Belarus: club football’s rising star

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.

Hleb: talismanic

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.

the goaline technology issue solved!

Brits Abroad: Dominic Foley

Foley celebrating a goal for Gent

A thirty-four year old Irish striker from Cork. Not really anything interesting to be found there. It’s only when you look at Dominic Foley’s list of clubs that the Irishman’s broad range of exotic past haunts becomes apparent.

Ethnikos Piraeus, Sporting Braga, K.A.A Gent and Cercle Brugge make up the illustrious list of Foley’s foreign experiences, proving the former Wolves’ striker’s credentials as a serious cultural indulger. The tale of Foley’s career abroad is an interesting one, including  a few sumptuous goals and a bit of transfer controversy along the way.

Foley signed his first professional contract with Wolverhampton Wanderers after spells in his home country of Ireland, first with the youth team of Charleville AFC before progressing onto the senior side with St James’ Gate. Hardly illustrious, but Foley’s performances for the two Irish clubs did enough to persuade Wolves to secure his signature in 1995, thus signaling the beginning of Foley’s mainstream career.

The record of twenty games in four years for the midlands club speaks for itself. The spell was less than successful and saw Wolves seek to loan Foley out to a number of teams during his stay there. But this is where it gets interesting.

Piraeus Harbour

In 1998 Foley was loaned out to Greek side Ethnikos Piraeus, the fierce rivals of their more glamorous neighbours Olympiakos. Based in Piraeus, the third largest municpality in Greece, Foley was able to gain a decent grounding in the world of football outside of the British Isles and, with Piraeus boasting a beautifully constructed harbour and better weather than middle England, Foley was able to indulge in some exotic leisure time all with the added bonus of a golden tan.

The 1998/99 season saw the Irishman appear seven times for the Athens club, scoring three goals, as Ethnikos finished 18th in the Alpha Ethnkiki (Greece’s top football division) before being snapped up by the former England manager Graham Taylor and Watford.

Foley’s first season with Watford saw the rangy striker granted his first opportunity to play top-flight football in the English leagues. The Irishman, however, only managed to net one goal during that Premier League season and he soon found himself out of the Watford side and bundled into a suitcase and carted off to a number of lower league clubs.

At the end of 2003 and Foley’s 8th loan spell as a professional player he was pulled from the mire of obscurity to sign for Sporting Braga in Portugal. The city of Braga is thought to be the oldest city in Portugal but despite the fact that Harry Potter author J.K Rowling gave the city a professional quidditch team, Dominic Foley only stayed with Sporting Braga for a single season. A season that brough twelve appearances, just one goal and a 5th place finish.

The, by then, nomadic striker then returned home to the relative comfort of Bohemians in the Irish league. It would appear that this jet setting striker had given up on securing a life outside of the British Isles. That until an impressive performance by Foley in an intertoto cup game against the Belgian side Gent.

The controversy begins with the financial plight of Bohemians who were unable to pay a number of “bonuses” within Foley’s contract. The failure to pay these bonuses allowed the striker to terminate his contract with the Irish side. With the contract duly terminated Foley hopped across the channel to Belgium and signed along the dotted line for Bohemians recent opponents Gent. This coincidence was not lost on the Irish press as the move sparked rumours of secret meetings with the player and the Gent management after the aforementioned intertoto cup tie. It appeared you could not hold down the traveling Irishman.

Gent proved to be the right move for Foley as he quickly established himself as a key member of the first team squad, playing twenty-five times in his first season with the Belgian club. Jupiler beer must have tasted good as Foley stayed for a second season with the Belgian side, leading Gent to a cup semi-final with thirty appearances and ten goals. The beginning of Foley’s third season (third season!) with Gent saw the Cork born striker appointed club captain, a sign that he had finally given up the promiscuity of the journeyman lifestyle and settled down to a long term relationship? That third season saw cup final heartbreak as Gent succumbed to defeat to Belgian football’s biggest team, Anderlecht.

Foley’s displays showed a love for life in Belgium and a genuine love for Gent and the fans. This love affair was ended in 2009 as the newly appointed Michel Preud’homme dismissed the captain as a squad player before hastily selling him to rivals Cercle Brugge amidst yet more controversy.

Gent state that, with Foley’s contract due to run out at the end of the 2008/09 season, the striker could speak to clubs from the 1st of January. The general manager of Gent, Michel Louwagie, claimed the contact between Cercle Brugge and Foley was made before January 1st and, therefore, “against the rules.” Nevertheless the two clubs came to an agreement by January 27th and Foley completed his move north to Bruges.

Foley’s, who was top scorer at the Jan Breydel Stadium last season, remains an important player illustrated by the fact that he started this seasons Belgian league opener against Charleroi. A game that I *ahem* attended. His tall figure remains a key asset in aerial battles with defenders and the experience gained from playing in a number of leagues with different football cultures seems to have served the Irishman well. His career continues under the stewardship of Cercle manager Bob Peeters, the host of the Belgian version of Total Wipeout. Think Richard Hammond managing Aston Villa!

Shameless plugging of my trip to Bruges

Brits Abroad: An Introduction

Today sees the inauguration of a new feature on the blog, documenting the trials and tribulations of Brits abroad. The series will include the likes of players, managers, tactics, teams and any other source of British footballing life that may have, at one time or another, crossed the sea in any direction.

The feature will run simultaneously with my other ramblings on the blog but will be fairly constant over the coming months so if you like one of the pieces come back and visit another! Enjoy.

*for ease of access etc. I will be including Irishmen in this feature although I am aware of the historical and political separation from Britain and British players playing in Ireland will not be classed as Brits Abroad*

The declining interest in Russian football

Many people, including myself, think the standard of football displayed by the Russian national team and the Russian leagues is greatly improving. The rich oligarchs and development of skilled Russian players over recent years has seen the standard of the post-soviet Russian league rise to international contention, as displayed with the UEFA cup victories of both CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg. But has football really gripped the nation of Russia in the aftermath of the communist regime? A recent study by dedicated Russian website Championat.ru has discovered some alarming and slightly strange statistics.

In terms of international football, Russia have not been a major force since the days of the USSR and the managerial reign of the methodical Ukrainian Valeriy Lobanovskyi but the 2004 European Championships gave Russian football a lifeline. The stellar performances of messrs Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko allowed Russia to reinstate themselves as a serious footballing nation, however, the bittersweet elixir of reasonable success only enhance the problem.

The 2010 World Cup final was the worst cup final since the downfall of the Soviet Union. That, according to the Russian people anyway. Only 28 million people were persuaded to tune in to the world’s most prestigious football match. For a country with a population as staggeringly large as 139,390,205 that statistic really does speak volumes. It is easy to state that the fact that the viewing figures for the 2010 World Cup were remarkably low in Russia because the Russian’s themselves narrowly missed out on a World Cup place due to that 1-0 defeat to the Slovenians in Maribor. The fact is, however, that the Russian’s have not only been shunning football on the international stage, they have also been shunning football at national level.

The record low for number of viewers for a Russian Premier League match screened on national TV was broken this month. The fateful match between Lokomotiv Moscow and Alania attracted a measly audience of 1.5 million viewers, the lowest for fifty years. The decline cannot be explained in a mere blog post, it is more likely to warrant a 10,000 word university dissertation piece but it seems that the majority of Russian people are simply not interested in football. It is perhaps not surprising given that Russia is such a large country, boasting a total area of 17,098,242 square km, but the standard of football in Russia and the Russian Premier League is increasing in spite of the apparent lack of interest from the wider Russian community. This could explain the dearth in ethnic minorities in the Russian national team as the majority of players are of white European stock. People in the outer reaches of Vladivostock and Rubtsovsk may simply have much more vital and important things to worry about than the beautiful game.

Enough cover to cover the cover.

Here’s a (very) quick blog I did for backpagefootball.com on the extremely large squad now assembled at Manchester City.

http://backpagefootball.com/opinion/enough-cover-to-cover-the-cover/

Here’s the beginning:

Managers say it all the time. The timeless remedy to an over expanded squad. The single, solitary sentence that justifies the decision to sign yet another player in yet another position where you already have enough cover to cover the cover. “We need two world class players in every position,” purred Roberto Mancini, the latest manager to utilise the goalpost-shifting phrase. But do you really need two “word class” players in every position and has anybody ever had two world class players in every position?