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Everyone is aware that there is no football in the world right now due to coronavirus, or COVID-19 as they now seem to call it, and everyone also knows that this is not really true because there is still lots of football taking place in a Belarus where their president apparently thinks it will all blow over if we all just drink vodka and go to the sauna and that no lockdown is needed.
If you made it through that exceptionally long sentence above you will now probably nod your head in agreement as I tell you that Belarussian football isn’t very good. Let’s be honest, Belarussian football is all but irrelevant on the world stage. Having said that, there are two teams, however, who both have notable stories. Dinamo Minsk and BATE Borisov, here are their stories, they are actually worth telling.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and Dinamo Minsk won the first five editions of the new top flight Vysshaya Liga in Belarus it hardly came as a surprise. Dinamo were, after all, the only team in the country to have played top flight football in the USSR. Having played in what was known as the Soviet Top League and having done so on a regular basis Dinamo were, therefore, a very large fish that suddenly found itself thrown out of the ocean and into a rather small pond – Belarus has a population smaller than that of Moscow.
Dinamo’s five year reign as champions was suddenly broken when a team called MPKC Mozyr pipped them to the title having just been promoted the previous season and Dinamo have only won the title twice since, the last of those coming in 2004. Dinamo’s decline gave several other teams the chance to win the title, most notably BATE Borisov. Promoted to the top flight in 1997, the club finished runners up in their first season in the top tier and won their first Vysshaya Liga title a year later before winning the league again in 2002, then came pretty much total dominance. In 2006 BATE won what would be the first of THIRTEEN league titles in a row. Yes 13, a run that finally came to an end last season when Dinamo Brest were crowned champions. Of those 13 titles, worth mentioning is the one in 2017 as it was one they almost didn’t win. Only an equaliser from BATE in the fifth minute of injury time stopped Dinamo Minsk from pipping them to the crown on what was the final day of the campaign as BATE won the league on goal difference.
BATE’s success can be put down to two men. Nikolai Busel, CEO of a tractor company, reformed the club in the 1990s having created the original club that was dissolved in 1979 whilst Anatoli Kapsky who had also been involved in the original club was also heavily involved. Kapsy sponsored the club through his company and along with Busel invested heavily wanting to bring footballing success to Borisov – a town of about 145,000 inhabitants approximately 50 miles northeast of Minsk. The pair did just that. Their 13 year reign as champions has only been beaten by Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar and Skonto Riga of Latvia who have both managed the feat of 14 in a row.
As well as their near total dominance of the domestic scene in recent years they have also reached the group stages of the Champions League five times, no other team from the country has ever reached the group stages. The club has never made it past the group stages but have had some memorable moments along the way. Their first foray into the group stages saw a memorable 2-2 draw at home to Italian giants Juventus whilst two years later they drew 1-1 at home to another Italian side in AC Milan. In 2012-13 they won 3-1 away at French side Lille OSC whilst in 2014-15 they drew at home with Athletic Bilbao and a year later defeated AS Roma, also at home. But BATE’s most famous moment came 2 October 2012 when German giants FC Bayern München came to town.
The Bayern defence seemed to stand still when Alyaksandr Valadzko put BATE 1-0 up from close range after his side had seemingly walked through the box to give him the ball on 23 minutes. Bayen were one of Europe’s top sides, however, and things would not stay that easy for the hosts as the visitors soon began to dominate. The equaliser people expected never came, however, and on 78 minutes BATE were given too much space as some excellent build up play saw Vitali Rodionov fire home from close range – 2-0. It looked to be a nervy finish, mind, when BATE were caught out in the 91st minute as a Bayen break saw Franck Ribéry find the net for the Germans. BATE held on though and even managed to score a third for themselves on 94 minutes. With everyone forward, Bayen were caught on the counter attack and no one could get back in time as Renan Bressan had ample time and space to fire home when the ball was passed to him in the box. 3-1 was the full-time score and BATE had won in what is to date surely their most triumphant moment on the European stage.
Ultimately, though, BATE would finish third in that 2012-13 group some seven points behind Bayern in first. Bayen would go on to defeat Borussia Dortmund in the final at Wembley. Third place in the group did, of course, give BATE entry in the last 32 of the Europa League but they lost 1-0 on aggregate to Fenerbahçe. Two years earlier they’d lost on away goals to Paris Saint-Germain at the same stage.
BATE might have been the one Belarusian side making a name for themselves on the European stage in recent years but in Soviet times it was Dinamo Minsk who represented Belarus in Europe. Whilst other Soviet teams had been competing in European competition the 1960s, however, Dinamo Minsk did not make their European debut until 1983-84 but then became regulars. Dinamo’s participation in that season’s European Cup came after winning their first and only Soviet Top League championship in 1982.
When the Dinamo Minsk players arrived by train from Moscow after winning their final two games of the 1982 season, including a 7-0 win at Dynamo Moscow in the penultimate match, they were mobbed by the people of Minsk. Dinamo had pipped another Dynamo to the title, the city of Minsk’s heroes had finished one point ahead of Dynamo Kyiv from Ukraine to win their first ever major trophy. It was an extremely joyous occasion for fans not accustomed to taking the streets in celebration like this.
The Dinamo team at that time included several Soviet internationals including Sergei Aleinikov and Sergey Gotsmanov. Aleinikov would score against England at Euro 88 whilst Sergey Gotsmanov would later have a spell in the English leagues with Brighton and Hove Albion, and then Southampton, before a short spell with East German side Hallescher FC in their first season in a reunified Germany. However, despite only being capped once, gifted and hardworking midfielder Aleksandr Prokopenko was by many supporters considered the star of the side.
In the European Cup the following season, Dinamo Minsk lost 2-1 on aggregate to Dinamo Bucureşti in the quarter finals. The side from Bucharest would lose to the might of Liverpool in the semi finals before two seasons later watching city rivals Steaua București lift the trophy after a famous penalty shoot-out win over FC Barcelona. The following season Minsk reached the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup defeating along the way a strong Widzew Łódź side who had just two years earlier knocked Liverpool out of the European Cup and in recent years prior to that had also defeated the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, and Juventus. In the end, Minsk lost 3-1 on aggregate to Željezničar Sarajevo of Yugoslavia but three seasons later would be European quarter finalists again, this time in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, where they lost out to an unfancied Mechelen side who would shock the continent by defeating massive favourites Ajax in the final.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dinamo Minsk were regulars in Europe but never made it past the qualifying rounds until more recently when they had two appearances in the group stages of the Europa League, as the UEFA Cup is now known. Both group stage appearances, in 2014-15 and 2015-16, saw the club finish bottom of their group with an away win against an already qualified Fiorentina in a meaningless final match in 2014 the only real highlight.
The odd group stage appearance in European competition seems to be the best that clubs from Belarus can hope for these days. Having said that, although 2019 Vysshaya Liga champions Dinamo Brest have yet to appear in the Champions League, 2018 winners BATE Borisov failed to make it past the second qualifying round of this seasons competition making even a group stage appearance look like it would be a real triumph.
Some may take notice of BATE Borisov for their sheer dominance in recent times and the 13 straight leagues titles in a row that it brought whilst Dynamo Minsk may be remembered for their one Soviet title and a few big European nights in the immediate years that followed. But that aside, football in Belarus will probably continue to go pretty much unnoticed as it usually has done. After all, if it weren’t for COVID 19 making Belarus noted as the only country in Europe where football hasn’t come to a complete standstill then I probably wouldn’t be writing about it now!