Brazil footballers flourish in Ukraine mining hub

Yury Yuris
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Europe has woken up to the riches on display in the Donbass, with Willian coveted by several Premier League sides

Shakhtar Donetsk's Brazilian player Willian celebrates after scoring against Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League at Stamford Bridge on November 7, 2012. Shakhtar won the last edition of the UEFA Cup in 2009 but the club is now enjoying what could be its best ever season -- outclassing rivals Dynamo Kiev to head the Ukrainian domestic league and into the last 16 of the Champions League

It's hard to imagine a bigger contrast with the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. The Ukrainian city of Donetsk is surrounded by slagheaps, was once named Stalino and is a gritty industrial hub dominated by mining.

Yet it is in this unlikely location on the fringes of Europe where for the last few years a legion of Brazilian footballers has prospered to turn the local football team, Shakhtar Donetsk, into arguably the finest in the former Soviet Union.

An entire football team could be formed from the Brazilian players who have pulled on the orange jersey of The Pitmen in the recent decade.

Backed by the financial clout of club owner Rinat Akhmetov and inspired by the leadership of Romanian manager Mircea Lucescu, the Brazilians have now made the club a force to be reckoned with in Europe.

"They all are really talented, hard-working and well-adapted for our playing style," Akhmetov told AFP. "They all are also full of desire to keep on progressing. And that means that we are moving in the right direction."

The city, founded by Welsh industrialist John Hughes in the 19th century, is marked by Soviet high-rises and no architectural jewel. But thanks to Akhmetov it now boasts the Donbass Arena, one of the finest football grounds in Europe.

Shakhtar won the last edition of the UEFA Cup in 2009 but the club is now enjoying what could be its best ever season -- outclassing rivals Dynamo Kiev to head the Ukrainian domestic league and into the last 16 of the Champions League.

Current star Fernandinho, who hails from the balmy climes of Londrina in southern Brazil, remembered the shock of arriving in Donetsk seven years ago.

"Frankly speaking, when I was a 20-year-old guy and crossed the ocean to find myself in a completely uncommon country I could hardly imagine that I would stay here for more than three seasons," he told AFP.

"But it became a rapidly growing club and everything changed quickly for the better. We achieved some serious results and my opinion about Shakhtar and its prospects has also changed."

"Today I'm 27 and my current contract with Shakhtar runs until 2016. And it would not be a sensation if I decided to finish my career here," he added.

Fernandinho acknowledged that money was the main driving force for young Brazilian players in their transfer moves to Europe.

"Of course money is the main thing," he said. "Financial opportunities of the European clubs outweigh the means of Brazilian sides."

"Besides, the advanced western European countries like Italy, Germany, France attract footballers with their high standards of life, which are much better than the conditions in Brazil."

He added that though Ukraine has so far failed to reach the level of the advanced European countries, the club from Donetsk is an oasis of comfort which allows the footballer to concentrate on the game completely and to show rapid progress.

Forward Brandao was the first Brazilian player to come to Shakhtar. He appeared in the Donbass mining belt team two years before Lucescu became manager in 2004.

Under Lucescu's coaching, Brandao developed his playing skills, which attracted the attention of French giants Marseille, who lured the Brazilian in 2008.

Lucescu has made no secret of his admiration for Brazilian football since he captained Romania in the 1970s and had players like Ronaldo at his disposal when he was coach at Italian Serie A giants Inter Milan.

The manager said he considered defender Francelino Matuzalem, whom Shakhtar purchased in 2005, as the key signing which triggered the club's "Brazilian" development.

"The Matuzalem transfer became a turning point for Shakhtar as we started to create the new team around this player, who immediately became its true leader," said Lucescu, who even learned Portuguese to help coach the Brazilians.

"I'm really happy to have an opportunity to take very young players into the team and raise their skills to the level of the Champions League in just two or three years," Lucescu said.

Lucescu's practice of nurturing young talents allowed Shakhtar to overcome the departure of its leaders Matuzalem and Elano, who left the club in 2008.

Top European sides have now woken up to the riches on display in the Donbass.

Another Brazilian star at Shakhtar, 24-year-old midfielder Willian, who netted a double in November's clash with European champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, was hugely disappointed when his transfer move to the west London club failed because the clubs were unable to agree financial terms.

"Willian was really upset when the deal collapsed but he behaved as a true professional," Lucescu commented.

"He managed to overcome his disappointment and now we see at the pitch that Willian is as he once was."