Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
“Frankly,” Arsène Wenger bluntly conceded afterwards, “they were not keen to go.”
When the moneymen at UEFA first concocted a plan to expand the Champions League, it is perhaps safe to assume that the likes of Shakhtar Donetsk didn’t really feature in their grand vision for a new-look tournament. At least, not the Shakhtar Donetsk of 2000.
In those days, the Pitmen’s billionaire owner Rinat Akhmetov had only really just begun to see his investment bear fruit. The palatial Donbass Arena and squad brimming with exciting Brazilian talent awaiting Borussia Dortmund in this week's Last 16 clash are a far cry from the club Arsenal came up against 13 years ago, when the Ukrainians were making their debut in the Champions League.
No British side had ever visited Donetsk before. It was November 7 and matchday six of an enlarged competition that for the second season featured 32 teams and two group stages, although this had been the first with two Ukrainian representatives. Shakhtar, however, had to battle through qualifiers against Levadia Maardu and Slavia Prague. The Gunners had already wrapped up top spot in Group B ahead of Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Lazio and made the arduous 3,500-mile roundtrip to what Britain’s press were calling a “former Soviet backwater” on a bitterly cold and windy evening.
It is little wonder that Arsenal’s squad of pampered millionaires were less than enthused about playing at the decrepit Shakhtyor Stadium. And things would hardly have been helped by defender Oleh Luzhny, signed from Dynamo Kyiv the previous summer, filling their heads with horror stories, either.
No place like home: The old Shakhtyor Stadium
Donetsk was a very different city to the one that hosted the European championships last summer. During Soviet times, military hardware had been manufactured there and, as such, it had been closed to foreigners, so there was very little in the way of tourist infrastructure. Even today, Donetsk isn’t really a place that receives too many overseas visitors. “At that time, the region still felt as far removed from western Europe as is possible,” said the BBC’s Steve Wilson, who was covering the game. “There were two hotels in Donetsk: one was terrible and the other was worse.”
But, just like the football team, local businessmen have been investing in Donetsk and these days the “city of a million roses” is hardly the horror trip that some sections of the media made it out to be. Arsenal were certainly taking no chances though, even if Unesco did once give Donetsk an award for its cleanliness. The club took with them not only their own food, soap, toilet paper, shampoo, towels and bedding, but also a couple of cleaners to give the hotel a once-over and even chefs, who prepared meals on kitchen foil. The travelling press weren't so lucky. Amid reports of a bedbug problem, in their suitcases were sleeping bags.
Ray Parlour commented that “the water coming out of the taps was all yellow”, while Lee Dixon hardly painted a picture of paradise. “There was a rat in the hotel, and there was blood on the walls of my room,” he told the Independent. “There was no heating, so we had to sleep in our tracksuits, and we had hairnets on in case of lice, even though we brought all our own bedding, including pillowcases. My bed was filthy so I slept on the floor, in my hairnet and bobble hat, and woke up with a terribly stiff neck. The stadium was unreal, a huge open place with a chemical plant behind it spewing yellow, sulphurous smoke. You couldn't make it up. It was the most horrendous trip I had ever been on.”
It is all very different now. Five-star accommodation, like the Donbass Palace with its bars, casino and restaurants, or the Victoria that has televisions attached to all of the treadmills in its gym, will set visitors back a pretty penny today.
The then stadium, nestled in Shcherbakova Park with a backdrop of slagheaps is symbolic of a different era. It would be another season before Shakhtar won the first of seven titles since Akhmetov assumed the presidency in 1996 after his predecessor, Oleksandr Bragin, was assassinated in a bombing during a match against Tavriya Simferopol the previous year. Akhmetov himself had only missed the blast thanks to traffic.
With a 13-point lead over Juande Ramos’ Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk this season, Shakhtar will almost certainly be crowned champions for an eighth time, and even those in Kyiv must now concede that they are the league’s best side. Initially somewhat reluctant as an owner, the country’s richest man fell in love with the club and his arrival begun a new chapter, not just for Shakhtar, but for Ukrainian football.
The Donbass Arena - it's bigger, that's for sure...
In 1999 a new youth academy was opened, in addition to one of Europe’s best training centres. In the same year, while attending a match at the Stade de France, Akhmetov decided that he’d quite like something similar in his hometown, and the seed for the 52,000-capacity Donbass Arena was sown. The Shakhtyor Stadium had been upgraded in anticipation of their maiden Champions League campaign, but it was still a crumbling concrete arena largely exposed to the elements. It is little wonder that Wenger’s players were not keen on travelling to Donetsk. Neither were their supporters. Fewer than 50 diehard Gooners were among the sell-out 32,000 crowd who had paid the princely sum of £2 for a ticket.
Arsenal, second in the Premier League, were unbeaten since an opening day defeat to Sunderland, save for a second string side defeated 2-1 by Ipswich Town in the Worthington Cup at the beginning of the month. Wenger resisted the urge to field such a weakened XI though. Instead, only David Seaman was replaced by the promising Stuart Taylor, in addition to youngsters Matthew Upson and Ashley Cole coming into defence. Nelson Vivas was given the role of midfielder destroyer in place of Patrick Vieira, who was probably quite grateful to be left at home. Surprisingly, just five wore gloves, although perhaps all of them would have fancied a shot or two of vodka beforehand that Wenger had joked would keep them warm.
These were the days before Shakhtar did their shopping in South America and the late Prokopenko, a skilled and ebullient coach, led a young side of Ukrainians and eastern Europeans, save for the Nigerian defender Isaac Okoronkwo, who would later play for Wolverhampton Wanderers. It may have been a dead-rubber for Arsenal, but Shakhtar had all to play for, knowing that if they bettered Sparta Prague’s result against Lazio, then it would be them and not the Czechs who would finish third to qualify for the UEFA Cup.
Prokopenko’s sides were renowned for their entertaining, attacking football, and Shakhtar took the game to Arsenal in the early stages. But it was 20 minutes before the home side tested Taylor, who Kevin Keegan had recently called up to train with the senior England team. Sylvain Wiltord thought he’d given Arsenal the lead on the half-hour mark in a rare counterattack, only for his effort to perhaps harshly be ruled out for offside. Shakhtar were dominating possession though, and soon enough they took the lead.
Five minutes later Martin Keown, hero of their first encounter whose late, two-goal salvo gave Arsenal a 3-2 victory at Highbury, slipped while attempting to deal with Anatoliy Tymoshchuk’s hopeful punt up field - Serhiy Atelkin promptly brought the ball down and fired in off the post. The stadium erupted. Shakhtar had lost 3-0 to Lazio on their debut and only narrowly defeated Sparta, so the Mexican waves were perhaps understandable. Arsenal hadn't lost any of their previous five group games though and almost levelled before half-time through Thierry Henry, who had yet to get off the mark in Europe that season.
Vivas had been unconvincing as Vieira’s stand-in and it was the Argentinean’s foul on substitute Olexiy Bielik just outside the Arsenal box that gave Shakhtar a second goal on 57 minutes. Andriy Vorobey curled the resultant free-kick over the wall and past Taylor to double their lead. Keown was again at fault when Bielik volleyed in a third nine minutes later. “Shakhtar were very sharp and showed Champions League quality,” admitted Wenger. “They are a good side but we lacked mental sharpness.”
It was perhaps a slightly flattering scoreline (and Arsenal’s joint-highest away European defeat) but with Lazio beating Sparta, Shakhtar earned a place in the UEFA Cup. Ultimately, it would be a disappointing, and brief, campaign that ended with a 1-0 aggregate defeat to Celta de Vigo in the third round. Defeat was the start of a four-match winless streak for Arsenal that didn’t even yield a league goal. They were also thrashed 4-1 by Spartak Moscow on matchday one of the second group stage. Eventually Arsenal finished second behind Bayern Munich, only to lose on away goals to Valencia in the quarterfinals.
For Shakhtar, then the bottom-ranked team in the competition, that year it felt as though they had arrived. The following season Nevio Scala, Shakhtar’s first foreign coach who replaced Prokopenko, fine-tuned his predecessor’s side to win a first league title without losing a single game. Dynamo’s nine-year hegemony was over.
The 2012/13 campaign was Shakhtar’s eighth appearance in the group stages, and second in which they had qualified for the knockout rounds. They actually faced Dortmund the following year. The Germans won their third-round qualifier 5-1 on aggregate, but much has changed – both on and off the field since then – and Jürgen Klopp’s side will face a club now 12th in Europe that has made giant strides since the turn of the century.
Shakhtar Donetsk 3-0 Arsenal, 7 November 2000.Shakhtar Donetsk Yuriy Virt; Mykhaylo Starostyak, Isaac Okoronkwo, Serhiy Popov, Dainius Gleveckas; Hennadiy Zubov, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, AlekseiBakharev, Vitaly Abramov (Marian Aliuţă 78’); Serhiy Atelkin (Olexiy Bielik 52’), Andriy Vorobey (Marian Savu 86’).Goals: Serhiy Atelkin 35’, Andriy Vorobey 57’, Olexiy Bielik 66’.Arsenal Stuart Taylor; Lee Dixon, Martin Keown, Matthew Upson, Ashley Cole; Ray Parlour (Paolo Vernazza 72’), Nwankwo Kanu, Nelson Vivas, Lauren; Sylvain Wiltord, Thierry Henry (Freddie Ljungberg 62’).
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