Samba in Ukraine: How a trip to Brazil paved the way for Shakhtar's success

Mircea Lucescu found his seat, pulled out a blanket, and settled in. Temperatures in Kharkhiv were tilting toward 30F on Wednesday night, and the new Turkey manager could have been anywhere else in the world. But he wanted to be right here, to see Shakhtar Donetsk face Manchester City.

This was no scouting trip. Neither team had a single Turkish player in their lineup. Lucescu was here to check in on Shakhtar, whom he led to eight Ukrainian titles and a UEFA Cup during a brilliant 12-year tenure. He was hoping to see the club get the point that was needed to qualify for the knockout phase of the Champions League.

More than that, though, Lucescu was here for the same reasons he agreed to become the club’s manager in the first place, all the way back in 2004. Namely, the promise of sparkling Samba soccer even in the unlikeliest of settings.

Almost half a century has passed since Lucescu, as captain of the Romanian national team, travelled to Brazil for a series of exhibition games. It is bizarre to consider how that trip would lay the foundations for Shakhtar to beat City all this time later.

Lucescu was dazzled by his opponents on that historic tour, and they were dazzled by him. Fluminense’s attempt to take him on loan failed. He returned to Europe, played out a fine career, and became a successful manager.

His fascination with the South American country endured, however, and when Shakhtar’s wealthy owner, Rinat Akhmetov, offered him the chance to build a team according to his own vision, a love affair was consummated at last. Under Lucescu’s stewardship, as many as 13 Brazilian players would feature in Shakhtar’s first-team squad at the same time.

That number has since dwindled. Recruitment became trickier after the club was forced to relocate hundreds of miles away from Donetsk in 2014, to escape armed conflict in the region. It left behind a modern training base and new stadium to play before sparse crowds in Lviv and now Kharkiv.

And yet, a Brazilian core has endured. Even the man who succeeded Lucescu last year, Paulo Fonseca, was chosen in part to extend the tradition: a Portuguese speaker who could communicate with such players most effectively. The likes of Alex Teixeira, Luiz Adriano, and Douglas Costa departed soon before he arrived. But Bernard, Marlos, Fred, Taison, and Ismaily have all stayed.

It was the first of those players who opened the scoring against City on Wednesday, arcing a brilliant finish over Ederson and into the top corner. Ismaily had helped to create the opportunity, his run outside causing Danilo to delay and leave room for the shot. The Shakhtar left-back then added a goal of his own shortly before half-time.

City had no answers. True, this was not its strongest XI – Pep Guardiola handing a Champions League debut to the 20-year-old Tosin Adarabioyo, and a first start in any competition to the 17-year-old Phil Foden. Curiously, the latter was deployed at left wing-back, despite having thrived in the youth team as an attacking midfielder and No 10.

Yet the English champion – previously unbeaten this season – was still featuring Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus, and Bernardo Silva up front, not to mention the former Shakhtar man Fernandinho in central defence. There was little to play for, with first place in Champions League Group F already secured, yet Ilkay Gundogan hardly looked like a man taking the night off as he raged at the referee’s decision to award a free-kick against him in the second minute.

Even at 2-0 down, City kept chipping away. The club eventually pulled a goal back through a questionable penalty. It was only a consolation prize, yet even that felt a little harsh on Shakhtar, who had mustered three times as many shots on goal as its opponent despite having the ball at their feet for less than half as much time.

The host was able to celebrate all the same at the end. Fonseca had promised to dress up as Zorro if Shakhtar made it through a group in which the club began as clear third-favourite behind City and Napoli. Thousands of fans had showed up for this game wearing eye masks as a reminder.

For the presence of game-changing players like Bernard, he has Lucescu to thank. Seven of the nine goals Shakhtar has scored in this Champions League campaign have come from Brazilian players. The other two were scored by an Argentinian, Facundo Ferreyra.

Yet Fonseca has refined things even further, building a team that can be expansive and brilliant when the situation permits but which also knows how to kill a game. Shakhtar suffocated City, just as the club had Napoli at the start of the group phase.

Now, Shakhtar can look forward to a two-month pause as the Ukrainian winter sets in. Lucescu can pack away that blanket and head back to Turkey’s warmer climes. Until the time comes to fly back out here for another Samba fix, at least.

Samba in Ukraine: How a trip to Brazil paved the way for Shakhtar's success
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