y"He’s as talented as Maradona," Krassimir Balakov once said of his then VfB Stuttgart team-mate Aleksandr Hleb. The Belarus starlet had arrived at VfB from BATE Borisov just a few months earlier, and immediately leapt into the limelight with displays of unencumbered dribbling skill in the Bundesliga and the UEFA Champions League.
After five years in Germany, the man christened The Sorcerer's Apprentice by local sports media switched to the top of the English Premier League with Arsenal in 2005. He moved on again last summer to Barcelona, his current club. In his home country, where he was named Belarus Player of the Year no fewer than six times between 2002 and 2008, the 27-year-old Hleb is an absolute superstar.
FIFA.com spoke exclusively to the Belarus captain about 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying, his future, and the role of football in his home country.
FIFA.com: You’ve played for VfB Stuttgart, Arsenal and Barcelona, all of them leading European clubs. Where have you enjoyed it the most?
Aleksandr Hleb: I’ve basically never thought about anything like that. But considering your question now, I’ve been well settled at all three and have plenty of good things to say about them all. Obviously, I got to play more often for Stuttgart and Arsenal, and I really, really enjoyed myself at both clubs. Barcelona is a fantastic city though. It’s where I want to play and take the next step.
Certain sections of the media think you may be poised for a return to Germany. Could Bayern Munich be an option?
It’s always nice when a big club expresses an interest. But I play for Barcelona, and I’m happy where I am. I’d be genuinely delighted to earn a regular place in this team. I came here to play, and I’ll do my level best to get into the starting line-up.
In 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying, Belarus are fourth in their group behind England, Croatia and Ukraine. Can Belarus realistically claim a place in South Africa?
I'd say it's 50-50. It’s up to us now. We have to fight for every single point, and our only option is to move forwards. We also need some luck, because I can’t imagine football without luck.
What would a first FIFA World Cup appearance mean to you and your team?
It would mean everything. It’s a dream shared by the team and the entire nation. I can hardly imagine what would happen in Belarus if we managed to qualify for the 2010 finals. We have to do it, we have to turn this dream into reality.
Why are Belarus yet to qualify for a major tournament? What do you lack as a team?
That’s a hard one to answer. We have so many talented players. I’ve watched the game in Belarus take massive steps forward in recent years. Our U-21s will contest the European championship in Sweden this June, and I’d just like to wish the team good luck for that. These lads are our future. I’m convinced they’ll come away with some good results. Maybe, in a couple of years, this team will realise a nation’s dream and qualify for the World Cup finals.
What does representing your country mean to you?
Representing your country, pulling on the national shirt, running out onto the field, and hearing your national anthem is a great honour for every player, from every country, on every continent of this planet. It’s what little lads who are just starting out dream of all the time. I’m simply overjoyed to be part of the Belarus national set-up.
You’ve often played alongside your younger brother Vyacheslav for the national team. How do you feel about that?
We get on well both on and off the field. We have a good relationship and we’re very close friends. We work together well on the field of play too, and that’s a positive influence on our play. I think he fully deserves his place in the national team. He has a reputation as a tricky character, but that doesn’t mean he can’t play for his country. The coach makes the decisions, and you have to respect that. I’m hoping to play alongside my brother for a long time yet.
What’s the role of the game in Belarus?
Football is extremely important in Belarus, and it’s becoming more and more popular. However, we’ve still not appeared at a major tournament. We really do owe it to our fans now. I’m convinced it’ll happen, sooner or later.
Do you have an idol? Who would you swap shirts with?
When I was younger, I was in awe of Zinedine Zidane and Diego Maradona. I basically never swap shirts with other players.
In Germany, they used to call you The Sorcerer's Apprentice. What do you make of that?
I’ve heard that, but I’ve never really understood what it was supposed to mean. Reporters always give nicknames to players. It’s part of the game, and part of their job.
You were Belarus Player of the Year in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008. Are you your country’s best footballer of all time?
We’ve produced any number of great players who’d deserve that title. I can’t offer an opinion about myself. That’s something for the experts. It’s obviously a great honour for me, and I hope I continue to fulfil the expectations of everyone who puts their faith in me.
Who’s the best midfielder in the world?
Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta.
One last question: What are your goals for 2009?
To win as many trophies as possible with Barcelona, and qualify for the World Cup in 2010.
It would mean everything. It’s a dream shared by the team and the entire nation.