Shakhtar have Returned to the Pinnacle of Ukrainian Football

Shakhtar have Returned to the Pinnacle of Ukrainian Football

Vadim Furmanov –

Shakhtar Donetsk have returned to the pinnacle of Ukrainian football. A 3-2 victory over Zorya Luhansk at the weekend was enough for the Hornyaki to secure their 10th title with four matches remaining in the season.

Their title is the culmination of an impressive campaign that has at times felt like a ceremonial procession toward the championship; such was Shakhtar’s dominance that they had all but sewn up the title even before the winter break.

It was an emotional moment for Shakhtar, who displaced eternal rival and two-time defending champion Dynamo Kyiv. The side from Donetsk are now in their third full season of exile, with no indication that they will be able to return to their home ground, the Donbass Arena, anytime soon.

Shakhtar last won the title three years ago

Shakhtar’s last title-clinching match was three years ago against the same opposition. A 3-1 victory over Zorya on May 11, 2014, secured their fifth Premier League title in a row and ninth overall.  With pro-Russian demonstrations spreading across in the Donbass region, the match took place not at Zorya’s home in Luhansk but the central city of Cherkasy.

Shakhtar Donetsk have regained the Ukrainian title. (MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images)

Shakhtar Donetsk have regained the Ukrainian title. (MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images)

The very same day referendums on the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions took place. The scope of the conflict was not yet apparent, and when Shakhtar also played their final match of the season in Cherkasy, few could have predicted that their exile would become indefinite.

For three seasons now Shakhtar have taken up the mantle of an internally displaced club. The players and management are permanently based in the capital Kyiv, but their nominally home matches have taken places across the country: Lviv, Odesa, Kharkiv, Ternopil, have all served as venues, for now, 10-time champions.

The exile took its toll on the club and left the door open for Dynamo to reassert themselves as Ukraine’s champions. Shakhtar’s then-manager Mircea Lucescu was not shy with his criticisms of the league structure during his last two years of the club, often calling it “an artificial championship.”

While there was little league officials could do to bring an end to hostilities in the Donbass War and allow Shakhtar to return to their actual home ground, the Romanian manager had a point. While all of his club’s matches were effectively away fixtures, Dynamo were able to play 70% of their games in Kyiv due to the relocation of several other exiled club to the capital.

The power balance appeared to shift away from Donetsk

The power balance seemed to be moving away from Donetsk and back toward the direction of Kyiv, as it had been throughout the 90s before Shakhtar’s emergence. A resurgent Dynamo swept to the title in 2015 following an unbeaten season and retained the championship the next year.

But the pair of 3-0 defeats that Shakhtar inflicted on their rivals last season, while not enough to stop Dynamo from finishing above them, came as a forceful reminder that they did not intend to fade away.

Paulo Fonseca is the face of Shakhtar Donetsk's success. (GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Paulo Fonseca is the face of Shakhtar Donetsk’s success. (GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images)

This season, under the newly appointed Portuguese manager Paulo Fonseca, Shakhtar have left no doubts regarding the identity of the best club in Ukrainian football. The fourteen point gap at the top of the table and the five straight league victories over Dynamo – with a chance to make it six later in May – have conclusively demonstrated that any talk of a permanent power shift was premature.

The title is a remarkable achievement for Shakhtar

The title is an outstanding achievement for Shakhtar. While it would be easy to write off their dominance as a symptom of the weakness of the competition, this does not do justice to the brilliant work Fonseca has done at the club. After all, Shakhtar have shown themselves to be at least one class above Dynamo, the only club that can match them regarding resources.

The one disappointment for the Hornyaki this season was Europe. Defeats in both the Champions League and the Europa League to inferior opponents gave the entire second half of the season an anticlimactic feel to it, with the title itself a foregone conclusion.

Fonseca now has a year of experience under his belt, as well as at least one trophy, with the cup final against Dynamo still to come. Shakhtar fans will be optimistic that next year’s European adventures will prove more auspicious, especially considering that as champions they have booked passage to the Champions League group stages. Return to the Donbass Arena seems implausible in the immediate future, but Shakhtar have shown that they remain Ukraine’s elite side, even in exile.

Vadim Furmanov is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. Originally from Ukraine, Vadim has resided in Chicago since 1994 and is a passionate supporter of both Dynamo Kyiv and the Ukrainian national team. He is also a Chicago Fire season ticket holder and a member of the Fire’s Section 8 supporters group. He writes primarily about Ukrainian football, as well as the intersection between football, politics, and history. You can follow Vadim on Twitter @vfurmanov.