|Douglas Costa has become one of many Brazilians to shine for Shakhtar|
After becoming the first eastern European side to top a Champions League group, the Ukrainians are ready, with the help of some samba stars, to write their names even further into the history books.
Back in 1998, when the old Eastern Bloc was finally opening its' arms to the rest of the world, Yevhen Kucherevskyi, coach of Russian side Arsenal Tula, was asked to travel to Brazil to sign five players who would help the club reach the promised land of the Russian Premier League. By the time he got back, he found the directors had signed five players of their own, and encouraged him to field a team comprised entirely of Brazilians. Obviously, that was a complete farce. But the mass migration of Brazilian footballers to eastern Europe does not have to be like that.
In the past eight years Shakhtar Donetsk have signed 14 Brazilians - if you include Eduardo da Silva from Arsenal - not all of them have been a resounding success, but many, including the likes of Matuzalem, Elano, Ibson, Fernandinho and Jadson, have been. And there can be little doubt that they have been of huge benefit to Shakhtar, both on the pitch and in terms of financial return. Elano, for example, made the club £7 million when he was sold to Manchester City back in 2007.
Although domestic dominance has become a prerequisite for Shakhtar (they've finished in the top 2 every year since 1996), European acclaim has been harder to come by. The UEFA Cup trophy they won in 2009 was actually the first major European trophy won by the club. And manager Mircea Lucecsu had been warned by the club's owners to start producing in the Champions League, or his position as manager could become unattainable. So last night's 2-0 win over SC Braga, in which they reached the knock-out stages for the first time, was seen as a watershed moment for the club.
The latest Brazilian prodigy to make an impression is Douglas Costa: a left-footed right-sided midfielder, much in the vein of Lionel Messi, who, with his array of tricks and dribbling skills is already subsidising his £6 million price tag. Born in Sapucaia do Sul, he played street football there until his father decided to send him for trials at Novo Hamburgo's academy. He progressed rapidly in two years there and, in 2002, moved to Gremio. Four years later, aged 16, he joined the senior squad on a salary of £200 a month. His debut came against Botafogo a year later
"Our coach, Celso Roth, asked me to control the middle of the field and unexpectedly move to the right or left wing of the attack," Douglas recalls. "The game was quite tense. We conceded a goal early in the game, but I levelled the score in the 33rd minute from 20 yards. To be honest, I was lucky because the ball deflected off a Botafogo defender, but after the final whistle I was probably the happiest man on earth."
So far, so normal for any Brazilian wunderkid. But as his reputation grew, Douglas began to be linked with the likes of Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid. " I know definitely that Manchester (United) sent a fax to Gremio, asking them to send me to their training ground to see my skills," he explains. "But the bosses (at Gremio) refused, saying that I already had the ability to play at the top level. They told Manchester they could sign me without any trials.....I would have preferred to go there, but they weren't ready, and Shakhtar Donetsk offered what Gremio wanted."
And this, of course, is where Shakhtar's community of Brazilians is of such use. For the first to head to Ukraine, it was a step into the unknown. But for Douglas Costa, he knew there was going to be a plethora of compatriots to greet him. Somewhere his compatriots had succeeded. "I phoned Ukraine and talked with Willian and Luiz Adriano, who are both from my area of Porto Alegre," he said. "They advised me to join Shakhtar because they said this club is one of the strongest in Europe."
The 20-year-old made his debut in last year's 2-1 UEFA Cup loss to Fulham at Craven Cottage. But since then, his career has gone from strength-to-strength, combining wonderfully with Jadson and Luis Adriano in a front 3 that could, with time, become one of Europe's best.
Couple this South American investment with the building of the brand new Donbass Stadium and training complex, and Shakhtar's first steps into the Champions League knock-out stages could be one of many ink-stained marks on the pages of history.