Situated in the east, Belarus is the land of forests, lakes and potatoes. Approximately 40% of the country is covered by woodland, which is honoured by the green stripe on their flag, but for some reason, it was decided that the 11,000 lakes didn’t deserve a blue stripe of their own. Apart from being the only country in Europe that still carries the death penalty, Belarus is also known for its potato dishes, of which there are over 300 in the national cuisine. Bizarrely one of these is potato pancakes. Away from the scenery and spuds, the national football team have been desperately trying (and failing) to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, which would’ve been the first major tournament in their history. They are second from bottom in Group A, eight points from top spot with just four games remaining.
Currently lying at 71st in the FIFA rankings, the White Wings played their first official match in 1992 after separation from the Soviet Union. The nickname surprisingly comes from a book written by famous Belarusian author, Uladzimir Karatkevich because football and classic literature are two obvious things to pair together.
Just two players from Belarus have been a part of the greatest league in the world, and if you’re an Arsenal fan, I bet you can guess one of them.
Alexander Hleb (Arsenal 2005-08, Birmingham City 2010-11)
Alexander Hleb, or Аляксандр Паўлавіч Глеб in the traditional Belarusian spelling, was an attacking midfielder known for his dribbling ability and skills, which saw him earn the nickname “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” during his first spell in Germany. Before joining Stuttgart with his younger brother Vyacheslav Hleb in 2000, Alexander spent time with Dinamo Minsk’s reserve team and BATE Borisov. After doing a lot of research, I have managed to deduce that these are the ONLY two domestic teams in the whole of Belarus. Hleb had an incredibly successful five-year tenure in the Bundesliga, scoring 13 goals and recording countless more assists, and he even won Belarus player of the year in 2002, although I imagine that isn’t a particularly difficult feat.
He signed for Arsenal in 2005, for a fee in the region of £13million. Used mostly as a right-winger, it took Hleb a while to earn himself a consistent starting spot as, no sooner had he arrived in London, he suffered a knee injury and was out for several months. When fit, he made sure he had established himself as a first-choice player and by the end of the season he held the record as the first ever Belarusian to play in a Champions League Final. The night didn’t end in glory though, as the Gunners went down 2-1 to Barcelona.
Hleb struggled again the following season with a hamstring injury, but still managed to make himself an incredibly popular player with his home fans. To this day he is still regarded as one of the most under-rated Premier League players. His performances for Arsenal didn’t go unnoticed and in the summer of 2008, he was on his way to Barcelona on a £15million deal. Alexander would later acknowledge this move as one of the worst decisions of his life. He found it difficult to get regular playing time in La Liga and was sent on loan three times. One of these loans was to Birmingham City during the 2010/11 season. He played 19 times and scored one goal for the Blues.
Since then, he’s played in Germany, Turkey and had four separate spells at BATE. He was last seen in 2017 playing for Krylia Sovetov Samara in the Russian Premier League, but recently left the club and is considered a free agent.
Hleb represented his country for most of his playing career, winning 77 caps making him the fourth most capped player in their history. He was awarded the captaincy in 2007, despite criticism from his teammates that he was a prima donna and only played for himself. To me, it just sounds like a lot of jealous players who were stuck playing for Minsk and BATE for their entire careers.
Sergei Kornilenko (Blackpool 2011)
Kornilenko’s playing career history reads like an archive of major teams from Eastern Europe. In Belarus, he’s played for, you guessed it, Dinamo Minsk. In Ukraine, he’s played for Dynamo Kyiv and Dnipro. In Russia, he’s played for Zenit St Petersburg. In the middle of all that dominance and greatness, there’s a little loan spell to Blackpool that sticks out like five sore digits on each of his hands.
Some may forget that Blackpool were once a handy package in the Premier League. While their fans were recently celebrating a League Two play-off victory, they were surely reminiscing about the long-gone “Ian Holloway Years”. Unless, like me, you’re a Plymouth Argyle fan and hate every fibre of his being for snaking the Pilgrims in 2007, Holloway is everybody’s favourite, straight-talking manager. He took Blackpool to the Premier League and secured Kornilenko on a loan deal in 2011. The striker made minor impact during this time frame and scored a grand total of zero goals during his six appearances for the Tangerines.
After leaving Blackpool and Zenit, he’s spent the rest of his career with Krylia Sovetov Samara, where he played alongside Hleb during the latter’s short spell there. Scoring 35 goals and making 138 appearances, Kornilenko has made himself at home in the Russian top flight.
Kornilenko sits one spot above Hleb in the most capped players list at third, with 78. He was also a part of the team that travelled to London for the Olympics in 2012. It was a largely underwhelming tournament as they lost two of their three games and finished tenth out of the 16 teams.