Belarus, a nation of just under 10 million inhabitants and a surface area of more than 200,000 square metres, is Europe's biggest landlocked country. Established in 1991 following the break-up of the former Soviet Union, the country shares borders with Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. In terms of football, where the undisputed fulcrum is buzzing capital city Minsk, the fame of the Belarus national team has long spread beyond its extensive borders.
This summer has brought unprecedented success, as the Belarus U–21 team finished third at their UEFA European Championships, sealing a qualifying berth for next year’s Olympic Football Tournament in London.
The achievement was impressive, but not entirely surprising, as the nation's senior professionals are currently extremely well-placed in qualifying for UEFA EURO 2012. Belarus have taken 12 points from their seven Group D fixtures and lie second, just a point behind France, awakening realistic hopes of a place at next summer's finals. Back in September 2010, the east Europeans shocked the footballing world with a 1–0 victory in Paris.
The impressive recent development of the Belarusian game is closely linked with Bernd Stange, a 63-year-old German who took the national helm in July 2007, and whose long CV includes spells in charge of the former German Democratic Republic, Oman and Iraq. FIFA.com spoke exclusively to the seasoned coach, and discovered he still has his sights set high.
FIFA.com: You must be a happy man considering how things are going.
Bernd Stange: In my opinion, the best evidence of our progress is the trend towards modern football throughout the nation. What that means in practice is that we've begun implementing a relatively uniform philosophy, from the junior national teams, via the top clubs, right through to the senior Belarus side. We're following a very specific path, and it's been enthusiastically adopted by our host of young coaches. That's the basis for success in a relatively small or relatively young footballing nation such as Belarus. I'm really enjoying this job.
How exactly are you applying your experience in the quest to develop football in the country?
The coaches in Belarus are extremely keen to learn. We've succeeded in setting up two major football congresses every year, so we've been able to lay out our plans to all the right people, and they've gratefully taken our thoughts on board. We've made huge progress in coaching instruction – and obviously, good coaching is the foundation for good football. We've focused very closely on that. I can genuinely say that I now deal with very knowledgeable coaches. I've had a very long career, but I wouldn't have missed the last five years for the world.
Is your current job a development role, at least to a certain extent?
I think we've made it to a good level in Belarus now, but I'd still say we remain a developing football nation – less so in terms of the quality of our players, but definitely in terms of marketing. Our first division matches attract an average of just 2,700 spectators. However, there are deep reserves of expertise: Dynamo Minsk won the USSR championship back in 1982, for example.
What can you achieve in the future?
We should be aiming to qualify for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil. This should be our solitary goal. I say this with complete optimism, and I believe our development will continue to be positive. We're already doing well in EURO 2012 qualifying, and we have a decent chance of going to next year's tournament in Poland and Ukraine. We'll take our young team to the Olympics in London next year, and these are frankly unprecedented successes.
Your opponents in European FIFA World Cup qualifying Group I are Georgia and Finland – and Spain and France.
There's no question we've been drawn into the toughest group, as we'll play two giants of the world game. But what a fantastic opportunity for us, welcoming the reigning world champions and the 1998 World Cup winners here to Belarus! Obviously we're rank outsiders, but let me issue this very explicit warning: don't underestimate us. We'll give it everything we've got, and anyone who’s not up for the fight shouldn't be playing football in any case.
Thinking ahead to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, a much-travelled coach such as you must be thrilled and excited.
Brazil and football is a very special combination. It’ll be a magnificent World Cup, because the Brazilians live and breathe football. Forget Germany, England or Argentina - this is the ultimate footballing nation, and that's been the case for decades now. It's where you feel the heartbeat of the game. Wherever you go, from early dawn till late evening, you see people playing football. It's the right World Cup in exactly the right place.