A version of this article (written by me) first appeared on World Football Columns
Wednesday 14th of October was strange day for Belorussian football. The national team were defeated by three goals to nill by World Cup qualifying group rivals England, in a match which ended the qualifying rounds and saw Belarus, once more, fail to qualify for a major tournament. The fact that the match ended 3-0 did much to disguise the real story of the game.England, eventually, ran out comfortable winners but for more than fifty minutes the former Soviets showed composure, movement and incisive passing that surprised even the most knowledgeable followers of the Eastern European outift. In the absence of talisman Aleksandr Hleb, Vitali Kutuzov proved the most menacing threat to the English. His running and eye for the acute reverse ball gave the bumbling Glen Johnson more than a tough night as the Liverpool right-back saw his movement reduced to a metaphor of bambi on ice. Metaphor’s aside, the match presented an all too familiar feeling for the millions of Belorussians watching up and down the country from the northern voblast (province) of Viciebsk to it’s southern counterpart Homiel. That feeling? The sense that however good the opening impressions are, Belarus ultimately always lose when it matters.
The simple fact is that Belarus have never qualified for a major international tournament. For all the development as a nation and the youth structure that has produced technically proficient players such as Hleb and Kutuzov, Belarus remain a failure, internationally. They boast the precarious record of being the first team since 1983 to score three goals away to Italy in an international qualifier, however, in true Belorussian fashion the team contrived to leak four goals and sink to an unsanctimonious defeat.
The country, whose name derives from the phrase “white Russia,” borders Poland, Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia but, along with Lithuania, represent the largest international flop of that less than successful group. Since the declaration of independence in 1991, Belarus have been involved in eight international qualifying campaigns and, as previously mentioned, qualified for none. Their group stage record is consistently inadequate with one 6th placed finish, one third placed finish, three fifth placed finishes and three more fourth placed finishes. Internationally Belarus have been a consistent failure but, this year, the nation has enjoyed reasonable success at club level.
The 2010/2011 season marks the first time that three Belorussian teams have reached the Europa League qualifying play-off. BATE Borisov, Dinamo Minsk and Dnepr Mogilev make up the pioneering trio of teams. At the time of writing the three teams have each contested the first leg of these play-off ties, with varying degrees of success.
Minnows Dnepr, enjoying their first European campaign for ten years, had the misfortune of drawing Spanish heavyweights Villareal and were roundly flattened 5-0 in Spain. Dnepr, who overcame the odds to claim third place in the national championship, cruised through to the play-off with a 3-1 aggregate win over Banik Ostrava in the previous round, and manager, Andrei Skorobogatko, conceded that his side were perilously ill-equipped to face a team of Villareal’s might.
“Most of our players have never played in such an important game and it is hard to say when they will have another chance to test themselves at this level,” Skorobogatko said, whilst remaining positive about his teams chances: “We have nothing to lose following the wins against Stabæk and Baník.”
Dinamo Minsk and BATE Borisov fared slightly better as Minsk went down 2-1 to Club Brugge but escaped from the Jan Breydel Stadion (see photo for an image of my trip to Bruges) with an away goal and a degree of solidarity. BATE, perhaps the most successful of Belorussian teams in recent years, claimed a 3-0 home victory over Madeira’s Maritmo. A glowing testament to the development and the establishment of clubs by the FFB (Football Federation of Belarus) is the fact that, realistically, Belarus could have two sides in the group stages of the Europa League and with the stringent aid of a minor miracle at Dnepr, the former Soviets could have three.
Despite the fact that Belarus have only recently become established in the continental club game. BATE President Anatoliy Kapsky maintains that the landscape of Belorussian football has been strong for many years:
“We always have many gifted players in our country. Now it has started to yield results on the international club stage. What is more, our league has become more competitive since it was reduced [for this season] from 14 clubs to 12.”
Note that Kapsky praises the FBB’s decision to reduce the league size, giving players and clubs a shorter season in which they can hone their talents and focus on real development whilst also providing a solid platform for the national team to aid players in making the step up from club football. A proactive football association that is not afraid to overcome tough challenges, perhaps the English FA could learn something.
The feeling throughout Europe is that Belarus are growing stronger both at international level and at club level, with this in mind, it is surely only a matter of time until they cross the breach from perennial international failures to plucky minnows, boasting names that the BBC and ITV pronunciation departments could marvel over at upcoming international tournaments. With the 2012 European Championship’s taking place in neighbouring Ukraine and Poland, Belarus may feel that their time as a serious footballing nation is on the horizon.