Two-one down at home to Hoffenheim in the first group game of this year’s Champions League, Shakhtar Donetsk were desperately looking for an equaliser.
A few chances had already gone begging when their 21-year-old new arrival emerged from the bench.
Just a few minutes later, on his debut in European competition, the €6m man received the ball 30 yards from goal, took one touch out of his feet and rifled it into the bottom corner. His name? Maycon. Where had he come from? Well, Brazil, of course.
Maycon has not left the Shakhtar starting XI since, making himself the newest in a long line of Brazilians that have excelled in the orange and black shirt of the Ukrainian champions and proving that the long and fruitful relationship between the club and the South American nation remains strong.
When they travel to Manchester to play City on Wednesday night, generations of Shakhtar’s yellow and green army both new and old will be on show. For City’s midfield fulcrum Fernandinho, it was his first port of call in Europe, staying there for eight years before making the move to the Premier League.
It has also been the starting point on the Old Continent for the likes of Douglas Costa, Elano, Willian, Fred, Alex Teixeira and Bernard, who have all gone on to earn lucrative transfers or moves to big clubs in one of the top European leagues.
“The relationship started in 2002, when Shakhtar signed Brandão, a centre-forward who played for almost ten years there”, explains Gustavo Hofman, a journalist and television pundit for ESPN Brasil.
Brandão, brought in from São Caetano, went on to become one of the club’s all-time leading goalscorers, but at that point, the signing was not part of any grand plan. That more strategic approach to signing Brazilians as a route to success came only after the arrival of Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu.
Volodymyr Zverov, a Ukrainian football commentator and Editor-in-Chief of television programme ‘Profootball’, recalls that “Lucescu wanted to create a team that would beat Dynamo Kyiv in Ukraine and could win a major European trophy. In Besiktas, Lucescu was like a demi-god and taking him to Shakhtar was a big success for club president Rinat Akhmetov.”
It was Akhmetov who provided the financial means; Lucescu was tasked with doing the rest. “Ukrainian players historically were not great technicians,” Zverov continues, “and Lucescu decided to make a strong attacking team with great technical skills and the ability to play quick passing football.
“Lucescu admitted that his teams have to play with Brazilians in attack and Ukrainians in defence. Maybe he was ready to put 10 Brazilians in the starting line-up, but there was a limit in the Ukrainian league, four Ukrainians need to be on the pitch at the same time.”
In came the likes of Jadson and Matuzalem, both attacking midfielders, who helped the club to national titles in 2005, 2006 and 2008, before the European success that they really desired arrived in 2009 with a win over Werder Bremen in the final of the UEFA Cup.
Five Brazilians started that game for the side from Donetsk, including current Premier League stars Willian and Fernandinho, and the goals came from two of the others; Luiz Adriano and Jadson.
“Jadson became one of the Shakhtar legends,” says Zverov, “he played a lot of games and scored the winner in the UEFA Cup final. Before that, in the semi-final, Shakhtar beat Dynamo Kyiv and Jadson shouted on camera ‘Where is Dynamo? Where is it?’ The quote became legendary for Shakhtar fans.”
From the perspective of the Brazilians who move there, ESPN pundit Hofman says, “The main benefit is the structure that is already well adapted for Brazilians… It’s a club with an enormous history of taking Brazilians. Shakhtar is a great entrance door for players who go to Europe, it’s a great bridge for you to stand out and eventually earn a transfer.”
For Zverov, the player that best represents the relationship is Fernandinho, who on Wednesday night will come face to face with his old club. “Fernandinho for many years was a heartbeat in the centre of the pitch. It was no surprise that he was ready for a top club.
“Croatian [Darijo] Srna was the captain, but for example in the 2011/12 season, when Srna couldn’t play, Fernandinho was made captain. He was, in my opinion, like a bridge between the Ukrainian and Brazilian players. He learned the language very well, had good relations with the president. Shakhtar’s Brazilians were like a family, both playing and relaxing together.”
It also helped enormously that Lucescu was fluent in Portuguese and, when he left the club in 2016 after a glittering 12-year stint in the job, it was no coincidence that Shakhtar brought in another lusophone in Paulo Fonseca.
Interestingly, the perception of Shakhtar in Brazil has deteriorated in recent years, despite the number of players they develop for the national team. “In the beginning, fans were sympathetic towards Shakhtar,” recounts Hofman, a self-professed lover of Eastern European football, “because they valued Brazilians.
“When some of those players started to be called up for the Selecao, supporters started to say, ‘Oh look, it’s a player from the Shakhtar quota.’ A lot of players were not that well-known in Brazil, Shakhtar signed them young and developed them to the level of the national team. But as the Brazilians fan didn’t know them so well, they thought they were being called up for other reasons.”
Ex-Brazil international Neto, now a controversy-seeking TV pundit, even went as far as writing, “How many of these Shakhtar players are given the call, hey? For the love of God! … Which of them played so well that they deserved the call-up? One or two, maximum. It’s a joke!”
Likewise, in Ukraine, there are some who question the decision to sign so many players from Brazil. Recently, Dynamo Kyiv manager Alyaksandr Khatskevich caused a media storm when asked whether he was trying to overtake Shakhtar as Ukraine’s most successful club on the European stage. “Shakhtar is more Brazilian than Ukrainian,” he retorted.
But, Zverov says, most Ukrainians receive the club well regardless of club allegiances and Shakhtar’s own fans, of course, love the success and samba style the South Americans bring.
A few years ago, however, it seemed as if the conflict between Russia and Ukraine that forced Shakhtar to move from their home city in the east of the country would also threaten the relationship with their Brazilian stars. Players like Douglas Costa and Alex Teixeira even temporarily refused to return to the club.
But now, after re-settling in Kyiv, Shakhtar have been able to attract a new crop of talented youngsters from the country, including Maycon, Marquinhos Cipriano and Fernando, one from each of São Paulo’s big three clubs; Corinthians, São Paulo and Palmeiras.
“Shakhtar is living in Kyiv, there’s everything for them here. Only flying to Kharkiv for home games gives the feeling that they are like refugees. Shakhtar reconstructed their training base close to Kyiv and they understand that they will be here for a long time. [Manager] Fonseca said in an interview that Dynamo Kyiv fans meet him in the street and take photos. There is no hostility or anything like that.”
Of the three players just mentioned, it is likely that only Maycon will start at the Etihad on Wednesday night, as Fernando is injured and Cipriano is still getting used to life in a new land. But their country will still be well represented by those who already have the experience to count on.
Alan Patrick, Taison, Ismaily, and Júnior Moraes are expected to play from the beginning and, despite the chances of beating Pep Guardiola’s brilliant Manchester City side being slim, the men from the país do futebol will be out to impress.