The Unstoppable Rise Of Shakhtar Donetsk

WORDS: VADIM FURMANOV

Last weekend saw Ukraine’s biggest derby game end in yet another victory for the all-powerful Shakhtar Donetsk. Now, after years of unchallenged hegemony, one Dynamo Kyiv supporter asks how this great club has come to be living in Shakhtar’s shadow and when, if ever, they will reassert themselves…

The rest of Ukraine, including Dynamo Kyiv, has only been able to look on enviously at the rise and rise of Shakhtar Donetsk (jeep-people via Flickr)

Image: Jeep-people (via Flickr)

Another derby, another defeat for Dynamo Kyiv, but it wasn’t as easy for Shakhtar this time.

66,000-plus fans braved the near-freezing conditions at Dynamo’s Olympic Stadium on Sunday night, hoping to see their side finally get the edge over their fierce rivals from the East. Had Ideye Brown put away his sitter in the 54th minute, they may have got their wish. Alas, Brown managed to hit the crossbar with the entire goal at his disposal, Henrikh Mhitaryan gave Shakhtar the lead twenty minutes later and, just like that, the Donetsk side once again emerged victorious in the Klasichne, Ukraine’s own version of the Clásico.

This was Shakhtar’s third straight victory in the derby this season; they ran out 3-1 victors in the reverse fixture in Donetsk in early September and dispatched Dynamo from the Ukrainian Cup later that month in a 4-1 rout. Three-time defending champions Shakhtar are certain to make it four in a row; with seven matches left to play they have an astonishing 66 out of a possible 69 points and are 17 clear at the top. They are a cut above the rest in the Ukrainian Premier League and have left Dynamo in the dust in their relentless assault toward yet another league title. Make no mistake about it: as much as a Dynamo fan like myself hates to admit it, Shakhtar are without rivals in Ukrainian football.

It hasn’t always been like this. In fact, Shakhtar’s ascendancy to the apex of Ukrainian football is a relatively new development and represents an anomaly in a country where Dynamo has always been the undisputed standard-bearer.

The (Non) Rivalry of the Soviet Era

To understand this seismic shift in Ukrainian football we must look back and examine the historical roles of both clubs, dating back to the Soviet era. The first country-wide competition in the Ukrainian SSR was held in 1921. The teams were not proper clubs, however, but city selections consisting of the best footballers from the participating cities.

Dynamo Kyiv, founded in 1927, won the trophy in 1936, the first time the competition was open to clubs and not simply city selections. Shakhtar were founded that same year as Stakhanovets Stalino; they were named after the Stakhanovite movement, while Stalino was the name of the city of Donetsk at the time. In their first match they were defeated 3-2 at home by Dynamo Odessa in the quarterfinals of the 1936 Ukrainian Championship. Dynamo were also an inaugural member of the first Soviet-wide championship in 1936, in which they finished runners up to Dynamo Moscow, and, following the expansion of the top flight in 1938, Stakhanovets were also included.

In the first ever Ukrainian derby, contested on July 18, Dynamo won 2-0 in front of their home fans thanks to a brace from Pyotr Laiko. At the time, of course, the match was not know by that name and did not stand out in the fixture list; it was just one contest among many between the six Ukrainian teams competing in the top flight at the time.

Following the Second World War, Dynamo slowly but surely began to consolidate their position as the elite Ukrainian representative on the Soviet stage. In 1961 they won their first Soviet Championship and, in the decades to come, under the reigns of the legendary managers Viktor Maslov and Valeriy Lobanovskyi, they would conquer the Soviet top league 12 more times, the most championships of any team, as well as nine Soviet Cups.  They left their mark in Europe as well: two UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup trophies, in 1975 and 1986, as well as a 3-0 UEFA Super Cup victory in 1975 over Bayern Munich, elevated Lobanovskyi’s teams to a legendary place in Ukrainian football lore.

The crest of Dynamo Kyiv - Ukraine's most successful football club
Image: David Holt London (via Flickr)

The Ukrainian derby, as such, did not exist.  Dynamo looked to the Soviet capital, Moscow, for their prestige derbies. Dynamo Kyiv vs Spartak Moscow was usually the most anticipated match in the fixture list, while matches against Dynamo Tbilisi of Georgia were also characterized by a certain romantic flair. Dynamo were historically so superior that other Ukrainian sides were not seen as rivals to the capital club. That is not to say that other Ukrainian teams never made their mark on the Soviet football scene; Zorya Voroshilovgrad (now Zorya Luhansk) shockingly beat out Dynamo for the league title in 1971, and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk’s famous side from the Eighties twice won the championship.

Ukrainian teams fared better in the Soviet Cup. Karpaty Lviv became the first and only team from outside the top flight to lift the Cup in 1969, before Metalist Kharkiv and Dnipro won it in 1988 and 1989 respectively. It was in this competition that Shakhtar Donetsk excelled. They won the trophy in back-to-back years in 1961 and 1962, and again in 1980 and 1983. They twice contested the Soviet Super Cup against Dynamo, losing both times on penalties.

In short, Shakhtar achieved modest success in the Soviet era but they were no match for the might of Dynamo Kyiv. Dynamo were simply peerless in Ukraine, and there were reasons for this other than just footballing prowess. Being situated in the capital of the Ukrainian SSR, Dynamo enjoyed the patronage of Ukrainian Communist Party leaders that the other sides did not have. It did not hurt that Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, head of the Communist Party in Ukraine from 1972 until 1989, was a fanatical Dynamo supporter. Dynamo’s connections served them well, as promising young players and managers from elsewhere in the republic were pressured to make the move to the capital.

Lobanovskyi was asked to leave Dnipro and become manager of Dynamo by Shcherbytsky himself. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that no other clubs were able to break Dynamo’s hegemony over Ukrainian football, but the Soviet system was quickly disintegrating, leaving the door open for challenges to Dynamo’s primacy.

Independence and the Emergence of a Challenger

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Ukrainian Premier League, Dynamo initially remained far and away the most successful team in Ukrainian football, winning nine of the first 10 championships. The only exception was the inaugural edition of the UPL, which consisted of two group championships and a final between the winners of the groups. Tavriya Simferopol, an unheralded side from the Crimean peninsula, defeated Dynamo in the final for their first ever piece of silverware. But the decade belonged to the capital club, who won the next nine UPL titles in a row.

Following the return of Lobanovskyi as manager in 1997, Dynamo once again became a force in Europe. Led by the deadly strike partnership of Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov, Dynamo were quarter-finalists in the 1997/98 edition of the Champions League and nearly made it to the final the following year, going down 4-3 on aggregate to Bayern Munich in the semi-finals. Though the Soviet Union no longer existed, Dynamo still enjoyed their structural advantages inherited from the Communist era, including access to the prestigious formerly state-run academy.

In the first half of that decade, Shakhtar hardly threatened Dynamo’s domination. They were runners up in the 1993/94 campaign but steadily fell down the standings in subsequent seasons, dropping as low as 10th place in 1995/96. That season, however, would prove to be fateful in Shakhtar’s history.

On October 15, 1995, Akhat Bragin, President of Shakhtar, was assassinated by a bomb in the stadium, while Shakhtar were playing Tavriya. Bragin was succeeded by Rinat Akhmetov, a businessman and oligarch who soon began to invest heavily in new players and a luxurious training complex.

Results followed immediately. Following Akhmetov’s ascendancy to the Shakhtar presidency, the club has not once finished outside the top two in the Ukrainian Premier League. They were runners up every year from 1996/97 through 2000/01 and won the Ukrainian Cup in 1995, 97, and 2001.  Then, the following season, Shakhtar finished one point above their rivals and finally nicked the league title away from the perennial powerhouse from the capital. The result that made the difference was Shakhtar’s 2-0 derby victory over Dynamo in Round 25.  Shakhtar had officially announced themselves on the Ukrainian football scene.

A Changing of the Guard

In the 2000s, Ukrainian football seesawed between the two clubs. Following Shakhtar’s inaugural triumph, Dynamo reclaimed their title as Ukraine’s best the following season and retained the league the year after that. But they could not hold on to their status as the undisputed top dog.

Dynamo and Shakhtar evenly split the spoils over the decade – both sides becoming champions on five occasions. No other side even broke into the top two; the Ukrainian Premier League effectively became a two-horse race.

For Shakhtar, this could be seen as a massive success; a 10th place finish was not far removed in the collective memory of their faithful, so being in contention for the title was a dramatic improvement. But for Dynamo, the emergence of a worthy opponent represented an unprecedented disruption of the status quo. Long used to being the cream of the crop, they suddenly found themselves challenged by, and even losing out to, the upstarts from the East. Even worse was to come.

The seminal moment of Ukrainian football in recent years came in the 2008/09 edition of UEFA Cup, as Shakhtar and Dynamo were drawn together in the semi-finals.

With the aggregate score at 2-2 and away goals even late in the second leg, a place in the final was up for grabs when, a minute from time, Shakhtar’s Brazilian winger Ilsinho burst in from the flank, expertly cut inside to beat his man, and sent a low shot into the far corner to send Shakhtar through to the final. There, a 2-1 extra time victory over Werder Bremen gave Shakhtar their first piece of European silverware – it was the Donetsk outfit’s ceremonial crowning as Ukraine’s new elite club; Dynamo may have won the league that season, but Shakhtar’s European glory was far more memorable.

Shakhtar have been all but unbeatable since: three straight Ukrainian Premier League titles, two more Ukrainian Cups, and two Ukrainian Super Cups. Dynamo’s only trophy during this time has been a solitary Super Cup in 2011 and, although they defeated Shakhtar, it was scant consolation for losing out on both the league and the cup to their great rivals.

This season, the league has been more one-sided than ever. Shakhtar are on pace for a record-breaking points total, while Dynamo risk falling out of the top two for the first time in their history. Moreover, Shakhtar have convincingly won every single Klasichne this season, while Dynamo’s latest derby victory in the league came in April of 2011.

To add insult to injury, Shakhtar are now the flag bearers for Ukraine on the continental stage. They have been to the knockout stages of the Champions League in two of the past three seasons, while Dynamo only returned to the group stage this season after a three year absence and were unceremoniously dumped out in the first round. Dynamo, for so long Ukraine’s finest, have been unseated. Ukraine belongs to Shakhtar.

So, how did such a changing of the guard occur? For starters, in the post-Soviet environment, Dynamo’s institutional advantages, while still existent, could no longer safeguard them against the forces of a market economy. Akhmetov’s wealth and patronage of Shakhtar could not have been possible in the USSR, but in the free-for-all capitalism unleashed on the former Soviet republics by shock therapy, Akhmetov was able to make a fortune and use it to fund his local football club. A new academy encouraged the development of local youngsters, while a generous transfer kitty ensured Shakhtar’s competitiveness in the global market. Additionally, while it may not be directly responsible for the team’s successful results, Shakhtar’s new stadium, the Donbass arena, opened its doors in 2009, a reflection of Akhmetov’s dedication to elevate Shakhtar’s prestige to equal and even exceed that of Dynamo.

Shakhtar's Donbass Arena is a statement of the club's ambition (Timon 91 via Flickr)
Image: Timon91 (via Flickr)

But simple economics alone cannot account for Shakhtar’s rise and Dynamo’s fall. It is not as if Dynamo are struggling financially; their owner, Ihor Surkis is a successful businessman who is not hesitant to open up his wallet for the sake of his club. The dynamics of the shift in Ukrainian football are more complex. Ever since Lobanovskyi suffered a stroke on the bench during a match in May 2002 and passed away a week later, the role of manager has been a revolving door position at the club, with no one man lasting more than two full seasons. Lobanovskyi casts an immense shadow over the club even in death, and his successors have been unable to replicate his achievements. The inability to come to terms with Shakhtar’s rise has led to an impatience with both managers and players, in contrast to Shakhtar’s prudence and stability. Romanian manager Mircea Lucescu has been at the helm since 2004, while Dynamo have gone through 12 different managers in this period.

Meanwhile, the Dynamo academy, no longer receiving funding from the state, is not the vast pool of talent it once was, and the recent transfer histories of the two clubs also reflect the stark difference in policy. For example, after Shakhtar sold Willian to Anzhi for €35 million, they mitigated his departure by bringing in Taison from Metalist Kharkiv for a fraction of that cost, leaving them in the black for the season. Dynamo, meanwhile, in an attempt to challenge Shakhtar’s sudden supremacy, went on a sending spree this summer and bought internationally recognized players Niko Kranjcar, Miguel Veloso, and Raffael, for a combined €23.5 million. While Veloso has become a fixture in the midfield, Kranjcar and Raffael struggle to get a start. Sometimes it feels as if Dynamo’s transfer policy is conducted not with a vision for the future in mind, but with the haphazardness of a teenager playing a computer game.

The future looks bright for Shakhtar, but Dynamo are by no means a defeated club. Surkis is more than willing to spend money, but Dynamo need a vision and a project for the future – confidence in newest manager – former Ukraine boss Oleh Blokhin – is a must.

Even Shakhtar fans must recognize the importance of Dynamo’s revival for the sake of the vitality of Ukrainian football. A one-horse league is no fun for anyone. Whether Dynamo can reverse the trend of Shakhtar’s supremacy is up in the air. Shakhtar, for their part, will enjoy this moment of unparalleled domination for as long as it lasts.

Vadim Furmanov is a football blogger with a heavy focus on Ukraine and Eastern Europe, as well as a supporter of Dynamo Kyiv. You can follow him on Twitter @vfurmanov
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One thought on “The Unstoppable Rise Of Shakhtar Donetsk

  1. Mickey says:

    Do we know the reasons of the 1995 bomb? was it political? does it resemble the bomb from a couple a weeks ago at Donbass arena?

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