Shakhtar Donetsk’s unlikely hero

Shakhtar Donetsk won their sixth league title in eight years last week, a 3-0 win over bottom-of-the-table Oleksandriya ensuring that they would again finish above Dynamo Kiev.

Their period of domination is based on the wealth of their oligarch owner Rinat Akhmetov, of course, which leads many to dismiss their success — as though Dynamo Kiev’s power were derived from any more reputable source.

But whatever you may think of how Akhmetov made his money amid the collapse of the USSR, or even about super-rich owners in general, it can hardly be denied that he has been a model owner of his type.

Rumour has it Akhmetov didn’t even really like football in the early 90s, but went along because his boss, Oleksandr Bragin (or Alik the Greek, to give him his underworld nickname) insisted.

All that changed, though, in 1995 at a game against Tavriya Simferapol.

Having missed a number of games following an attempt on his life, Bragin decided he would put aside security concerns and attend. He and Akhmetov went first to the nearby village of Dokuchayevsk to see the reserve side play, then hurried back to Donetsk for the main game.

By the time Bragin got there, the match had kicked off, so, deciding not to wait for Akhmetov, who had been held up in traffic, he and his bodyguards rushed straight up the stairs to the VIP enclosure.

“It was a very humid day,” the journalist Mark Levytsky said. “I was leading the TV broadcast and I was sitting in the commentators’ cabin just below the VIP lodge. We saw before the game that Bragin’s security people had gone through the place, but I can’t remember whether they used sniffer dogs as Akhmetov does now.” It was pronounced safe, but a few seconds after Bragin had opened the door and entered the passage leading into the box itself, there was an almighty explosion.

“They had recently constructed the roof on the main stand,” Levytsky said, “and when the bomb went off there was such a sound that I thought one of the girders must have snapped. The game went on for maybe 20 or 30 seconds before the referee realised what had happened and took the players off.

“I stopped commentating and went upstairs to see what had happened,” he said. “I saw a TV reporter running away and asked him what was going on. He told me not to go into the VIP lodge because it was too terrible to look at. Then I saw Ravil Safiullin who was the brother of Bragin’s wife and at the time was Shakhtar’s vice-president. We went into the lodge together. There were bits of bodies everywhere. Then Safiullin saw a severed arm, and recognised that the watch around the wrist was the president’s, and that was when we knew he was dead.”

Four bodyguards were also killed.

In 2004, at a trial in Luhansk, the one surviving member — or so he claimed — of the group that carried out that attack explained how they had tailed Bragin for several days before planting the bomb and detonating it remotely.

“As to who ordered it,” Levytsky said, “there is no clear answer, but in the early 90s criminal groups were dividing up the territory of the former USSR, and it was rumoured in Donetsk that the assassination was something to do with that.”

It was a year later that Akhmetov, having escaped the attack, decided he would take over the club. In 1999, he went to a match between France and Ukraine at the Stade de France and decided he wanted his own version of the stadium. The Donbass Arena has proved very useful to Ukraine in its bid to host Euro 2012, but it was built wholly independently of it.

After skipping through nine coaches (three caretakers) in his first eight years, Akhmetov settled on Mircea Lucescu in 2004 and has stuck with him since.

The Romanian was himself a wanderer, but the two have found a happy working relationship and it is that partnership that has piloted the investment to success.

There are those who might argue that, in an area where unemployment is above 20%, Akhmetov might have been better off subsidising mines and metalworks he owns. His argument is Shakhtar and the stadium bring greater glory to the area and should help attract new investment. Whichever is true, Akhmetov’s ownership has ended Dynamo domination and turned Shakhtar into pre-eminent force in Ukraine.

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