DAVID SHONFIELD: Steering Shakhtar from out of the shadows

Bragging rights are important enough for fans, so imagine what they must be like for owners.

This is unlikely to be a happy week for either Sheikh Mansour or Roman Abramovich, with their teams teetering on the edge of European elimination. The sniggers and smirks of their rivals round the roulette tables and by the yacht moorings scarcely bear thinking about.

Rinat Akhmetov, however, may permit himself a grin of quiet satisfaction. Before this season Shakhtar Donetsk were still an unknown quantity to many people, despite their Uefa Cup win three years ago.

They have made 13 appearances in the Champions League but one quarter-final was a poor return on the hundreds of millions invested by Akhmetov and his company System Capital Management since he took over the club in 1996.

Now the fate of the Italian and the European champions lies in their hands: time for the biggest clubs to acknowledge a genuine contender.

Of course it helps when you are virtually guaranteed to qualify and benefit from Uefa’s annual cash injection. Shakhtar have won the league seven times in the last decade.Currently they are 13 points aheadafter 18 games. The last time theyfinished outside the top two was the season before Akhmetov becamepresident.

It was a period of turmoil in Ukraine, and sometimes terror. Akmat Bragin, his predecessor as president, was on his way to watch a game against Simferopol accompanied by four bodyguards when their car was blown apart by a bomb.

Suspicious voices claimed it was more than just by chance that Akhmetov escaped. Since then he’s had to deal with other allegations, both in the media and in officialcircles. His political allegiance is to Ukraine’s ruling Party of the Regions, and particularly to Viktor Yanukovych, the current primeminister, and for some that makes Akhmetov a pariah.

Yanukovych became governor of the Don region, Ukraine’s industrial heartland, shortly after Akhmetov took over the club. The two men have always worked closely together. Akhmetov bankrolled the party — described by a former US ambassador as “a haven for Donetsk-based mobsters and oligarchs”. His company, SCM, benefited enormously from regional investment and political favours.

SCM inherited the integratedstructure of the Industrial Union of Donbass, one of the huge firms that emerged during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Since then it has just gone ongrowing; a wave of privatisation has allowed SCM to dominate not only coal and iron and steel production, but this year electricity as well. SCM is a power in everything from TVand publishing to banking andpharmaceuticals. The football club is the flagship.

Ukrainians are divided about the club, as about Akhmetov, on political and nationalistic lines. The Don region is more Russian that the rest of the country. The Party of the Regions is seen as an ally ofRussia and its leaders, notably Vladimir Putin.

In football terms, however, Shakhtar can be seen as a model club. They have a magnificent new stadium, and a stable management.

During his 32-year career, Mircea Lucescu has been in charge of teams from Milan to Istanbul, usually for a year or two.

At Shakhtar he has been allowed to build a team over a period of eight years and the Romanian has repaid that trust by producing a side that is capable of exhilarating football.

The youth and reserve teams are packed with local prospects, but Shakhtar’s hallmark has become the brilliance of its Brazilian contingent, players such as Willian and Fernandinho, with many signed young and growing with the club.

One or two of these imports cost a lot of money — Willian came from Corinthians five years ago at a cost of €14.5 million. But most have been a lot cheaper. Shakhtar have played the market shrewdly, using different agents and identifying players before they became too well-known.

The strategy has paid off. Tomorrow night Rinat Akhmetov can evenafford to relax as his team take onJuventus. Bragging rights assured.


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