Tom ParfittComment

A WELSHMAN IN DONETSK

Tom ParfittComment

This month, the world’s eyes are on Donetsk. But behind the 50,000-seater Donbass Arena, the Ukrainian city has a rather unexpected history in which industry and football intertwine.

It was 1869, just before the creation of British clubs such as Blackburn Rovers. The Russian empire had requested the London-based Millwall Iron Works to build a naval base on the Baltic Sea. Company director John Hughes was to create Donetsk, as it is known today, the stage for England’s group stage games against France and the joint hosts.

Home to leading team Shakhtar, which translates as “miner,” the city’s stadium has a thoroughly aesthetic, modern design today, thanks to the company responsible for the Allianz Arena, Etihad Stadium and Beijing’s Bird Nest. But a pervasive Welsh influence lingers among a Soviet-style skyline of slagheaps, coal mines and steel plants.

Donetsk’s humble origins are today reflected in the league champions’ badge of a flame and crossed hammers. Fans can be seen wearing mining hats in acknowledgement of this working-class heritage, while their kit is, fittingly, orange and black.

Through his industrial exploits, Welsh engineer and businessman Hughes helped bring football to Ukraine, and today his statue stands tall near the National Technical University.

A self-made, semi-literate magnate from Merthyr Tydfil, the 55-year-old sailed towards the Azov Sea. He had acquired an area of land there for £24,000. Accompanying him were eight ships carrying equipment, and a significant labour force of Welsh miners and ironworkers, in addition to his wife Elizabeth Lewis and their eight children.

Although the Donbass Arena was almost 150 years away from being opened, on a symbolic level, its foundations were laid.

Hughes was inspired by the scale of what had been achieved in Cyfarthfa, the ironworks where he began. A steel plant was established to produce rails for the empire’s train network. Like many areas around the world, from South American ports to the colonisation of Africa, the introduction of football to Donetsk was a by-product of migration.

“He wanted to create a town in which he was the top man,” says Colin Thomas, author of ‘Dreaming a City: From Wales to Ukraine’. “I think that was part of his driving ambition.” Bate C. Toms, an expert in eastern European law, argues that Hughes “has certainly done more than anybody from abroad to make Ukraine prosperous.”

With astonishing growth in both population and landmass, this emerging new city was named Yuzovka, or Hughesovka, in his honour. It steadily became one of the empire’s largest metallurgical areas. Schools, hospitals, fire brigades and Anglican churches were all built to service the area.

“The main thing that Hughes did for this territory is Donetsk city,” historian Yevgeny Yasenov told the BBC recently. “Because if there were no Hughes, there [would be] no Donetsk.” Similarly, Sergei Sermoliech of the Donetsk Metallurgic Plant, which employs 13,000 people, calls him “a very important man to us. He built our city and created our industry.”

It is appropriately twinned with Sheffield, the Steel City, which was at the forefront of club football around this time. But in 1889, with the sport beginning to become formalised in the United Kingdom, Hughes died on business in St Petersburg. His employees were to create the main legacy, introducing it to Donetsk.

They created their own official teams from 1911, when the business was in the hands of Hughes’ sons. Factories in other cities, including Kramatorsk and Kharkiv, acted similarly. Following early intra- and inter-factory competitions, those representing the Yuzovka metal works largely Welshmen, with some locals won the inaugural Donbass Cup two years later. The initial groundwork was laid.

Despite much of the itinerant community returning to Wales following the First World War and Bolshevik Revolution, which the works created artillery shells for, their influence remains on the spheres of industry and football.

An official government club, Ugolshchiki, or “coal-workers,” was created in 1936. The make-up of its players was unsurprising, particularly given the change of name to Stakhanovets Stalino. This echoed both the city’s new title, Stalino “steel,” from which Josef Stalin took his name and Alekey Stakhanov, a Soviet worker whose mining abilities were widely propagated. It would, by 1961, become Shakhtar Donetsk.

Even if their state-of-the-art new stadium and Kirsha Training Centre have helped lure high-profile names, Shakhtar’s regional identity within Donetsk, created by Hughes, arguably remains. Current manager Mircea Lucescu says: “The people work very hard and they need football. It has a social role beyond sport.” As for their millionaire owner, himself the son of a miner, “[Rinat] Akhmetov is spending his money for all the people.” 

His view is not hyperbolic. The club, despite having only indirect connections with the Welshman, do embody Donetsk’s culture. Take the changing political landscape in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union’s decline led to an economic downturn in the newly independent Ukraine. The city’s unprofitable mining industry, as a result, faced major closures.

As Shakhtar wilted, rivals Dynamo Kiev began to reassert their dominance. They won the newly-established Ukrainian Premier League on every occasion, except one, in the new decade. So it seems fitting that, alongside Akhmetov’s predecessor and mentor Akhat Bragin, the oligarch’s large investments in the city and Shakhtar caused resurgences in both.

Less than 20 years later, in fact, it is welcoming one of football’s most prestigious competitions.

Although only eight Shakhtar players are featured the 23-man squads for Euro 2012, and Wales failed to qualify, Donetsk is currently adding to its history beyond industry. Such unassuming roots are perhaps best summarised in the club song, a taunt at Dynamo: “Not only students with books are waiting for Shakhtar’s victory.”

When travelling to the competition’s easternmost venue, fans will hope for a similar outcome in the city that Hughes built.

You can read more from Tom here and follow him on Twitter @tparf

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