Celebrations and mourning have never been too far apart in the lives of Belorussians. When Yakov Shapiro, the young coach of Torpedo Zhodino collapsed and later died while jubilating his team's stoppage-time winner in a league match on 11 July, it was yet another tragic event in the former Soviet state's sad recent history. Just two days before, the Eastern European nation's footballing community had gathered under a warming sun for a momentous occasion when the stone-laying ritual for the Belarus House of Football, part-financed by FIFA's Financial Assistance Programme (FAP) and UEFA, took place.
Occupying one of the hills overlooking Minsk, the new headquarters of the Belarus Football Federation will sit close to 15 natural grass fields and an artificial turf pitch, which, part of FIFA's Goal Programme, was inaugurated by FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter in December 2002. Far from being an unused extravagance, the site, known as the "Smena" Youth City Football Academy, will be the all-season base for its various national teams and the setting for many competitions.
At the stone laying ceremony, several crystal footballs were filled with soil and buried in the basement of the future building along with plates inscribed with the names of all seven regional football federations of the Belarus Republic as well as that of the Belarus Federation.
"This project was begun by my predecessors and it is nice to know that inside ten months we have been able to invite all of you to our house warming," a happy BFF President Gennady Nevyglas told guests including the nation's deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Drazhin, Deputy Sports Minister Galina Zaburjanova and the mayor of Minsk, Mikhail Pavlov.
Because of its location between then Germany and Russia, Belarus' land has been ravaged by conflict during the 20th Century to such an extent that Minsk had to be completely rebuilt following the Second World War. Perhaps the finest example of large-scale Soviet planning, Belarus' capital today mixes broad monumental edifices with wide streets, huge squares and spacious parks to entertain the urban masses. But Belarus' dark recent history did not end there. While winds of imminent political change were blowing throughout the USSR, the Chernobyl nuclear power disaster of 1986 affected Belarus just as much as Ukraine with almost 20% of the country seriously contaminated.
Independence, in 1991, has brought about greater optimism in the Eastern European nation. Just a year later, Belarus became a member of FIFA and football, despite the long winter season, remains above ice hockey as the number one sport. At club level Dynamo Minsk have shone most brightly, while the Stuttgart striker Alexandr Hleb is probably their most outstanding performer today and was inspirational in the country's vain attempt to make the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals. Although the national team struggled during qualification for UEFA Euro 2004, the youth team performed impressively again at this year's European U-21 finals, defeating eventual champions Italy in the group phase.
While the death of Yakov Shapiro, the young coach who began as a football fan before displaying an amazing talent in the managerial game to become a contender to coach the national team, has once again brought sadness to the Belarus community, the future of the game remains bright. Already a country with a rich youth development programme, Belarus' new HQ should be the ideal garden for its sprouting talents to flourish.