Since gaining independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, the national team of Belarus, a country with fewer than 10 milllion inhabitants, has not yet managed to qualify for a major tournament. But they have indeed made a splash on occasion with good results, particularly at youth level.
Thanks to positive recent form, the country’s senior side are among the highest climbers in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, where they currently occupy 64th spot, their best position since 2013 – a feat in no small measure down to the work of head coach Aleksandr Khatskevich, who took charge in December 2014.
“I wasn’t aware of the fact [that we’d moved up so much],” the 42-year-old strategist told FIFA.com. “Some may consider that 64th position is a good result, but for me the only achievement that counts is qualifying for a FIFA World Cup or the UEFA EURO.”
Drawn in Group C of UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying, Belarus enjoyed a notable campaign, which featured a hard-fought 1-0 defeat by European champions Spain in Borisov in June 2015, and an impressive 1-0 win in Slovakia in the following October. Khatskevich’s charges eventually came home in fourth spot, behind Spain, Slovakia and Ukraine.
“When it comes to our team, the most important things are trust and respect, both on and off the pitch,” explained the supremo, himself capped 38 times by Belarus during the 1990s and 2000s. “Our team should definitely have it’s own style and philosophy. At the moment we don’t have a great number of stars or strong individual players, which is why we focus on teamwork and discipline. All our players need to be ready to back each other up, at all times. Only then will we achieve the results we’re looking for.”
In the shape of Aleksandr Hleb, Belarus do have a creative midfielder who, thanks to his spells with VfB Stuttgart, Arsenal and FC Barcelona, is a well-known name in football on the western European scene. Nevertheless, the 34-year-old, at the moment plying his trade in Turkey for Gençlerbirligi, is no longer a certain starter for the national team.
“A player like this doesn’t need to be tested in friendly games or anywhere else. Now it’s only a question of motivation – when Aleksandr is motivated, he's a key part of our side,” underlined Khatskevich. “As far as the next Aleksandr Hleb is concerned… it’s hard to say. There are good players in his position but, for the moment, I prefer not to single anybody out.”
Success at U-21 level
Performances at youth level – particularly in the U-21 age group – have shown that Belarus can point to a very interesting supply of up-and-coming young players. Not for nothing has the country reached the final tournament of the European U-21 Championship (in 2004, 2009 and 2011), finishing as high as third in Denmark at the event five years ago.
On that occasion, the Belarussians went down to an extra-time semi-final defeat to eventual winners Spain, before beating fellow last-four losers Czech Republic to earn a berth at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012. “The fact our U-21 squad have had such good results definitely helps the senior team, because a lot of U-21 players eventually go on to be ready for the seniors. Qualifying for the 2012 Olympics proves that our youth football is of a high standard,” was Khatskevich’s verdict.
“The key difference though, between youth football and senior football, is consistency,” he went on. “At U-21 level, some players might have two or three spectacular games and then have a series of matches when things don’t go their way. The leap from U-21 to senior international football can prove quite challenging for some footballers.”
Even so, Belarus’ seniors have caught the eye with convincing displays, picking up clean sheets in all three of their final EURO 2016 qualifiers, a 2-0 home win over Luxembourg, the aforementioned 1-0 success in Slovakia and a 0-0 home draw with FYR Macedonia.
“To be honest, we don’t overly stress the defensive side of the game in training,” said Khatskevich, whose team were also leading 2-1 in June 2015’s friendly encounter with 2018 FIFA World Cup™ hosts Russia, only to go down 4-2 after making several substitutions. “To some that game might be pretty impressive, but to me the result was negative. Some also said that losing 1-0 to Spain was a good result but, I repeat, only a draw or a victory can be considered a positive result. Even so, the game against Spain did show that when a team is well-organised they can be tough opponents for absolutely anybody.”
A tough assignment
The ambitious Khatskevich is not alone in dreaming of a place at Russia 2018, though there was understandable disappointment among Belarus fans when his side were drawn in Group A of the qualifying competition with the Netherlands, France, Sweden, Bulgaria and Luxembourg.
“We are aware of our present position in European and world football,” said Khatskevich, assessing his side’s chances. “The teams in our group are really strong. On the one hand it is tough to play against such opponents, but on the other hand, such tests are good for our team. So if we achieve good results we will be able feel our strength.”
So is he dreaming of qualification? “It’s hard to speak about the chances of qualifying or not qualifying, but I can tell you for sure that we will try to achieve the best possible result in every separate game,” he said in response. “I am confident that the matches against us won’t be easy for the opposition.”
That warning for their upcoming opponents is also a pledge, one that could pave the way to another world-ranking rise for Belarus.