Resolute Belarus on a roll
© AFP

Belarus are up to 38th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the best-ever placing in the nation’s short footballing history, and their first appearance in the top 40.

The landlocked east Europeans have enjoyed a fine 2010, shooting up 42 places on the global ladder since January. Particularly in the last five months, the team coached by German Bernd Stange have made significant progress, climbing from 78th in August to their current position.

The rapid improvement is almost entirely due to a fine start to UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying. Four matches into the campaign for a berth in Poland and Ukraine, Belarus lie second in Group D, just a point off 2006 FIFA World Cup™ runners-up France.

The team skippered by Dinamo Minsk star Sergei Gurenko are the only undefeated side in the section, which also comprises Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania and Liechtenstein. Belarusian hopes of a first appearance at a major tournament appear to be justified by their outstanding defensive record, with no goals conceded in four matches.

It's still not entirely realistic, but you’ve got to dream. And the dream is to compete at the European Championship with this young Belarusian team.
Bernd Stange, Belarus coach

Stange’s men last lost in June in a 1-0 friendly defeat at home to Sweden, but they have subsequently won four times and drawn twice, with keeper Yury Zhevnov keeping six consecutive clean sheets in that time. The impressive run started in mid-August in a warm-up match ahead of EURO 2012 qualifying, when they won 2-0 away to Lithuania, thus laying the foundations for their stirring performances since then.

Belarus really hit the headlines in their opening EURO 2012 qualifier in early September, travelling to Stade de France in Paris and beating the French 1-0, with Sergei Kislyak firing the only goal of the game. The Dinamo Minsk midfielder had only just come on as a sub, illustrating the new-found balance and depth in Stange’s squad.

A little of the gloss came off that famous victory just a few days later in a goalless draw at home to the Romanians, where Zhevnov almost single-handedly rescued his team from defeat with an outstanding display. "I don’t think my players are experienced enough yet to put a big result behind them straight away and focus on the next task. My players clearly haven’t moved on from the last game, so we’ve been overtaken by reality and failed to beat Romania," Stange told UEFA.com in his post-match analysis.

There was to be another disappointment when the eastern Europeans travelled to Luxembourg. Perhaps haunted by the memory of a nightmare 1-0 defeat against the same opponents three years previously, Belarus managed no better than a goalless draw with the minnows from the Grand Duchy. The team spearheaded by Aleksandr Kulchy, the nation’s most-capped player, stepped up a gear at home to Albania, recording their second qualifying victory and cementing their grip on second spot behind Les Bleus.

Coach aiming high
"It's still not entirely realistic, but you’ve got to dream. And the dream is to compete at the European Championship with this young Belarusian team. We’ll give it a try," Stange declared in his UEFA.com interview.

The experienced German coach has deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation to exceptionally good effect, certainly in terms of results. The four qualifiers have produced just three goals so far, but the unbreached defence is the reason Belarus remain on track for a place at the continental showpiece.

And it is not that Stange’s side has no goals in it, as shown in the final friendly of the year in mid-November, when Zhevnov and Co dismissed Oman, the side ranked 99th in the world, by a clear 4-0 margin. It was a high note on which to finish the year, and a good platform to prepare for the next EURO 2012 qualifier, the return away to the Albanians in March 2011.