The manager who joined the club that hates him most
Imagine Sir Alex Ferguson taking over at Liverpool. Sounds impossible? That is roughly the scenario that unfolded in Ukraine this summer, when Dynamo Kyiv decided to gamble on Mircea Lucescu, the ultimate symbol of their fiercest rivals, Shakhtar Donetsk.
Both sets of fans could hardly believe their eyes when the official appointment was made on 23 July. It is difficult to say which was was the more furious.
For the Shakhtar faithful, Lucescu’s move felt like a betrayal, but the Kyiv ultras refused to accept the new coach too.
Their statement couldn’t have been more blunt: “We wanted to believe this was a silly hoax, but it turns out the club management has lost all remaining common sense, honour and self-respect. They spit into the faces of Dynamo fans and must fully understand the consequences.”
Why is Lucescu seen as such an enemy? Because that is exactly how he positioned himself, in more ways than one, during a 12-year spell at Shakhtar that ended in 2016. His mission had been to knock Dynamo off their perch, and it was accomplished in emphatic fashion.
The history between the clubs goes back to Soviet times, when Dynamo were the ultimate force in Ukrainian football. Most of the Soviet Union’s republics had one club that was basically a sort of ‘national team’ – Dinamo Tbilisi in Georgia, Ararat Yerevan in Armenia, Neftchi Baku in Azerbaijan, Dinamo Minsk in Belarus. Ukraine had several clubs in the top division, but Kyiv could still take any local player they liked. They had the support of the authorities, and that is what mattered.
This was especially true in the legendary Valery Lobanovsky’s times. Take 1986, for example. Dynamo won the Cup Winners’ Cup that year, and immediately afterwards Lobanovsky included no fewer than 12 Kyiv players in his World Cup squad (he was also co-managing the Soviet Union).
Only two Ukrainians who represented the Soviets at that tournament played for another club: Oleg Protasov and Gennady Litovchenko of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. However, both were lured to Kyiv in a hugely controversial 1988 transfer that once again proved Lobanovsky could have any player he wanted.
Ukraine’s other clubs had to live in Kyiv’s shadow – this single all-conquering giant. After the Soviet empire fell, Dynamo continued to dominate the local scene. They won 11 championships between 1993 and 2004, and at times enjoyed successful runs in the Champions League as well.
One man was eager to stop that. Rinat Akhmetov, the richest businessman in the country, became Shakhtar Donetsk president in 1996 and made huge investments in order to turn them into a superpower. The Miners were never close to the top in the Soviet era, and Dynamo didn’t see them as a threat – until they became exactly that.
It took time, but a key move was appointing Lucescu as coach in 2004.
Akhmetov had tried to bring the Romanian to Donetsk earlier. Lucescu, who began his coaching career in 1979 in his home country, had by this point worked at several clubs in Italy and Turkey, including Inter Milan and Galatasaray.
Shakhtar were fully rewarded for their persistence. Lucescu won them the league title at the first attempt. In his first 10 years with the club, Shakhtar were champions eight times, Uefa Cup winners in 2009 and domestic cup winners five times. He made some revolutionary changes as well.
Whereas Dynamo Kyiv’s style was historically based on speed and physical fitness, Lucescu’s Shakhtar chose to rival them by playing a neat short-passing game. Countless Brazilian stars were unearthed by a magnificent scouting network supervised by Lucescu, and Dynamo were left behind.
Shakhtar were the present and the future. For Kyiv supporters, who suddenly became underdogs, that was a very bitter pill to swallow.
Lucescu wasn’t a delicate or gentle winner either. He fought Dynamo relentlessly and wholeheartedly, criticised them in the press at every opportunity and appeared to love the media attention it brought. The Romanian constantly claimed that Kyiv would receive preferential treatment, and tried to picture Shakhtar as the good guys up against evil forces. He presented his triumphs as victories against all odds.
The political angle is also mightily important.
Shakhtar were the most important club from eastern Ukraine, a part of the country with much closer ties to Russia historically. On the club’s official website, for example, Russian is the default language, rather than Ukrainian.
Tension between the regions was always significant, but it became unbearable after the events of 2014.
That year, an uprising against Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, ushered in a Western-leaning government, but Russia used the opportunity to seize the Crimean peninsula and arm insurgent groups to occupy parts of the industrialised east of Ukraine.
Shakhtar were forced to abandon Donetsk and their modern stadium, but continue to represent their home city in exile. They now play in Kyiv.
Lucescu didn’t hesitate to take sides, and he continued to do so even after leaving Shakhtar in the summer of 2016.
By that point a resurgent Dynamo had won two consecutive titles. Lucescu decided it was time to move on and joined Zenit St Petersburg, the club sponsored by Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom. For context, Ukraine’s best defender Yaroslav Rakitsky was thrown out of the national team after moving from Shakhtar to Zenit in 2019.
“Acclimatisation wasn’t difficult. Russia and Ukraine are the same country for me. They were split by accident, but for people of my generation they are both parts of the former Soviet Union,” Lucescu said.
A lot of Shakhtar fans could identify with those words, but for supporters of Dynamo Kyiv they were unacceptable.