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I’d been slated to cover the Dundalk-BATE game but the Dundalk media people didn’t come through with the necessary, or even answer the request.
I bought two tickets anyway the day of the game and then thought better of it. If the match went into extra-time (or god forbid penalties) I’d miss my flight to Moldova, plus I’d have an exhausted six-year-old to pass back to my family.
However, I got my Belarus story.
I was once deported from Belarus, very politely it must be added. It was the beginning of the end for me on a couple of fronts, notably in sport. However that’s another day’s tale.
The main thing is that for a number of years I’d worked with athletes and clubs from Belarus, navigating their odd ex-Soviet system with some success.
On any visit to the country I’d felt immediately at home and despite the definite feeling of strict Lukashenko rule, the people were always friendly and open.
Most recently I’d a short visit with Tim and there was a palpable change in the local mentality. Friends there told me they felt more pressure to choose sides in the global geopolitical mess and that business was suffering, even with the initial boon of sanctions.
Importantly, less money was reaching grassroots sports. Nothing unusual for those working in the sphere except it sounded like a death knell. Belarus, for them, was struggling badly.
I reached out to contacts in football clubs, including BATE Borisov, and they were reluctant to comment. Life went on and I with it.
Tim got an extension to his normal bedtime to watch the Lilywhites go in at half-time leading 1-0. He was asleep by the time Dundalk finished the job and hit a veritable jackpot.
While Shamrock Rovers pocketed around €2 million for their 2011 breakout and Shelbourne FC took in over €1 million in 2004, Dundalk will be almost €7 million better off by this time next year.
For BATE, the loss of Champions League money and a guarantee of Europa League cash is going to bite hard.
Since their breakthrough to the Group Stage of the 2008/09 UEFA Champions League, they’ve done the same in six of the next seven seasons (four Champions League, two Europa League).
If they fail to make the Europa League this year, the club is in trouble. The darlings of Belarus were well and truly Dundalk-ed last Tuesday night.
As Dundalk fought for their life in 2011, BATE were drawing with AC Milan and hosting Barcelona.
When Dundalk won a controversial play-off against Waterford United to stay in the top flight as the club lurched towards Armageddon, BATE were beating Bayern Munich and Lille en route to a knock-out appearance in the Europa League (thanks to their third place finish in their Champions League group).
They re-invested in their scouting, facilities, local schools, players and, most of all, stadium. The riches of the UEFA Champions League lifted the local economy and kept the club virtually unbeatable domestically. After last week there could be big trouble in little Belarus for BATE.
I was exhausted by the time I got to the airport and due to idiotic road closures on the M50. Worse was to follow; the x-ray machines broke down at security and a tray of my things disappeared.
The decency and politeness of the staff prevented me from going full Falling Down, also the fact that I met a sports official from Belarus who was going through the same thing.
Serhii and I go back to my time in Germany. Of German-Jewish heritage he moved from the crumbling USSR in 1990. He built a solid career post-graduation in 1995. As a currency dealer in a merchant bank he looked after a number of our foreign players at Eintracht.
He also used to get me the best rates for my Dollar and Punt conversions to or from deutschemarks.
Now in the land of his birth, he works with the Belarus Ministry of Sport as a “sponsor coordinator”, basically he dishes out state cash and searches for private money. He’s been doing it since 2002 and BATE is one of his pet projects.
Picking up some “Plane Water”, we sat down at Gate 302 in Terminal 1, away from the prying eyes and interested ears of the BATE group.
BATE, as I outlined in this 2012 article based everything on promotion from within and concentrating on domestic players; to give youngsters a chance to shine, keep costs down and potential transfer profits high.
Patience with coaches and developing a set playing system got them to the point where they’ll win their 11th Belarus Championship in a row later this year. However, all is not rosy in the club that good sense and forward planning built.
I asked him why he was so negative about the club. Why the bleak future? He broke it down in terms I’d understand.
We are bringing in sub-standard foreigners, we are not bringing through youngsters – I mean – the quality of our youngsters from the Academy is not good.
Players with us don’t believe they can play for the National Team even because Dinamo (Minsk) and the Federation have it totally biased. So any kid with potential or ambition is turning us down – plus they’re offered more money, to the parents, at other clubs.
But surely this is temporary, BATE are giants and can even pony up the cash if needs be?
You’re joking? If you look at the accounts, and I’ve seen them, it will be a cold Winter this year if they don’t make the group stage at least of the Europa League.
The stadium debt is heavy, wages are heavy and they’ve just, how do you say, lost their way?” (We agreed that this was actually – Lost the run of themselves).
What about the quality of players they have now? Man for man they’re better than Dundalk.
Who, Sasha (Alexander Hleb)? He’s good for 15 minutes yet he gets one of the biggest salaries. Foreign players, I mean, look at them. [At that moment Latvian International Kaspars Dubra was quietly reading a book nearby]
We used to have anomalies, like Mateja Kezman (ex-Chelsea who played a handful of games before he retired), but now we see our club like some sort of head of a farm system.
This I knew to be partially true thanks to strong links between a Serbian agent and the BATE hierarchy. He continued.
See, how many youngsters are able to make the step up, maybe Zhenya (Evgeni Yablonsky who was listening to music while walking aimlessly in circles) but the club has lost their soul because they think they are untouchable.
Yermakovich (BATE’s Manager Alexander) was Goncharenko’s (former manager Viktor) drinking buddy, but he thinks he now should get a bigger job, in Russia maybe. He wants to go to Russia, but he’s looking for big money and he won’t make the same money as he does here with these stupid transfers.
We discussed other matters and ended on our families. We promised to stay in closer touch then he left to drag the officials and some players from The Gate Bar.
To prove his point, he sent three players (two of whom started that night) my way. We chatted about football, careers and losing to Dundalk. To a man they were not surprised.
As Belarus media had predicted, going to Ireland with only a one goal lead was not going to be enough. They also had their usual list of complaints – salaries delayed, issues with conditions, unpaid bonuses, lack of club support.
It was nothing new for me to hear in the Eastern European context, however BATE used to be different.
One of the players, a current Belarus international, said the head coach is hampered by the club’s officials as they have a “global vision”. They bring in players without consulting him and Yermakovich is increasingly frustrated, though in any case their coach is at least a co-author in the club’s downfall.
He advised the club in 2013 that to “get to the next level” they needed more foreign players. The club agreed and also decided on a “resale” strategy. And this is where the locals are pissed off.
Reselling of players is nothing new or unusual. Clubs do it all the time. I remember an unscrupulous club Director in Malta looking to bring in young African players. We’d get them visas and exposure then sell them on to bigger clubs.
When it was put to him that African players in Malta had a bad reputation of misbehaving and enjoying the nightlife – he suggested castration.
Of the nine people at the board meeting, three of us shocked silent, as we knew he was serious. Though what BATE are doing now is slightly different.
The plan they have laid down in relatively simple. Bring in players on the cheap or for free, especially those who are young with top flight experience. Train them, give them game time and then sell them on to balance the books.
This is good in theory though unreliable in practice. It’s the equivalent of gambling a grand on horses in the Grand National who are 50/1 and above. In the last 50 years there have been five who won at 5/1 or above, and one was Foinavon.
Bigger clubs than BATE Borisov have made such gambles and ended up in trouble. Belgium’s Beveren were built on a model that BATE are worryingly edging towards. Clubs in Hungary, Croatia and Serbia have all tried the same.
NK Rijeka, thanks to their owner, are trying their hand at bringing in “rough diamonds” from Nigeria and thus far have been proving that it is still an attractive business model for some.
Of course what BATE are doing is nothing compared to the rapacious practices of others. especially Dinamo Zagreb’s trafficking young Brazilian players and hitting the Eduardo Da Silva jackpot.
BATE’s Brazilian forward, Bressan, was impressive for the club before moving to bankrupt Alania Vladikavkaz. That wasn’t like winning the English Premier League lottery.
To add to their misery, the flight (like ours) was delayed by over half an hour. The lads I spoke with were hungry and not interested in replenishing liquids like some of their team-mates and officials in The Gate Bar.
They were hungry and added that they were not given recovery shakes. Without enough euros for snack machines, I loaned a few of mine, they bought (in order) – Cadbury’s Twirl x2, Tayto Cheese and Onion, Coke x3 and Haribo Tangfastics.
Last week Dundalk proved that with the right attitude and application Irish clubs can match anyone. Motivation and harmony is key and Dundalk have cajoled glowing embers into a burning fire.
The UEFA windfall, if managed properly, could redevelop Oriel Park from one of the worst in the League to the best in Ireland. Dundalk is a sports town with the economic and cross-community support to be Europa League Group stage regulars.
Meanwhile, the lovable underdogs from Belarus face into the future with growing uncertainty. If they fail to get past FC Astana in just over a week’s time, the club will face a bitter winter.