The fact that Belarus have already won ten Olympic gold medals is a remarkable accomplishment considering the landlocked eastern European country has a population of just ten million.
Yet many fans already have their sights set on adding to that collection at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament in London this year. While public ambition may be sky high, head coach Georgi Kondratiev is taking a more down-to-earth approach to the competition, aware that several top teams are also taking part.
“Our aims and our mission are the following: We want to get through the group stage and then try to win one knockout game after the other,” Kondratiev told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. His step-by-step method is a sensible one given that qualifying for London 2012 is already the greatest achievement in the fledgling history of Belarusian football.
In reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA European U-21 Championship 2011 in Denmark, which also served as a qualifying competition for the Olympics, the unfancied Belarus side not only broke though the continent’s established football hierarchy, but made countless countrymen deliriously happy too.
While they ultimately lost to eventual champions Spain 3-1 after extra time in the last four, they did come out on top (1-0) in the decisive game against Czech Republic to earn their place at London 2012 alongside Spain, Switzerland and hosts Great Britain.
It was the first time Belarus had managed to reach the finals of a major international tournament and it sparked proud celebrations in and around the capital Minsk. “It was a very prestigious thing for football in Belarus and for the country itself to reach a tournament like the Olympic Games,” said Kondratiev.
The coach is hoping his side will gain extra impulse just by being in London. “We don’t have any key players like other teams do, but we trust our togetherness as a group, our team spirit on the pitch, in the changing rooms, in the hotel and in any situation, anywhere,” the 52-year-old continued.
A difficult but manageable task
As well as coaching the Belarusian Olympic team, Kondratiev is also in charge of the men’s senior side. He knows exactly what it takes to succeed on the international stage, having scored four goals in his 14 appearances as striker for the Soviet Union. Now he is preparing to pass on his considerable experience to his young charges.
“We got drawn in a very strong group,” Kondratiev said. On 26 July their Group C campaign begins against New Zealand in Coventry, before facing Brazil in Manchester three days later. Their final and potentially decisive group match is against Egypt in Glasgow. “I think Brazil are the favourites of course. But otherwise I think we’re at the same level as New Zealand and Egypt.”
The tournament newcomers are looking to use the Olympics to draw lasting attention to their recent positive progression. The senior team managed a respectable three victories, four draws and four defeats in their UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying campaign. “We don’t have the same level of infrastructure or financial possibilities as the top football countries,” said Kondratiev. “We’re a few categories lower down.”
But with their tireless passion and the inspiration of a coach who knows what is required to shine on the international stage, Belarus could well be an uncomfortable opponent for anyone at London 2012.