Shaktar Donetsk: The Barcelona of the East

We Play On: Shakhtar Donetsk’s Fight for Ukraine, Football and Freedom

By Andy Brassell

October 1 2023 / The Sunday Times

In October 2012 Chelsea, the then European champions, played Shakhtar in a Champions League group game at the Donbass Arena, a 52,000-capacity, state-of-the-art stadium which Andy Brassell in his fascinating new book likens to a huge shining “spaceship” that had landed in the old mining city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Brassell was at the game, but I remember watching it on television and being astonished by the brilliant fluency of Shakhtar’s fast-paced, intricate passing game. They had four young Brazilian players in the team, notably Willian and Fernandinho, as well as the Armenian forward Henrik Mkhitaryan – all three of whom would later play in the English Premier League. Shakhtar won 2-1, and afterwards I remember thinking: What is this team? How on earth did they become so good?

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, wrote Joan Didion. The story Brassell wants to tell is about how one football club, the “Barcelona of the East”, came to symbolise the modern history of Ukraine in the post-Soviet period. It is a story of nation-building and the struggle for recognition, of ostentatious consumption, and, in its final chapters, of a war for national survival.

The club from the Russian-speaking industrial east of the country was for a long time known in Ukraine as “the Brazilian team” because of its many Lusophone players, tempted to Donetsk by the promise of fame and riches. The club is owned by Rinat Akhmetov, an ethnic Volga Tartar and billionaire oligarch. Under his fanatically ambitious leadership, Shakhtar aspired not only to be the best team in Ukraine and indeed eastern Europe, but one capable of winning the UEFA Cup (which it did in 2009) and even the Champions League. But Akhmetov, the son of a miner, wanted much more than on-field success: he wanted Shakhtar to be representative of something bigger, “to show the world what Donetsk was, what Ukraine was” and what the independent nation could achieve and offer the world.

Brassell is an expert on Ukrainian football, and he has written a fan’s account of Shakhtar’s rise and present misfortune. He has interviewed the club’s leading officials and many of its most notable former players and managers, including Mircea Lucescu, the Portuguese-speaking Romanian who in a 12-year stint as coach did so much to establish Shakhtar’s signature attacking style, and Roberto De Zerbi, now in England at Brighton. He appears not to have spoken to Akhmetov, however, and writes deferentially about the mysterious oligarch, describing him variously as a “genius” and “visionary”.

In recent times, Shakhtar have suffered a kind of double exile. In 2014, as conflict intensified in the contested regions of eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian troops the club abandoned its cherished stadium and relocated to Kyiv. The Donetsk Oblast was not officially annexed by Russia until 2022 but as the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic it was under the control of Russia-backed paramilitaries from 2014.

From 2014-2020 Shakhtar’s “home” matches were played in Lviv and Kharkiv; more recently, until the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022, they were played in Kyiv. Brassell describes in the opening chapter, “Escape”, the desperate flight of the players and their families, in cars, coaches and on trains, from their base at Hotel Opera, in downtown Kyiv, to western Ukraine, Poland and Romania as Russian tanks advanced across the country.

Last season Shakhtar’s Champions League home matches were played in Poland, which meant the players enduring 10-hour coach journeys from their new base in Liviv; this season they will be played in Germany. The club no longer dreams of winning European football’s glittering prizes. War has circumscribed its ambitions while firing its desire to represent more than one city and one region, as it once did. The Brazilians have departed and in their place is a squad of mostly young Ukrainians who choose to speak Ukrainian rather than Russian and, especially when competing in Europe, carry the good will of much of the nation. None of the players have fought in the war but they all have friends and family directly affected by the conflict.

Shakhtar (no one now uses the full name) have become “more than a club” – the slogan popularised by Barcelona, a long-time vessel of Catalan pride and nationalism. As a mass-casualty war of attrition grinds on and civilians are targeted everywhere by Russian air strikes, Shakhtar, once of the east but now a club for the whole of Ukraine, play on. They play on, as Brassell reminds us, largely because of the “sacrifices of the Ukrainian army”. “The most important [thing] is to play,” says Darijo Srna, a Croatian who played for Shakhtar and is now the sporting director, “to show the world that we are still alive, that we are fighting, that we are living, that we will have a good future.”

Liverpool’s German manager Jurgen Klopp describes football as the “most important of the least-important things”. Sometimes it is more than that. Sometimes it is a mirror in which we see the face of a nation reflected. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm once put it, “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.” Shakhtar Donetsk: no longer the Brazilian team nor one even based in Donetsk, but truly more than a club, in this time of war.