FC Gomel will play their first European game in their home city as KF Tirana arrive in Belarus.
By Denis Orlov
Few European cities can claim the kind of sporting achievements that Belarus's second city, Gomel, managed in the last 12 months. Their ice hockey team finished second in the Continental Cup, the football team, FC Gomel, won their first league title, and even the winner of Wimbledon has a Gomel connection.
The story goes that 17-year-old tennis sensation Maria Sharapova was conceived in Gomel in 1987 while here parents were escaping from the Chernobyl catastrophe en route to Nyagan in Siberia, where the starlet was eventually born. Sharapova's grandmother still lives in the city.
And she will have barely recovered from her Wimbledon celebrations when Gomel begin their first UEFA Champions League campaign tonight with a game against Albanian champions KF Tirana. Furthermore, with a brand new stadium, the city is ready to celebrate the occasion.
On their previous forays into Europe, Gomel have had to play their home games in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, but with their Central stadium having undergone a dramatic transformation, they will be playing their first European game on home soil in a 10,600-capacity arena now rated as the best in the country.
Having lost defender Anton Ivanov to Russian side FC Kuban Krasnodar and Andrei Morozov to FC Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih in Ukraine, Gomel experienced a difficult start to their title defence. Just five victories in their opening eleven games, culminating in a 4-1 defeat against FC Neman Grodno, saw title-winning coach Sergei Podpaly lose his job. His replacement, Aleksandr Kuznetsov, has turned things around, and Gomel go into the game against Tirana on the back of three straight league wins.
"It's a young and talented team," said Kuznetsov. "The only reason for regret is that Oleg Popel, Eugeni Zinovjev and Yuri Husyainov belong to [FC] Lokomotiv Moksva and are only here on loan. Still, we will try to keep this team together for the future."
Kuznetsov's arrival has certainly helped the youngsters in the team to thrive, and Gomel are now in fourth place in the table, four points adrift of FC Dinamo Minsk. Moreover, Gomel-born Belarus and FC Spartak Moskva midfield hero Vasiliy Baranov is alleged to be on the verge of signing for the club.
With no injuries or suspensions weighing his side down, Kuznetsov is now eager to lead his side into Europe. "We do not have any special tasks set before us in the Champions League or even in the domestic league," he said. "But we are the champions of Belarus, and we cannot let the fans down.
Tirana in focus
"We will do our best, and now the focus is on Tirana," he added. "Then we will think about what comes next. There is a big interest in the Champions League in Gomel." With the locals having got used to sporting success in the past year, Kuznetsov will be eager to turn Gomel's home debut into another triumph.