Bernd Stange's goal for his first full campaign in charge of Belarus was clear: to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. But after taking 13 points from ten games – all but one of that tally by beating Kazakhstan and Andorra – they finished fourth in Group 6, giving the German coach plenty to reflect upon.
Stange's contract expired on 30 November and it is unclear if he will remain at the helm, but while results against England, Ukraine and Croatia left the national team short of their target, many positives were also achieved. Workshops and charity events were successfully organised; local players in the domestic top flight, or Vysshaya Liga, were given more of a chance; and Belarus qualified for last summer's UEFA European Under-21 Championship, providing talent for the senior squad.
"We wanted to finish higher," Stange said. "We have 25 to 30 players in our squad and I could not tell them: 'Boys, our goal is fourth place.' We wanted to achieve something significant. But it was a very competitive group with Ukraine, Croatia and especially England, who are all strong sides. We should remain realistic and admit that their level is higher than ours. But we have to continue dreaming to make progress and achieve something bigger. Unfortunately, Belarus is a small country and we do not have enough top players at our disposal. Five of the players who started against England come from the national league. It's not a problem for Fabio Capello to pick two or three world-class players from his reserves. I am upset with the outcome, but not ashamed."
Opinion within Belarus is split. Former national team coach Anatoli Baidachny said "the result is unsatisfactory". On the other hand, Kazakhstan U21 coach Pavel Rodnenok, formerly boss of the Belarus U17 and U19 sides, argued: "I cannot say that Bernd's appointment was a mistake. Let's start by asking who in Belarus is best able to handle Aleksandr Hleb and Co? Stange managed to do that. The best possible players are in the team, and they are glad to be there. There has been a change of generations and Stange oversaw that, laying the foundations for future success. Nor is he just concerned with the senior team – he is looking at the whole national-team setup."
Hleb himself accepted his share of the blame. "Unfortunately, I could not help the team in four qualifiers because of injury, but I think we performed below average," said the VfB Stuttgart midfielder. "We could have finished second and reached the play-offs. We're not worse than Ukraine. If you remember, we could have won or at least drawn in Ukraine, beaten them in Minsk and got three points against Croatia in Zagreb. Sometimes luck was not on our side. But it is us – the players and coaching staff – who are to blame. We have to draw the necessary conclusions and work harder."
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