The False Nine’s David Dodds takes a look at the burgeoning amount of foreign talent in the Ukrainian Premier League…
In recent years, Ukrainian teams have been able to entice some real quality from abroad. No one has benefited from foreign players more than Shakhtar Donetsk, who last season won the league for the third year in a row. Shakhtar were nowhere near as prominent in the old Soviet system as arch-rivals Dynamo Kiev, and spent much of the first decade in the new Ukrainian league playing second-fiddle to their auspicious rivals. But by the turn of the millennium, the Pitmen had significantly improved their finances and infrastructure, opening a huge training camp and reconstructing their Kirhsa training facility. The 2001-2 season was their best ever, winning the domestic cup and edging a one-point lead over Dynamo to win the league under the direction of Italian coach Nevio Scala. Since then, the millennium has been characterised by a constant tug of war between Dynamo and Shakhtar, with Romanian manager Mircea Lucescu holding the reins since 2004.
Shakhtar’s recent success, both domestically and in Europe is down largely to the sizeable contingent of Brazillian players that Lucescu has enlisted. In their named squad of twenty-seven players for this season, over a third of them are Brazilian. Chief among their box of South American talent is vice-captain Fernandinho. The 27-year-old is a defensive midfielder, but as much as Shakhtar’s attacking onus is on him as is defensive. As a box-to-box midfielder with visionary passing, he was snapped up from Atlético Paranaense for around £7,000,000 when he was just 20. He was given his first international cap in 2011 at the age of 26, and the fact that he was able to secure a place in the national team is further evidence of the increasing stature of the Ukrainian league. Although he often takes flak for his temperament and heavy-handed methods of defending, he has become instrumental for Shakhtar, netting six goals and conjuring nine assists from his deep-lying position in 2012.
Linking up frequently with Fernandinho is fellow countryman Willian. Like Fernandinho, the 24-year-old was parachuted in from his native Brazil when he was young and untamed. As an excellent reader of the game and precise picker of passes, he also boasts blazing pace. A graduate of the Corinthians youth academy, Willian is no stranger to attention from big European clubs and has also recently earned his international stripes. It is likely that Willian will be the first of Shakhtar’s Brazilians to go, and unlikely that he will be the last. This bodes the question as to whether Shakhtar will start seeing themselves as a feeder club who buy young, develop and sell. Although this is certainly an admirable model, it could also be potentially damaging to the Ukrainian league in the long run.
Shakhtar are top-heavy with foreign talent, and Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been their latest revelation. Mkhitaryan helped hometown club FC Pyunik win the league for the four seasons in a row that he was part of their senior team before making his way to Ukraine via Metalurh Donetsk and finally arriving at Shakhtar in 2010. The 23-year-old advanced playmaker is also adept at dropping deeper as well as going forward and finding the net. He was voted Shakhtar’s player of the season for 2011-12 and has 18 goals already this season. In my mind one of the most exciting young footballers currently playing, Mkhitaryan found the net 27 times last year and created 16 assists.
Shakhtar lead by example with the importing of young Brazilians, but they’re not the only Ukrainian club using this strategy. Metalist Kharkiv’s stay in the Ukrainian Premier League has been relatively quiet until lately. Despite suffering relegation, Metalist were bought out by UkrSibbank, Ukraine’s third largest bank (and have recently been re-sold), and have since managed to finish third in the league for six consecutive seasons. Financial investment and infrastructural improvements have seen their European campaigns garner more success in recent years, and they will face Newcastle United in the round of 32 of the Europa League in February.
Far and away the most talented of Metalist’s Brazilians, at least up until last week, was 24-year-old Taison. He joined from Brazilian side Internacional, where he spent his youth, in 2010. Taison is most comfortable as a play-maker, and has had the dribbling, passing and vision necessary to attract the attention of several big clubs, including Chelsea. Despite the interest from England, it is to Shakhtar, with their cabal of Brazilians, that Taison has moved this month. Here again, in the case of Metalist, we see another case of a Ukrainian club acting—perhaps unwittingly—as a feeder between a foreign country and bigger clubs. The deal has been lucrative, and provides Metalist with a healthy profit to re-invest in their squad, but they will sorely miss what he contributes to the team having netted five times and provided nine assists in 2012. Their successes with Taison will surely see Metalist look to Brazil for more talent they can develop and sell.
As with the review of young Ukrainian talent, I have limited the selection of foreign players mostly to young attackers, simply for the sake of brevity. A more complete list might highlight the successes of the following foreign players in the league: Cristian Villagra (Argentine left-back at Metalist); Aleksandre Kobakhidze (Georgian midfielder at Arsenal Kyiv, on loan from Dnipro); Miguel Veloso (Portuguese defensive midfielder/left-back at Dynamo); Cleiton Xavier (Brazilian midfielder at Metalist); Brown Ideye (Nigerian striker at Dynamo); Luiz Adriano (Brazilian striker at Shakhtar).
This look into the state of Ukrainian football league has highlighted just two of the positives: an exciting band of young attacking players and the ability of the league, through both increasing reputation and increased money, to attract international talents. But all is not perfect. There is potential for the league to become a feeder league somewhat akin to the Portuguese league. Whereas this is not necessarily a bad thing for an emerging league, in terms of both boosting stature and revenue, in is not a sustainable long term strategy if the league is ever to rival the top European divisions.
The dominant clubs have done well to hang on to their most promising young international players, which, publicity-wise, is likely to see more young players want to play there rather than move abroad. Among the league’s other problems is the gulf between the well-financed clubs who occupy the top spots in the league and the smaller clubs who struggle to get recognition, hold onto their best players or attract new talent from abroad. It is not accident that most of the players mentioned in this article play for Dynamo and Shakhtar, both of whom have absorbed, even monopolised, much of the available talent.
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