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Ukrainian football's 'orange revolution'

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- An 'orange revolution' is gathering pace in eastern European football.

Former Italian international Cristiano Lucarelli has swapped Serie A for Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk.

Last week Shakhtar Donetsk, one of Ukraine's biggest and best supported clubs, pulled off a transfer market coup by signing highly-rated Mexican striker Nery Castillo, formerly with Greek side Olympiakos, from under the noses of big-spending English side Manchester City in a deal reputed to be worth some $20 million.

The fact that one player should choose a Ukrainian side over the riches and challenges of the Premier League is remarkable enough.

Yet Castillo is no one-off. Also last week, Shakhtar completed the signing of 21-year-old Brazilian defender Ilsinho -- a player who had previously caught the eye of Chelsea and AC Milan.

And, last month, in a landmark move, Cristiano Lucarelli, a former Italian striker and Serie A top goalscorer who had also been linked with a move to England, signed for Shakhtar after several successful seasons with Livorno.

"Little by little Shakhtar are becoming recognized across the world," said Shakhtar's Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu. "We have managed for the first time in the history of Ukrainian football to sign an Italian player of the highest level."

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In fact, Shakhar are estimated to have spent some $55 million on players this close-season -- a staggering amount in a region where most clubs depend on selling talent to the wealthy leagues of western Europe for their survival.

Yet Shakhtar are no ordinary club. Bankrolled by Ukrainian billionaire businessman and football fanatic Rinat Akhmetov, an oligarch with a fortune comparable to that of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, Lucescu has resources at his disposal to rival those found anywhere in England, Spain, Italy or Germany.

By next season Shakhtar will have moved into a new $275 million 50,000-seater stadium, giving the club a home to match its ambition.

"Honestly I didn't have great expectations when I first came," said Lucarelli -- admitting perhaps accidentally that money may have been the primary factor behind his move east -- "but I have found a fast-growing town and an extremely organised club."

But can Shakhtar translate spending power into success on the pitch? Domestically, they have already broken the traditional stranglehold exerted by Dynamo Kiev on the Ukrainian championship.

While the team from the capital regained the title last season, Shakhtar finished first in each of the previous seasons, having had to wait until 2002 to win their first league crown, and have begin the new campaign as favorites for a third title in four years.

Ultimately though, the measure of Shakhtar's ambition will come in the Champions League, especially as domestic rivals Dynamo have been one of the few clubs from east of the old Iron Curtain to have enjoyed some success in the competition, reaching the semifinals in 1999.

With a 2-0 win over Armenian side Pyunik in the first leg of their second qualifying round tie and a winnable third qualifying round clash with either Ventspils of Latvia or Austrian side FC Salzburg to come, Lucescu's side ought to at least be in the mix -- and dangerous opponents -- when the group stages are drawn later this month. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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