting, into the multiple millions of Euros, and these players treated the assignment appropriately. They partied to last call at the nightclubs Virus and Fort Knox, pocketed Akhmetov’s fat bonus payouts for big wins (a source close to the team claims that he paid each player $1 million for winning the UEFA Cup), dreamt of playing for Real Madrid, Barcelona, any team more well-known and in any place with better weather.

An early Shakhtar Brazilian, Matuzalém, bolted to the Spanish club Real Zaragoza in 2007. An arbitration court ordered Matuzalém to pay Shakhtar nearly 12 million Euros for breach of contract. Another Brazilian player, Ilsinho, similarly fled Shakhtar last year and is currently facing suit. “I think they wanted to live in Europe,” Marmazov says. “That Europe.”

But as Shakhtar has continued winning, the Brazilians have continued staying. The Brazilian Football Confederation has noticed Shakhtar’s success and those responsible for it, calling up three current players to the national team. Subsequently, Shakhtar has gained its own small following in Brazil. “A lot of friends are asking me now to help get them on Shakhtar,” Teixeira says. He says also that in Curitiba, a city in southern Brazil, fans beat a path to the Ukrainian consulate, where they read about their Brazilian miners in Ukrainian sport magazines, or at least look at the pictures.

Shakhtar has done what it can to accommodate its Brazilians, executing paperwork to enable the players to bring relatives to Donetsk. Some have imported their extended families, who have brought with them the staples of Brazilian cuisine that the first Brazilians to Donetsk suffered without. Besides coal, the most prized raw material in Donetsk may be the pinto bean.

As interpreter, the club has employed Alexander Nikolaevich Lebedev, likely the only native of Eastern Ukraine to possess facility with the Portuguese language, which he picked up during a stint in post-colonial Angola. A hedgehog of a man with dark prescription glasses, Lebedev protects the secrets of the Brazilian players as though he was running sentinel on a cave.

Luchesko, the coach, does his part also, going so far as addressing the team in Portuguese before games, having learned the language especially for his Brazilian players. He already knew French, Spanish, Italian, and Romanian, so what was another romance language? But the gesture has romanced the Brazilians. “They are special,” says the coach. Several of Shakhtar’s Ukrainian players have grumbled about special treatment.

Special treatment is what Akhmetov has lavished on his plaything. Since he assumed the club presidency in 1996—his predecessor was blown up in the old stadium—Akhmetov has spent $1.5 billion on Shakhtar (according to a recent report in Korrespondent, a respected Ukrainian newsweekly). “You only have to see the Premier League and the investment going on, especially at Chelsea with Roman Abramovich, to see what it takes to compete,” Palmer says.

All the while, the situation in the coal mines deteriorates, as those from whom the team takes its name agonize over unpaid salaries and a future as gloomy as their underground dens. But as much as the miners may grouse over the discrepancy between their lives and those of Akhmetov and his deputies, they grasp the difference between the city’s patron and Abramovich, another former Soviet profiteer who elected to spend his money in London.

The miners don’t favor the Brazilians either, not in such quantity. As witnessed in Preuss’s documentary, they complain that Shakhtar is no longer Shakhtar, no longer the team of the coal miners, the team that took four Soviet club championships with all-Soviet rosters. This is an old grievance in Western Europe, now largely overcome, and like sushi and the iPad, it has lately migrated eastward. “How many English players are there on Arsenal?” Luchesko asks. “How many Spanish players are there on Real Madrid? You can’t win with only your players.”

Time and victory blunt the grudges. Shakhtar has not lost in 35 matches in its new stadium. As the team collects cups both domestic and international, rolls on to greater Europe, the players of darker skin have found a begrudging acceptance among the old guard in the cheap seats of the expensive stadium.

Shakhtar is celebrating its 75th season this year. Next month, the club will throw an anniversary gala at the Donbass Arena. If the rumors are true, Lady Gaga will perform. Should Shakhtar beat Barcelona, the greatest soccer team in the world, the coal miners may just make an effort and figure out who she is.