Shakhtar’s UEFA Cup triumph cannot disguise the difficulties facing the country’s Euro 2012 organisers.
By Oleg Zadernovsky in Kiev
Shakhtar Donetsk’s fairy tale is complete after the 2-1 victory over Werder Bremen brought Ukraine its first success in the UEFA Cup. The win in Istanbul was payback for the investment of billionaire owner Rinat Akhmetov and also brought Shakhtar parity with great rivals Dynamo Kyiv, who had previously held up their 1975 and 1986 European Cup-winners Cup victories as proof of superiority.
There is an independent spirit about the club from the mining capital of Ukraine – nicknamed the Pitmen – which likes to model itself on Barcelona.
Foreigners have flocked to Donetsk since the middle of the 19th century when a Welsh businessman, John Hughes, established a steel plant and several coal mines in the region. Many left after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and were replaced by a diverse conglomerate of Russians, Tatars, Georgians, Azerbaijanis and other nationalities who came in search
of riches in the mines.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Donetsk became a virtually autonomous region, ignoring orders from Ukraine. Just as it did in Barcelona, language became a focal point of resistance and announcements at Shakhtar’s stadium are made just in Russian. Club president Akhmetov, an ethnic Tatar born in Donetsk, only gives interviews in Russian.
Akhmetov, 42, is obsessed with security, which is not surprising given that his predecessor Akhat Bragin, who rescued the club from bankruptcy in 1994, was killed by a bomb during a league match the following year. His body was only identified because his Rolex watch survived the blast.
The son of a miner, Akhmetov left university to embark on a business career that has catapulted him into the realms of eastern Europe’s richest men. He has ploughed much of his estimated £3billion fortune into the club, spending up to £30million every season on new players, not to mention a £70m training complex and £200m pumped into the new Donbass Arena, which will open in August.
The mayor of Donetsk, Olexander Lukyanchenko, said: “We consider him an anti-Abramovich. He could easily spend his millions abroad by buying an English Premier League club. But Akhmetov is a real patriot of our region and gives our hard-working people the chance to watch top-class European football on a regular basis.”
About 7,500 Shakhtar fans – including Ukraine president Viktor Yuschenko and more than half of its MPs – witnessed the historic win in Turkey, while almost 18million watched the match on TV. Among them was the prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who claimed: “Thanks to football, for two hours I completely forgot the country’s financial crisis. Now, I know the names of Shakhtar players even better than the names of the members of my government.”
Unfortunately for Tymoshenko, Shakhtar’s UEFA Cup victory provided only temporary respite from Ukraine’s economic and organisational ills. UEFA’s review of the country’s Euro 2012 preparations was a body blow to the organisers. UEFA found important shortcomings in infrastructure and concluded that significant work still needs to be done for Ukraine to meet the minimum requirements for hosting the tournament.
UEFA could confirm only Kiev as a host city for group matches, a quarter-final and a semi-final but could not confirm the capital as venue for the Final. Its refusal to sanction Donetsk, Lviv and Kharkiv as hosts for group matches did not surprise anybody.
“The decision is fully understandable,” said football federation president Hryhoriy Surkis. “We need to take urgent action to meet UEFA’s six-month deadline.”
There remains a strong possibility that Euro 2012 will be taken away from Ukraine entirely. The local organising committees are relying too heavily on government resources which are drying up in a country suffering from a deep economic crisis.
“Hosting Euro 2012 must be the main target of the whole of Ukrainian football,” said Shakhtar coach Mircea Lucescu. “The country needs a positive image. Akhmetov has invested heavily in the football infrastructure. But he can’t be the only one.”