In the upper tier of the Allianz Arena, a pocket of Shakhtar Donetsk fans are wearing an expression of disappointed acceptance – they have just watched their team be outclassed by Bayern Munich and subsequently dumped out the Champions League. The Ukranian outfit are littered with players of International quality, yet for all their talent and flair, they remain a class below the German giants. The feeling of inferiority is familiar to Shakhtar, for them a defeat in the early knock-out round to a European heavyweight is commonplace.
Shakhtar continue to dominate domestically, but their supremacy over everyone else is routine to such an extent, it’s becoming dull for the supporters. They only have the Champions League to get excited about, yet the excitement quickly evaporates into resignation after another defeat to a big club from Western Europe. It’s not that they lack the financial muscle to compete against the bigger sides; it’s just hard convincing a world-class player to up route to a war-torn country. The harsh living conditions in the majority of Eastern Europe, will likely be a constant obstacle for many aspiring clubs.
Despite Shakhtar’s European toils, they are still the best representative from Eastern Europe – they have been the region’s stand-out performer since rivals Dynamo Kiev faded away in the past decade. Clubs such as Bate Borisov, NK Maribor and Ludogurets are automatically dismissed to bottom place of whatever group they’re drawn in, before a ball has even been kicked. Considering the lack of top class teams from surrounding nations, Shakhtar can be proud of their status as prolific advancers from the group stages – I just wonder, is this as good as it’s going to get for Eastern Europe?
Believe it or not, the region hasn’t always been a dead spot for European prominence: in 1999 Dynamo Kiev were edged out 4-3 on aggregate to Bayern Munich in the semi-finals of the Champions League. Even more surprising, just eight years previous to Dynamo’s hard-fought defeat, Red Star Belgrade shocked the continent to win the European Cup in 1991. This would seem almost impossible now. The gulf between the upper crust of Europe and the lowly minnows is vast; sadly, it’s only going to get bigger. TV money, sponsorship and fan bases for the likes of Barcelona are only going to increase in income, whereas there’s not exactly a queue of broadcasters waiting to air Sparta Prague v Dinamo Zagreb. The cycle is an incredibly vicious one, more worryingly for clubs from Eastern Europe; I’m struggling to see a way out of it.
The factors for the lack of appeal of Eastern Europe are obvious; issues affecting players both on and off the pitch. Off the pitch is far from ideal – freezing temperatures and unfashionable cities to name two. Most importantly though, especially for South Americans or African players, the majority of countries in Eastern Europe still possess underlying racism. This wouldn’t be such an issue if there was drastic action being taken to abolish it, unfortunately it’s quite the opposite – Zenit St. Petersburg supporters openly demanded an all-white team, which is shocking to most fans, especially considering their best two players (Hulk and Witsel) are black. Surprisingly, Afro-Brazilians have almost got a second home at Shakhtar despite the racist tinge in Ukraine; the team has been littered with samba stars for the past few seasons. A high wage and a Champions League platform to audition for a bigger club are the incentives, a move which ultimately paid dividends for Willian and Fernandinho to name a couple. It’s a risky move though – if a player fails to fulfil their potential, they’ve effectively wasted a chunk of their career playing sub-par football in a country filled with people who don’t like them.
Away from Shakhtar, however, it doesn’t get much better on the pitch; the likes of Anzhi Makhachkala attracted some big names in recent years with extortionate wages, yet after a couple of seasons of sub-standard football in front of only a few thousand fans, the top players soon departed. The combination of a poor quality league as well as a stark culture shock will almost always outweigh whatever pay cheque is offered. Elano famously admitted to crying every night whilst playing for Shakhtar, hardly a ringing endorsement. The occasional household name will still be tempted by one last huge paycheque, Mathieu Valbuena for example, but as strategies go – players on astronomical wages playing in front of a few hundred, isn’t a sustainable one.
So how do clubs from Russia, Ukraine and Serbia reassert themselves at the upper echelons of European football? To be honest, I’m not really sure.
A mega-rich benefactor could elevate a club, similar to Manchester City or PSG, the difference though – Paris and to a lesser extent, Manchester, are both desirable places to live. The glamour and lifestyle of the glamorous French capital is possibly an equally attractive motivation for a player as the wages. Alright, maybe not quite the same appeal, but it’s not too far off. Sadly for Ukraine, Kharkiv doesn’t quite have the same charm.
In terms of the football, well it can’t hurt if the general standard of the leagues improved – Shakhtar have strolled to the title for the last five years; that trend doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon either. If the standard of the league gets significantly better, maybe the national team players will be tempted to stay, after all, Ukraine and especially Russia don’t have a bad team at International level. That, of course, will take several years to happen; until then, watching Shakhtar lose to a European giant for the next few years seems to be the best Eastern Europe will get.