The Shakhtar Syndrome

One year ago, an unusually reckless observer suggested that Shakhtar Donetsk, pride of Ukraine’s coal-mining Donbass region, were digging themselves into a hole at a rate which would have had Alexey Stakhanov going weak at the knees. One UEFA Cup triumph, one new stadium which ranks as one of Europe’s finest, and a raft of positive headlines from the worldwide sporting press later, and the gig is up. Everything is just fine at Shakhtar.

Or not. Last year I floated the idea that Shakhtar, thanks mainly to the astute backing of Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine, had largely immunized themselves against the difficulties faced by the majority of other football clubs in the country – and were instead, for no obvious reason, apparently set on creating their own unique set of issues.

To their considerable credit, some of these have now been fixed. In particular, the inspirational Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu, in charge since 2004 and the architect of three Ukrainian league titles, was finally offered a new contract towards the end of Shakhtar’s successful European campaign after some completely unnecessary dithering by the club’s hierarchy, who were rumoured to have been winking in the direction of CSKA Moscow’s 47-day-wonder Juande Ramos. Perhaps they caught a bit of coal dust in their eyes.

Even more importantly, Akhmetov and particularly CEO Sergiy Palkin have loosened up considerably in the transfer market. The former had already admitted as far back as late 2007 that the club’s ’golden cage’ policy, which tied players to lucrative long-term contracts with only a minimal chance of being allowed to move on to bigger things, was in fact proving damaging both to team morale and Shakhtar’s prospects of attracting players of a higher level, but only recently has Akhmetov begun to put this insight into action.

In the past twelve months Dmytro Chygrynskiy (the new toast of Barcelona – at least in Cornellà-El Prat), Evhen Seleznyov (whose strangely familiar appearance could lead one to query Palkin’s movements in November 1984) and Brazilian striker Brandão (a monster probably hewn from inside a rock somewhere under the Donbass) have all been allowed to leave with minimal fuss.

The choice of players to replace them also tells its own story. Lucescu has explained that raising the number of Brazilian attacking midfielders at the club to six with the signings of Brazil U-20 internationals Alex Teixeira and the much-hyped Douglas Costa – leaving the squad more top-heavy than Victoria Zdrok in a concrete bikini – is a preliminary to departures in the summer, and Costa for one has already voiced his intention to move on to Western Europe within two years. It also seems unlikely that his former club Grêmio would have been at such pains to include a 20% sell-on fee in the deal if they thought that, like Brandão, Costa was being sentenced to seven years in Donetsk.

Shakhtar’s Paranoia

So problems solved? If only. Unfortunately, Shakhtar Syndrome has entered a new and particularly virulent phase. From reacting to the absence of issues by creating their own, the club has now moved onto imagining them. Put simply, both the club leadership and Lucescu have become ever more convinced of a grand conspiracy against them on the part of the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU), and although this mindset is not entirely new, recent months have seen Shakhtar’s paranoia become increasingly pronounced.

The specific grounds for complaint are these. The club has, in numerous public statements over the past year, alleged that the FFU is running a concerted campaign to stifle Shakhtar’s progress on behalf of their principal domestic rivals, Dynamo Kyiv. These statements are almost too numerous to mention, although some notable instances include Lucescu’s comments in the run-up to November’s match between the sides where he named three referees he felt could not be relied upon to adjucate fairly, and the club press office posting a video compilation on the Shakhtar website of allegedly dubious on-field decisions given to Dynamo.

The supposed motivation for this campaign is found in what should probably be called the Axis of Surkis. The FFU is headed by Grygoriy Surkis, the brother of Dynamo president Ihor Surkis, and the various ploys claimed to be in use include deliberately inconvenient fixture planning, misleading media pronouncements, and attempts to unsettle key employees. Above all, the association is alleged to exert undue influence on referees, who are appointed by an FFU committee.

None of these grievances are particularly convincing. What is claimed to be a general issue with the scheduling of fixtures is in fact a simmering resentment over the two consecutive away trips to Lviv with which Shakhtar opened their title defence last season. The longest domestic trip possible for a side from the south-east and a traditionally tough away venue, Shakhtar picked up just a point in from the games in Lviv and then won just once in their next eight league matches, effectively conceding their crown to Dynamo by Christmas.

However, there is little in the current season’s fixture list which immediately suggests anything untoward, and the fact that the club received permission to postpone a league match with Metalurh Zaporizhia to prepare for their European Super Cup match with Barcelona in late August would appear to support this contention.

Unfortunately, the Lviv issue is not the only problem Shakhtar have with the calendar. The club was also critical of the decision by the FFU to clear the league programme for three weeks at the start of November in order to allow the national team to prepare for the World Cup playoff with Greece, instead seeing it as a ruse to give Dynamo a breather before their next game – coincidentally against Shakhtar.

That the Greeks had themselves arranged a similar (although shorter) intermission in their own domestic competition was seemingly lost on all parties, with the controversy subsequently descending into political point-scoring with Akhmetov – not without some justification – criticising the FFU for setting excessive ticket prices for the playoff at the Donbass Arena before offering to buy them all up himself to sell on to supporters at a discount.

The flat rejection by Surkis and the FFU of Akhmetov’s proposal or to even reconsider their pricing policy, resulting in a stadium which was less than two-thirds full for Ukraine’s most important game in recent years, does not exactly reflect gloriously on the association. Neither does their bizarre decision shortly after the match to offer the national manager’s position to none other than Lucescu, who although to all appearances was initially intrigued by the prospect of forming half of Europe’s first simultaneous father-son national management arrangement (his son Răzvan is currently coach of Romania), soon turned the offer down.

That the FFU in these and other matters come across as self-serving is indisputable – a sell-out for the Greece game would have raked in around $4.5 million for the association, who had previously been content with $0.3 million from the qualifier against England in Dnipropetrovsk barely a month earlier. The proposal to Lucescu, who was hardly likely to accept, was also a cynical piece of work clearly designed to irritate Akhmetov, who came out of the affair with his public image much enhanced at the expense of the suits in Kyiv. But it is a big step to claim that this politicking is also reflected on the field of play, and that Shakhtar are getting a raw deal from referees as a result of influence from the FFU. The only way to settle the issue is to look at the numbers, rather than the words.

How can referees change games?

How can a referee directly influence a match? There appear to be two main possibilities – the distribution of red and yellow cards, and the awarding of penalties both for and against. If Shakhtar’s claims are to hold up, it should be shown that the team is either awarded disproportionally more red and yellow cards, fewer penalties for or more penalties against than the other teams in the division – or preferably all of the above.

One other factor remains to be considered. A necessary corollary of the theory has to be that if Dynamo are to benefit fully from Shakhtar’s treatment, they must receive the opposite – in other words disproportionally fewer red and yellow cards, more penalties for or fewer penalties against.

A total of 532 yellow cards have been distributed in the first half of the 2009-2010 Ukrainian Premier League season. Dynamo Kyiv have received 41 of these – the third-highest total in the division. Only Metalurh Zaporizhia (42) and Obolon Kyiv (47) have received more. But interestingly, Dynamo have yet to have a player sent off, despite the high number of yellows. Vorskla Poltava are the only other side to have escaped any dismissals, although they have only picked up 30 bookings and are a generally upstanding side shaped in the image of their manager Mykola Pavlov, a principled fellow who once refused to countenance the club chairman making any new signings until his existing players had been paid outstanding wages.

The most logical way to explain the discrepancy is that the high yellow tally is in fact caused by the absence of sendings-off, and that referees are dishing out yellows to Dynamo where other teams could expect reds. But how significant is this? It has long been accepted – rightly or wrongly – that big teams get big decisions, regardless of country. And whether the yellows are serving as substitutes for reds or not, the fact that the average Ukrainian side has only amassed 1.6 red cards this season would still leave Dynamo with a notably high tally of bookings. One would imagine that a team supposed to have the league’s referees in its pockets would be more effective in keeping the former’s cards in their own pockets.

The penalty issue is more clear-cut. Dynamo have been awarded five penalties so far this season. Although this is the second-highest total in the league, three other teams have been awarded four and every team has received at least one. Dynamo’s numbers are, in other words, not unreasonable for a team playing an attacking style of football in a league where referees are not undisposed to give spot-kicks. Penalties against, on the other hand, are conclusive. Two have been awarded to opposition sides against Dynamo, whereas Chernomorets Odessa have been penalised only once and four teams – or 25% of the division – have yet to concede any at all.

These figures suggest that, on the whole, Dynamo Kyiv are not being unduly favoured by Ukraine’s referees. The main question, however, is whether Shakhtar are being discriminated against. The application of the same metrics as above to their games thus far in the 2009-2010 season throws up some fascinating results.

Shakhtar Donetsk have received 26 yellow cards this season – the second-lowest number in the Ukrainian Premier League and only three more than the side with the lowest total, their city rivals Metalurh Donetsk. That Shakhtar are falling victim to the reverse of Dynamo’s supposed arrangement by receiving reds where other teams receive yellows can immediately be discounted, as just one player – Olexandr Chyzhov against Zakarpattia Uzhhorod – has been dismissed so far.

The average number of bookings per team in Ukraine this season stands at 33.25. This means that Shakhtar get almost 22% fewer yellow cards than the average Ukrainian team – and almost 37% fewer than Dynamo. This is without any statistically meaningful increase in the number of sendings-off.

An examination of the penalty figures is similarly enlightening. Shakhtar are one of the four teams noted above who have yet to have a penalty awarded against them in league competition this term. However, it becomes a different story in the opposition penalty area, where Shakhtar have so far received seven spot-kicks – more than any other side. Given that the average team in Ukraine has been given 2.7 penalties, Shakhtar are awarded over 2.5 more penalties than the average side. Moreover, in a surely decisive blow to the claims of conspiracy, Shakhtar’s settling-in process at the $400 million Donbass Arena was smoothed by five penalties in the first four games at their new home, which included three in the first two matches and one after only 18 minutes of the inaugural tie against Obolon.

It is largely irrelevant whether these specific spot-kicks were deserved or not (in fact, most seem justified on review). The point is that were referees really out to get Shakhtar, they would not be given in any case. That these penalties were awarded at all – and at a rate which considerably outweighs any other team in the league – supports the similarly favourable yellow-red card numbers and leads to only one sensible conclusion.

Shakhtar, contrary to the club’s insistence, are at present not being discriminated against by Ukraine’s referees. Dynamo, meanwhile, are not receiving anything from the officials that Shakhtar themselves are not also getting in abundance.

Of course, a more extensive analysis covering all the years since the foundation of the Ukrainian league in 1992 would give a clearer picture. As a sample, however, the data seems telling, as it covers the period in which Shakhtar’s complaints have been particularly voluble. So why, if there appears to be no conspiracy, are they so convinced that one exists?

Reasons behind the Shakhtar Syndrome

Shakhtar Syndrome arises from a unique conjunction of factors. Firstly, the club has always seen itself in the vanguard of a regional identity clash between the scheming politicians and aesthetes of Kyiv and the honest toilers of the Donbass mines. A need apparently still exists to measure and validate the success that Akhmetov has brought to the side against its equivalent from the capital, rather than simply enjoying it for its own sake, and imagined conspiracies and plots by competitors are a way of reinforcing the achievement and also giving it a positive moral spin.

The combination of this mindset with Lucescu’s own psychological peculiarities is a potent one. A marvellous coach with a truly admirable footballing philosophy, the Romanian also drags around an enormous persecution complex which both feeds into and is fed by the atmosphere of suspicion which surrounds him. The result, as should have become all too clear, is a kind of institutional paranoia which is distinctly unbecoming for a club with designs on cementing a place amongst Europe’s elite.

All of this is not to say that the Axis of Surkis is not, in fact, ensconced in a bunker under Kyiv plotting Shakhtar’s destruction. However, any evidence of this would have to be found somewhere other than refereeing decisions, and Shakhtar would be well advised to avoid attributing to intrigue what can reasonably be attributed to incompetence – which the FFU has in spades. The association has often behaved inappropriately, both towards Shakhtar and other teams, but there is simply no evidence that this is due to anything other than poor management.

Much of what the association does is handled in an inept and amateurish manner (just ask anybody who wanted to see the Greece game), with point-scoring and general machismo highest on the agenda, and as far as Shakhtar are concerned, there is little reason to believe that the FFU would be any more successful in orchestrating a grand conspiracy than they are in arranging anything else.

The ultimate irony in all this is that overall refereeing standards in Ukraine are in fact pretty poor. But it is disingenuous for Shakhtar to continue playing the role of put-upon victim when the numbers just do not add up. Or rather, they add up too well.

Shakhtar’s protestations of martyrdom are only confusing the issue and delaying the proper reform for which numerous clubs in the country have been crying out for years. And in truth, they should be above all this.

Despite their nouveau-riche image, Shakhtar boast a proud history and a promising future, have great supporters and a great stadium – and stand not only as a regional, but following their UEFA Cup win, also as a national symbol. Why moan about the ref?

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