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Belarus's Historic Road to the 2012 Football Olympic Tournament

Antonio Martinez graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in History and a double minor in Journalism and Russian Area Sudies.

Belarus's starting lineup poses ahead of its match against Brazil at Old Trafford in Manchester, England.

Belarus's starting lineup poses ahead of its match against Brazil at Old Trafford in Manchester, England.

During the Summer Olympics, one team defied the odds and overcame tribulations to qualify for the prestigious competition. Of the 16 countries that participated in the Men's Football Olympic Tournament in 2012, Belarus was one nation that was searching for its identity. This nation had rarely been in the spotlight in football. However, in the previous two years leading up to the Olympics, football provided opportunities and hope.

A shocking road up in France in 2010 was how Belarus kicked off its Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. On the club level, the nation's premier club BATE Borisov even managed an upset of Bayern München in 2012. Then a historic achievement unfolded in Denmark that did not necessarily come from the country's senior squad.
Belarus's under-21 squad survived, and with one timely goal, the nation qualified 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. Whereas the senior squad struggled, Belarus's under-21 team sprung surprises.

Belarus's road began with Dmitri Rubnenko scoring a stoppage time goal in Nijmegen, Netherlands. After two losses, Belarus won its remaining five qualifiers. The streak started in Borisov when Igor Rozhkov netted a hat trick in a 3-1 victory over. Five months later, Belarus finished as one of the six best runners-up spots. During a home game against the Czech Republic, Timofei Kalachev scored the only goal of the match. Two months later, Belarus reached its first U-21 tournament mainly in part due to brothers Viačaslaŭ and Aliaksandr Hleb as Belarus achieved a 5-1 aggregate victory for Belarus. Belarus was searching for a berth at 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 job may have been formidable, but Belarus led after six minutes with a goal from Roman Kirenkin before Aliaksandr Hleb doubled the lead. 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. Pavel Kirylchyk tied the match in the 82nd minute after Mario Lucic put Croatia ahead in the 38th minute.

The draw generated 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, Alieh Shkabara, put Belarus up 1-0 after 13 minutes. Even after Kalachev received a red card, Belarus led 1-0 at halftime and stood to reach the Olympic tournament. However, 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 saw the nation finish the match with nine men.

The 2-1 loss denied Belarus an Olympic debut in 2004, and the Hleb brothers, along with many players, lost their chance to represent Belarus at the Summer Olympics.

Brothers Aliaksandr (L) and Viačaslaŭ Hleb were vital players in helping Belarus reach the 2004 UEFA U-21 Championships. Their run helped spark a youth movement, culminating in the 2011 team reaching the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Brothers Aliaksandr (L) and Viačaslaŭ Hleb were vital players in helping Belarus reach the 2004 UEFA U-21 Championships. Their run helped spark a youth movement, culminating in the 2011 team reaching the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Hearbreak All Too Common

Heartbreak became the theme of Belarus's next three years. Despite scoring 20 goals during qualifying, Belarus lost three home matches. That included a must-win game against Norway in Borisov to stay in contention for a playoff. Belarus came from behind twice to tie, but Norway regained the lead with 19 minutes remaining on a goal from Bjørn-Helge Riise.

Belarus's misery grew following Shkabara's red card. Belarus's 3-2 loss to Norway, coupled with 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 the 2007 UEFA Under 21-Championships against the Czech Republic in Uherske Hradiste.

Belarus got another chance to perform 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, a nation that many favored to progress. However, Belarus overturned the 1-0 first-leg loss in Antalya and won 2-0 in Borisov to qualify.

During the tournament, Siarhiej Kislyak scored the tournament's opening goal in Sweden against the hosts and tallied another opening goal against Italy. However, Belarus had only the two goals as it finished last in its group with one point.

Belarus's Paŭlo Nekhaychik (14) is in action against Bakhtiyar Soltanov and Azerbaijan in a qualifying match in Minsk, Belarus. Nekhaychik scored the only goal of the match to send Belarus to the UEFA U-21 playoffs

Belarus's Paŭlo Nekhaychik (14) is in action against Bakhtiyar Soltanov and Azerbaijan in a qualifying match in Minsk, Belarus. Nekhaychik scored the only goal of the match to send Belarus to the UEFA U-21 playoffs

On the Journey to Denmark

Belarus was a favorite to win its qualifying group that featured Scotland, Austria, Albania, and Azerbaijan. Before the 2009 UEFA U-21 Championships even took place, Belarus had to overcome Scotland's two qualifying wins against Albania. Nevertheless, Scotland defeated Belarus on a stoppage time goal as well in October 2009. Nevertheless, Belarus was able to take care of business as one significant result changed Group 10 while in Austria. In a game contested in Pasching, Belarus trailed the hosts 3-1 at Waldstadion with 15 minutes remaining as Belarus stood on the brink of elimination.

That was until Dzmitry Rekish scored twice in the final 15 minutes to secure Belarus's vital point. On Sept. 3, 2010, Belarus achieved another significant result as it drew 1-1 with Scotland thanks to Paŭlo Nekhaychik's goal in the match. Four days later, Belarus advanced as one of the four best runners-up after Nekhaychik scored the game's lone goal against Azerbaijan. Belarus would have progressed as group winners until Scotland scored a late goal against Austria to win the group. Belarus's reward for finishing as the best runner-up would obtain another chance to face Italy.
Italy remained a heavy favorite to progress, but Belarus defied all odds once again. Once again, Belarus overturned the 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. Alieh Veretilo's goal in the 96th minute sent Belarus to the tournament at Italy's expense.

A second chance at the Summer Olympics awaited Belarus.

Dzmitry Baga (5) celebrates with Aliaksandr Perepechko (10) and Denis Polyakov (18) after Baga scored a goal against hosts Denmark in Aarhus.

Dzmitry Baga (5) celebrates with Aliaksandr Perepechko (10) and Denis Polyakov (18) after Baga scored a goal against hosts Denmark in Aarhus.

Surviving and Advancing to Great Britain

On Nov. 9, 2010, the draw for the 2011 UEFA U-21 Championships had Belarus face Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland. Before the tournament, few experts picked Belarus to advance out of this group. Switzerland fielded its best youth team since Alexander Frei led Switzerland to a semifinal in 2002. Iceland made its debut after its upset of Scotland in the playoffs; Denmark, the most experienced among the four nations in the group, last won a game in this tournament 19 years ago. With Great Britain assured of a football tournament spot, only three European nations would join Great Britain in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Many people thought Belarus's first game against Iceland could determine the third-place team in the group. But goals by Andrej Voronkov and Maxim Skavysh yielded a 2-0 victory for Belarus. Even more crucial was Dzmitry Baga's 20th-minute goal against Denmark in the second match. Belarus lost that game 2-1 and would lose 3-0 against Switzerland. As thoughts of 2004 seemed to have crept back, Belarus benefited from a favorable result from the Denmark-Iceland match in Aarhus. Belarus, Iceland, and Denmark finished level on points, goal differential, and goals scored. With Iceland's victory against Denmark, Belarus advanced to the semifinals due to a better goal differential among the three teams.

Belarus needed to assure themselves a place in London and nearly pulled off a shocking result. Belarus scored the first goal of its semifinal against Spain on a Voronkov bicycle kick off a throw-in. An Olympic berth awaited Belarus (not to mention a spot in the final), but Belarus allowed an 89th-minute goal as Spain forced extra time. During extra time, Spain took control of the game with two more goals and defeated Belarus 3-1. Belarus received another chance to qualify as they would play the Czech Republic.

It was the Czech Republic that precipitated this playoff after it eliminated England during the group stage. The Czechs possessed previous experience in the Olympic tournament and sought to get back. But Belarus grasped its golden chance when the Czech Republic went down to 10 men. In the 88th minute, Yahor Filipenko broke Belarus's agony by scoring the game's lone goal to secure Europe's final berth at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Siarhiej Palitsevich (4) celebrates with Yahor Filipenko (21) in Belarus's match against the Czech Republic on June 24, 2011. Filipenko scored the winning goal to send the Czech Republic to the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Siarhiej Palitsevich (4) celebrates with Yahor Filipenko (21) in Belarus's match against the Czech Republic on June 24, 2011. Filipenko scored the winning goal to send the Czech Republic to the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Heads Held High in Britain

What unfolded for Belarus became a surprise to achieve a berth at the 2012 Summer Olympics. On Apr. 27, 2012, Belarus learned that it would face New Zealand, Brazil, and Egypt. Belarus needed some practice, but the nations struggled in the Toulon Tournament in France. The Eastern European country produced only two goals and finished last in its group, which also featured eventual Olympic champions Mexico. Voronkov scored in the Toulon Tournament. Some players from the 2011 team participated in this tournament - that included Michaś Sivakov. He had captained his nation in Denmark to go with his experience two years earlier at the 2009 U-21 Championships.

Stanislav Drahun, who played in all five of Belarus's matches during the 2011 tournament, was one of Belarus's three overage players on the 18-man squad. The other two were Siarhiej Kornilenko (a member of Belarus's U-21 team from 2004 and one of Belarus's most capped players) and Renan Bardini Bressan, a Brazilian-born player who finished as the leading scorer in Belarus's Premier League in 2010 and 2011. Bressan obtained Belarussian citizenship to confirm his eligibility to play for Belarus in 2012.

Baga got Belarus off to a good start in its first game against New Zealand; on July 26, 2012, he scored the lone goal of the match on a header goal right before halftime. Bressan got Belarus off to a more impressive start in the next game, which occurred at Manchester's Old Trafford. Bressan required only eight minutes to put Belarus up 1-0 against Brazil. Although it allowed a tying goal, Belarus hung in with Brazil for over one hour. But with 25 minutes remaining, Neymar suppressed Belarus's resistance with a 30-yard free-kick after being denied many attempts during the game. Neymar assisted in Oscar's injury-time goal as Belarus put up a brave fight in the 3-1 loss.

It would be all to play for against Egypt in Glasgow, Scotland, with a quarterfinal spot awaiting the winner. Nevertheless, Egypt fielded an experienced squad as the nation recorded three goals in 23 minutes. A Voronkov consolation goal could not stop Belarus's elimination, but the Eastern European nation achieved something noteworthy. In the process, Belarus overcame steep breaks and close calls to en route to making history in Europe.

Aftermath

Belarus gained valuable experience, beginning with Belarus's manager. Following Belarus's notable success in Denmark, Georgi Kondratiev became Belarus's manager for the senior squad. Kondratiev remained as the nation's manager until early struggles during Euro 2016 qualifying led to his sacking in October 2014.

Most of the 2011 UEFA U-21 and 2012 Olympic teams represented Belarus for the national team, including goalkeeper Aliaksandr Hutar. He was the goalkeeper on both squads; on Mar. 25, 2013, Hutar recorded a clean sheet against Canada. Nearly days after the 2012 Summer Olympics ended, Bressan scored his first goal for Belarus as a senior squad member in a 2-1 victory over Armenia. Bressan and Drahun scored in what was Belarus's only win during 2014 World Cup qualifying: - a 2-0 home victory over Georgia in Minsk's Dynamo Stadium on Oct. 16, 2012. Two weeks early, Bressan scored in another tournament - this time for BATE Borisov in a 3-1 victory for BATE Borisov over Bayern München in the UEFA Champions League.

Much emerged for Belarus in reaching the Olympics as fans celebrated reaching the Olympics. A nation saw the youth come of age looking to develop as a footballing nation where its senior squad struggled. A country found resolve and urgency to overcome adversity and heartbreak in the most emotional way possible. Even if Belarus did not advance more significantly at the 2012 Olympics, a country came of age at long last. Resolve and urgency can help a country overcome adversity and a youth squad rising to the occasion.

It may have taken nearly a decade, but Belarus inspired a nation to embark on another chapter in its footballing history.

Yahor Filipenko (21) and Vitali Rodionov (20) celebrate with Stanislav Drahun during a 2014 World Cup match in October 2012.

Yahor Filipenko (21) and Vitali Rodionov (20) celebrate with Stanislav Drahun during a 2014 World Cup match in October 2012.

Journey to the 2012 Summer Olympics

DateOpponentResultCity and Venue

Aug. 12, 2009

Austria (H)

2-1 Belarus

Maladzyechna: Gorodskoi Stadion

Sept. 9, 2009

Azerbaijan (A)

3-2 Belarus

Baku: Tofiq Bahramov Republican Stadium

Oct. 10, 2009

Scotland (A)

1-0 Scotland

Paisley: St. Mirren Park

Oct. 14, 2009

Albania (H)

4-2 Belarus

Maladzyechna: Gorodskoi Stadion

Nov. 17, 2009

Albania (A)

2-1 Belarus

Durrёs: Stadiumi Niko Dovana

Aug. 11, 2010

Austria (A)

3-3

Pasching: Waldstadion

Sept. 3, 2010

Scotland (H)

1-1

Barysaŭ: Gorodskoi Stadion

Sept. 7, 2010

Azerbaijan (H)

1-0 Belarus

Barysaŭ: Gorodskoi Stadion

Oct. 8, 2010

Italy (A)

2-0 Italy

Rieti: Stadio Centro d'Italia

Oct. 12, 2010

Italy (H)

3-0 Belarus

Barysaŭ: Gorodskoi Stadion

June 11, 2011

Iceland (N)

2-0 Belarus

Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus Stadion

June 15, 2011

Denmark (A)

2-1 Denmark

Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus Stadion

June 18,2011

Switzerland (N)

3-0 Switzerland

Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus Stadion

June 22, 2011

Spain (N)

3 -1 Spain (after extra time)

Viborg, Denmark: Viborg Stadion

June 25, 2011

Czech Republic (N)

1-0 Belarus

Aalborg, Denmark: Aalborg Stadion

July 26, 2012

New Zealand (N)

1-0 Belarus

Coventry, England: City of Coventry Stadium

July 29, 2012

Brazil (N)

3-1 Brazil

Manchester, England: Old Trafford

Aug. 1, 2012

Egypt (N)

3-1 Egypt

Glasgow, Scotland: Hampden Park

© 2015 Antonio Martinez

Comments

Kevin Goodwin on August 16, 2015:

It was a great achievement for Belarus in making that tournament not for them but for all the former Soviet union republics. Great hub for a well deserving team

Hugo Pressman from Brazil on August 15, 2015:

Very interesting hub. I like reading about those upsets in football or any other sport