Belarus may never have qualified for a major tournament but coach Georgi Kondratiev retains lofty ambitions for his side.
Kondratiev took charge of the national team at the end of 2011, having guided his country to third place at the 2011 UEFA European Under-21 Championship in Denmark. Though Belarus are fourth in 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying Group I, there is renewed hope they are close to a major championship breakthrough – thanks to a gifted generation of players and the increase to 24 teams at UEFA EURO 2016.
Kondratiev's side are likely to have to wait until the final tournament in France at least, as they are already four points shy of Spain and Les Bleus in the race to reach Brazil next year. "Our chances were not high from the start," said the 53-year-old. "Let's face up to reality: we have two extremely strong opponents in the group and can only fight for third place, which will help improve our ranking for the EURO 2016 qualifying round draw."
His words carry considerable weight in Belarus after a playing career in which, as a striker, he was a key man for FC Dinamo Minsk and, to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union. Initially an assistant to Yuri Kurnenin, he assumed the U21 coaching helm following the death of his friend in 2009. He subsequently steered the team to the 2009 and 2011 finals, as well as a place at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
His one-time U21 charges – many of whom now catch the eye with FC BATE Borisov – may well form the core of Kondratiev's senior setup. He tried out 36 players in 2012, including seven debutants, such as Belarusian player of the year Renan Bressan.
As a result of this influx, Belarus's most famous export, 31-year-old Aleksandr Hleb, appears increasingly peripheral. The ex-Arsenal FC and FC Barcelona midfielder has been in fine form for BATE but made just two international appearances in the last calendar year. "When I joined BATE, Kondratiev called me and we had a meeting," said Hleb. "I think we understood each other. I am ready for any decision and will not feel aggrieved, angry or foolish. Kondratiev has the right to make any decision."
Despite the talent at his disposal, Kondratiev is impatient. "I'd really like it if our players could progress faster," he said. "I follow players who were our opponents at youth level – a while back we were equal to Austria, Scotland, Iceland, Denmark ... but look where some of their players are today. [Austria's David] Alaba and [Denmark's Christian] Eriksen are already leaders at top clubs. Our players haven't progressed that fast, some have even disappeared altogether. That is sad because we do not have that many gifted players."
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