Football's Eastern Upstart: Belarus and the March to London and 2012
At the Summer Olympics, every football tournament has a dark horse that finds its way to reaching this prestigious competition. A dark horse can do more than just beginning its maiden voyage in a contest. Rather, a nation can search for an identity desperately needed to qualify for a tournament.
Of the 16 countries that participated in the Men's Football Olympic Tournament in 2012, Belarus was the one nation looking to search for its identity. Over recent years, Belarus had found itself in some important upsets. Belarus won in France in 2010 to open its Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, while Belarus's premier club BATE Borisov did one better by defeating Bayern München in 2012. One event does stand out in Belarus's football history, and it began not by the country's senior squad.
Rather, young players came together in 2011 as it survived and did enough to qualify for the 2012 Olympics in football.
Revisiting the Ghosts of 2004
Belarus's road to reach the UEFA U-21 Championships, let alone the Summer Olympics, began with a 2-1 home victory over Austria in Maladzyechna on Aug. 12, 2009.
Belarus's road to reach the Summer Olympics logistically speaking commenced in 2003 as the youth squad was a major surprise. In 2003, Belarus first attempted to qualify for an Olympic tournament as the youth team faced the Netherlands, Moldova, Austria and the Czech Republic. These were the same four nations that Belarus senior team encountered in Euro 2004 qualifying.
Unlike the senior squad, Belarus's under-21 team was the major surprise of qualifying.
Belarus's road began with Dmitri Rubnenko scoring a stoppage time goal in Nijmegen, Netherlands. Although it lost its next two matches, Belarus won its remaining five qualifiers. The streak began in Borisov when Igor Rozhkov netted a hat trick in a 3-1 victory over. Almost five months later, Belarus was assured one of the six best runners-up spots when Timofei Kalachev scored the only goal of the match against the Czech Republic in Borisov.
Two months later, Belarus reached its first U-21 tournament thanks to an impressive result in Wronki, Poland. Four players helped Belarus shake off a 1-1 home draw in the first leg, including brothers Vyacheslav and Aleksander Hleb.
The 5-1 aggregate victory for Belarus meant the nation looking to reach the Summer Olympics in Athens. Belarus had the daunting task of facing Italy, four-time UEFA U-21 champions, at the Ruhrstadion in Bochum, Germany. The task may have been daunting, but Belarus took a shock lead after six minutes thanks to Roman Kirenkin had put Belarus up 1-0; future star Alexander Hleb scored the second goal right before halftime. Italy scored in the second half thanks to Alberto Gilardino, but Belarus hung on for a shocking 2-1 upset over Italy. Two days later at Oberhausen's Niederrheinstadion and Belarus would stand on the cusp of a spot in the Olympics. That was because Pavel Kirylchyk tied the match in the 82nd minute after Mario Lucic put Croatia ahead in the 38th minute.
The draw brought optimism for Belarus, and that confidence continued early in its third game against Serbia and Montenegro. One of the goalscorers from the 4-0 victory over Poland, Oleg Shkabara put Belarus up 1-0 after 13 minutes. But disaster struck Belarus when Kalachev received a red card.Still, Belarus led 1-0 at halftime and were 45 minutes from a chance at reaching Athens; unfortunately, that opportunity never arrived. Goals from Danko Lazovic and Dejan Milovanovic early in the second half gave Serbia and Montenegro momentum. Belarus's misery continued, as Aleksander Hleb's red card meant Belarus finished the match with nine men.
The 2-1 loss denied Belarus an Olympic debut in 2004.
The Hleb brothers and many other players missed their chance to represent Belarus at the Summer Olympics.
Hearbreak All Too Common
Heartbreak became the theme of Belarus's next three years. Despite scoring 20 goals to lead its group in qualifying, Belarus lost three home matches at Borisov's Gorodskoi Stadium (City Stadium), including its must-win game against Norway just to stay in contention for a play-off. Belarus came from behind twice to tie, but Norway retook the lead with 19 minutes remaining on a goal from Bjørn-Helge Riise. Belarus's misery grew when Shkabara received a red card. Belarus's 3-2 loss to Norway coupled Slovenia's 3-0 victory against Scotland, meant Belarus suffered an early elimination.
A year later, the Czech Republic denied Belarus a chance at reaching 2007 UEFA Under 21-Championships in Uherske Hradiste, Czech Republic. Belarus scored late in the game, but it was not enough.
Belarus got another chance to play at the UEFA Under 21-Championship in 2009 in Sweden. Once again, Belarus finished runners-up in its group, this time to Serbia. Belarus did enough to seal a playoff berth, but its opponent was Turkey, and one many favored to progress. Belarus managed to overturn a 1-0 first leg loss in Antalya, Turkey to win 2-0 in Borisov, Belarus.
Sergei Kislyak scored the tournament's first goal in Sweden against the hosts and added another opening goal against Italy. However, Belarus had only the two goals as it finished last in its group with only one point.
The Journey to Denmark
Belarus was a favorite to win its qualifying group that also had Scotland, Austria, Albania and Azerbaijan in their group. However, Belarus had to overcome Scotland's early start: Scotland's two qualifying wins against Albania came before Belarus competed in the 2009 UEFA U-21 Championships. Scotland did also defeat Belarus on a stoppage time goal as well in October 2009. However, Belarus was able to take care of business, with one significant result turning the tide in Group 10 in Pasching, Austria. Belarus trailed Austria 3-1 at the Waldstadion with 15 minutes remaining as Belarus stood on the brink of elimination.
That was until Dmitri Rekish scored twice in the final 15 minutes to secure a vital point for Belarus. On Sept. 3, 2010, Belarus secured another crucial point as it drew 1-1 with Scotland thanks to Pavel Nekhaychik's goal in the match. Four days later, Belarus advanced as one of the four best runners-up after Nekhaychik scored the only goal of the game against Azerbaijan.
Belarus would have advanced as group winners until Scotland scored a late goal against Austria to make Scotland the group winners. Belarus's reward for finishing as the best runner-up would be another chance to face Italy.
Italy was a heavy favorite to progress, but Belarus defied all odds once again. Once again, Belarus overturned a first leg loss as it did so in the opening five minutes of the second leg thanks to Vladimir Yurchenko. The 2-2 aggregate scoreline meant this extra time would determine who would play in Denmark.
Oleg Veretilo's goal in the 96th minute sent Belarus to the tournament at Italy's expense. Now, the goal was a spot at the Olympics.
Belarus So Close Against Spain
Surviving When it Mattered
On Nov. 9, 2010, the draw for the 2011 UEFA U-21 Championships had Belarus face Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland. Few experts picked Belarus to advance out of this group. Switzerland fielded its best youth team since Alexander Frei led hosts Switzerland to a semi-final in 2002. Iceland was making its debut after eliminating Scotland in the playoffs. Denmark was the most experienced among the four countries but had not won a game in this tournament in 19 years.
Many people thought Belarus’s first game against Iceland could determine the third place team in the group. Instead, goals by Andrey Voronkov and Maxim Skavysh gave Belarus a 2-0 victory. Even more important was Dmitri Baga's 20th-minute goal against Denmark in the second match, but lost that game 2-1 and thoughts of 2004. Belarus would be undone by Switzerland 3-0 in the final group stage game, but got a favourite result from the Denmark-Iceland match in Aarhus.
As Belarus, Iceland and Denmark finished level on points, goal differential, and goals scored, Belarus advanced to the semifinals as it had a better goal differential among the three teams.
Now Belarus needed to assure themselves a place in London. With Great Britain assured of a spot in the tournament in London, only three European nations would join Great Britain in the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Belarus nearly pulled off a shocking result as Belarus led Spain on a Voronkov bicycle kick off a throw-in. But Belarus allowed an 89th-minute goal and from Spain force extra time. There, Spain added two more goals and Belarus lost 3-1. Belarus had another chance, and they would have to face the Czech Republic.
The Czech Republic eliminated England and necessitated this playoff playoff. The Czechs had previous experience in the Olympic tournament and sought to get back to the tournament. But Belarus got its golden chance when the Czech Republic went down to 10 men. In the 88th minute, Oleg Filipenko broke Belarus's agony by scoring the only goal of the game.
Belarus qualified for the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Historic Result at Coventry
An Upset at Old Trafford?
Heads Held High in Britain
What unfolded for Belarus was a major surprise to get to the 2012 Summer Olympics. One Apr. 27, 2012, Belarus learned that it would face New Zealand, Brazil, and Egypt in its first foray at the Olympics. Before that, however, Belarus needed some practice, but it struggled in France. Some players from the U-21 Championships in Denmark participated in this tournament, notably Baga, Voronkov and Mikhail Sivakov. Sivakov captained Belarus in Denmark to go with experience two years earlier at the 2009 U-21 Championships.
Belarus struggled in the Toulon Tournament in France as it scored only two goals and finished last in its group, which included eventual Olympic champions Mexico. Voronkov scored in the Toulon Tournament, as did another player who would captain Belarus at London.
He played in all five games en route to Belarus's third-place finish in Denmark in 2011, and Stanislav Drahun would be of Belarus's three overage players on the 18-man squad. The second overaged player was on Belarus's U-21 team from 2004: Sergei Kornilenko, one of Belarus's most capped players in the nation's history. The third overage player was a Brazilian-born player who would finish as the leading scorer in Belarus's Premier League in 2010 and 2011. He was Renan Bardini Bressan, and he would also obtain Belarussian citizenship, confirming his eligibility to play for Belarus in 2012.
Belarus looked to make history in the Olympics and on July 26 won its first Olympic game thanks to a Baga header goal right before halftime against New Zealand.
Baga got Belarus off to a good start. Bressan got Belarus off to a shocker in the next game.
It came at Old Trafford in Manchester and Bressan needed only eight minutes to put Belarus up 1-0 against Brazil. However, Brazil tied the match, and the draw lasted for over an hour played. With 25 minutes remaining, it would be Neymar and Brazil breaking Belarus's resistance. Neymar finally was able to break the defense with a 30-yard free kick after being denied on many attempts before he would assist in Oscar's injury time goal as Belarus lost 3-1.
It would be the same score that Belarus would lose to against Egypt in Glasgow, Scotland as an experienced Egypt squad. Belarus would be down 3-0 in a 23-minute span before Voronkov scored a consolation goal that saw Belarus eliminated from the competition.
Belarus did not go down without a fight and displayed strong performances from its first failed attempt to reach the Olympics in 2004 to its run in 2012.
Belarus missed out on a quarterfinal berth, but the nation got so much out of its experience at the Olympics, particularly its manager's coming of age for his country. He was Belarus's manager for the U-21 team in Denmark as well as the Olympics. Following Belarus's success in Denmark, Georgi Kondratiev became Belarus's manager for the senior squad, a post he held until his sacking in October 2014 following early struggles in qualifying for Euro 2016.
Most of the members of the 2011 UEFA U-21 and 2012 Olympic teams have gone on to represent Belarus for the nation team. He was the goalkeeper on both squads, and on Mar. 25, 2013, Alexander Hutar recorded a clean sheet against Canada. Nearly days after the 2012 Summer Olympics ended, Bressan scored his first goals for Belarus as a member of the senior squad in a 2-1 victory over Armenia.
Two months later, he and Drahun scored in Belarus's only victory in 2014 World Cup qualifying: a 2-0 win over Georgia in Minsk's Dynamo Stadium on Oct. 16, 2012. That came nearly two weeks after Bressan scored in another historic event for Belarussian football: a 3-1 victory for BATE Borisov over German giants Bayern München in the UEFA Champions League.
Bressan and Drahun were two of seven players that scored in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, as well as Filipenko (who scored the opening goal against France) and Kornilenko (who scored in Spain).
Much emerged for Belarus in reaching the Olympics as fans across the country celebrated reaching the Olympics. A nation saw youth come of age in a country looking to emerge as a footballing nation where its senior squad struggled. A country found resolve and urgency to overcome adversity and heartbreak in the most dramatic way possible. A country came of age at long last, even if Belarus did not medal at the 2012 Olympics. A country doesn't necessarily need the best players to reach a significant event. Resolve and urgency can help a country overcome adversity, even if it a youth squad having to rise to the occasion. Such traits will help players have success.
It may have taken nearly a decade, but Belarus inspired a nation to begin a new chapter in its footballing history.
- Men's Olympic Football Tournament - Previous Tournaments - FIFA.com
Relive Belarus's journey in the 2012 Summer Olympics, with highlights, news and scores from their matches in the United Kingdom.
- Under-21 2011 - History - Belarus – UEFA.com
Relive Belarus's journey to qualifying for the 2012 Summer Olympics as the Eastern European nation survived close calls en route to its maiden qualification, including the deciding victory over the Czech Republic in Aalborg, Denmark
© 2015 Antonio Martinez