Belarus

‘Ravens’ challenge soccer orthodoxy in Belarus

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MINSK, Belarus (AP) Less than three years ago, Alexander Skshinetsky’s soccer career seemed over.

The former under-21 international found himself unemployed after his career stalled, and was working on construction sites when an offer came. Would he consider joining an amateur team that had been playing seven-a-side soccer but now wanted to go pro, founded by a small group of fans staking thousands of dollars of their own money to build a club from scratch?

Two seasons and two promotions later, the 26-year-old midfielder is a key player in one of European soccer’s most unlikely success stories. In only its third professional season, Krumkachy Minsk is playing top-flight soccer, beating established names and challenging the economic orthodoxy in one of Europe’s most closed-off countries.

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Krumkachy – “Ravens” in Belarusian – has soared into the country’s top league with a shoestring budget but an enthusiastic and growing fan base of hipsters, families and others turned off by the stagnation of soccer in the ex-Soviet nation. Before a recent run of losses, it was even challenging for Europa League qualification.

The secret has been finding talented players on the verge of leaving the game, or even those who have already quit, “people who have been underestimated and put down,” in the words of co-founder Denis Shunto, who set up Krumkachy with friends in 2011. “We get those guys and we can really make them into a team.”

After starting out in recreational competitions, Shunto and his friends decided to aim higher. Belarusian soccer has a three-tier league system packed with clubs backed by various government agencies and state-run factories in the country’s Soviet-style economy, a set-up which prefers predictability over ambition and can give rise to conflicts of interest. With a spot open in the third tier, but without a state patron, Krumkachy scraped together a few thousand dollars to apply. Each subsequent step up the pyramid brought predictions of imminent financial collapse.

“Everyone said we wouldn’t have the money, we couldn’t take part,” said Skshinetsky, the midfielder. “We played for free in the second division, and in the first division it wasn’t much. Maybe $100 for a win in the first division and salaries maybe $150 (a month).”

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On a freezing Friday night in Minsk, the crowd was small and the game scrappy. Goalkeeping errors helped to hand Krumkachy a 2-1 win which all but ensured the club’s top-flight survival for 2017 in the Belarusian league’s calendar-year system. Financial survival is always a trickier question.

“We’ve got the smallest budget (in the league) and we’re still putting money in ourselves,” said Shunto, who wonders if the approach of going without government funding may be “too romantic.”

At Friday’s game, commercial tie-ups were prominent and Krumkachy’s shirts were covered in a myriad of small logos from various businesses which have chipped in as sponsors, while opposition Granit Mikashevichi bore only the logo of its backer, a state-run quarry. Consumerism may be the norm in most European leagues, but in Belarus’ state-dominated economy, it’s the mark of the plucky underdog.

After ending a nine-game wait for victory, the players came over to celebrate with the sparse crowd. An hour later, the reserve players were still sharing the field with fans and their children having a kickabout.

“It’s an atmosphere like home, very warm. It’s been helping the guys not to give up,” said Vasily Khomutovsky, one of Krumkachy’s two co-coaches.

At a recent away game, “a woman with two children who went there, with two small kids 7 and 10 years old, she made each player a little souvenir by hand and signed it, something different for each player,” Khomutovsky said.

There’s a family atmosphere within the club, too, with Shunto’s brother serving as a backup goalkeeper and Skshinetsky’s wife in charge of fitness training.

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Vladimir Harlach, one of the team’s supporters, said Krumkachy reminds him of AFC Wimbledon, the English club founded by fans after owners relocated its previous incarnation to another town, and which has since shot up several divisions.

“That’s a bit different, there was history,” Harlach said. “Here, it’s from scratch. History is being written in front of our eyes. You could compare it to other countries 100 years ago, when (soccer) was all being created.”

Krumkachy’s average home attendance of about 1,500 is tiny by European standards, but enough to put it comfortably above all but the biggest clubs in Belarus, as well as higher than that of FC Minsk, the city government-run club whose stadium Krumkachy is using.

Some at the club wonder whether European qualification might be possible next year, another improbable step up, but the top spot in Belarus appears far out of reach. Able to outspend rivals with cash from occasional Champions League appearances, BATE Borisov has just sewn up its 11th straight title.

Khomutovsky welcomes the comparison to Leicester, a team which was promoted to top division in England, survived one season, then won a wildly unlikely title the following year.

“I hope next year,” Khomutovsky said, “we do what we can to become the Belarusian Leicester.”

“It’s not chess” — Ireland assistant Roy Keane blasts softness after loss

Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
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If we’re talking about a friendly between Ireland and Belarus, well, something truly remarkable must have occurred in Cork.

That Belarus upset hosts Ireland 2-1 is notable, but we speak more of the words uttered by a certain assistant manager.

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And that manager’s name is Roy Keane, the irrepressible personality and longtime Ireland and Manchester United midfielder. From the BBC:

“I wanted to kill some of them last night,” he said.

“They should count their blessings they’ve managed to get on the flight – a reality check for one or two players who thought they were good players.”

Those comments alone breach the normal coach speak and make us raise an eyebrow, but Keane is looking toward a brutal Euro group that includes Italy, Belgium and Sweden.

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Here’s another beauty from Keane, a frank, brutal and probably fair assessment of winger Aiden McGeady:

“He can do a lot better but maybe that’s the story of Aiden’s career,” added Keane.

The hits kept coming when it came to the “modern player” and concern with health. Here’s where Keane was really feeling it, from Sky Sports:

“People have talked about not playing much football or players carrying knocks; I’m worried if players aren’t carrying knocks.

“You’re supposed to get knocks because you’re supposed to be tackling people, you’re supposed to be hitting people at pace.

“That’s part of the game. It’s not chess we’re playing.”

Bring on the Euro, and let’s have Keane take all the press conferences in place of manager Martin O’Neill.

Belgium reaches the apex in new FIFA rankings; USMNT drops to 33

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For whatever FIFA rankings are worth outside of seeding in a World Cup year, the United States and Belgium are dealing with very opposite feelings (not unlike their meeting at the 2014 World Cup).

The Yanks are down to No. 33 in November’s edition, 14 slots lower than their all-time average position. The U.S. will begin at least a slight ascent soon, barring calamity in the opening rounds of World Cup qualifying, as “meaningful” games matter in the ranking more than friendlies.

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But the real story is Belgium, who is the world’s No. 1 club for the first time. Since the calendar hit June 2014, the Red Devils are 16-2-2. Those losses have come to Argentina and Wales, one in the World Cup and one at Cardiff in Euro qualifying.

Wales, in a quirk of schedule, drops seven spot to 15, while Austria moves into the Top Ten.

Big risers: Turkey (+19 to 18), Belarus (+28 to 70). Cyprus (+38 to 76).

Dropped off: Norway (-12 to 46), Israel (-14 to 61), Slovenia (-18 to 64)

Euro 2016 qualifying roundup: England, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine all snag three points

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Another day full of EURO 2016 qualifiers has passed, with Spain, England, Sweden and the Ukraine coming out as the winners on the way to next year’s major soccer tournament in Europe.

Slovenia 2-3 England: The Three Lions have won all six of their EURO qualifiers so far, and thanks to Jack Wilshere’s brace and Wayne Rooney’s score, England was able to cement that accomplishment in a significant win over Slovenia. Wilshere’s two goals were blasted into the upper-90 in wonderful manner, while Rooney netted his goal in the 86th minute, in a more casual way, to place him at third all-time (48) on England’s top-scorer list. Slovenia opened the game up in the 37th minute when Milivoje Novakovic, off a feed from Josip Illicic, outsmarted an offside trap to convert an attempt past goalkeeper Joe Hart. Nejc Pecnik’s downward header equalized two minutes before Rooney won it.

Spain 1-0 Belarus: Spain is looking good in Group C after Manchester City midfielder David Silva was the lone scorer for Vicente del Bosque’s side, who have solidified a fifth qualifier win and are now three points behind Slovakia. The first half for the Red Furies was dissatisfying to say the least, as Juventus standout Alvaro Morata knocked a quality chance wide of goal, and Belarus keeper Andrey Gorbunov thwarted Pedro on two occasions, while Silva did not receive a penalty kick appeal off Maksim Bordachev’s challenge. Gorbunov was the main reason Belarus was capable of staying close in this one, dealing with 13 shots on goal–several of which were fairly difficult to handle.

[FOLLOW: PST’s EURO 2016 coverage]

Ukraine 3-0 Luxembourg: Ukraine needed this win, and they got it. Hoping to remaining within distance of the top two in Group C, the Yellow-Blues rose to the occasion in the second half, scoring three straight goals to cruise to victory. Daniel Da Mota struck the post for the away side in the opening minutes, while the home team struggled to put one in after having their fair share of chances to start. The second half told a different story, though. Artem Kravets chested in Ukraine’s first of the match, Denys Garmash followed with the header and Yevhen Konoplyanka finished it off in the 86th minute.

Sweden 3-1 Montenegro: Three goals within seven minutes. Two unsurprisingly from Zlatan Ibrahimovic. That’s what gave Sweden this win over Montenegro to fix the squad at second place in Group G right now, four points behind Austria. For the first goal, Sebastian Larsson located Albin Ekdal and fed to him on the right. In turn, Ekdal executed a well-placed cross for the first goal–a header from Marcus Berg. Ibrahimovic grabbed the ball of a throw-in and blasted a long distance strike for the second, and then easily slid the third past Montenegro goalkeeper Vukasin Poleksic. Dejan Damjanovic converted for Montenegro with a penalty kick following Stefan Mugosa being hauled down in the penalty area.

Lithuania 1-2 Switzerland: It’s a comeback win over Lithuania that has the Swiss moving up to second place, six points back from England in Group E. Fedor Cernych handed the home squad the lead in the middle of the second half, but Josip Drmic quickly made up for the lapse with an equalizer five minutes later. Inter Milan midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri took Breel Embolo’s assist and placed it low for the 84th-minute advantage.

Other results

Russia 0-1 Austria

Estonia 2-0 San Marino

Slovakia 2-1 Macedonia

Complete Euro 2016 Qualifying Preview: Road to France kicks off Sunday

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The endless international cycle is wonderful for viewers and exhausting for players, and European sides get right back to work with Euro 2016 qualifying beginning on Sunday.

Germany, of course, will be favorites to coast through qualifying after this summer’s World Cup title, but there are plenty of questions in what will become an expanded Euro field.

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– Can England do much of anything after bouncing out of the World Cup in the group stages?

– Is France ready to reclaim its place as an elite force in European play?

– Was Spain’s horrible World Cup just a bump in the road?

– Can a number of ‘under-the-radar’ sides announce their arrival as major forces?

Two nations from each group and the highest-ranked third-place team automatically advance to the tournament in France, while the remaining eight third-place teams will duke it out in a playoff tie.

Oh, international football, how we love you!

Group A
source: APTeams: Netherlands, Czech Republic, Turkey, Latvia, Iceland, Kazakhstan
The favorites: Netherlands, Czech Republic
First up: Tuesday — Netherlands at Czech Republic, Turkey at Iceland, Latvia at Kazakhstan

Prognosis: Would be a shock if the Dutch don’t progress, while Iceland, Turkey and the Czechs will be favored to duke it out for the second and third place spots. Ultimately, we’ll peg Turkey to finish second with the Czechs to snare third (although Iceland taught us a lot about resilience in nearly qualifying for the World Cup)

Group B
Teams: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Belgium, Israel, Wales, Cyprus, Andorra
The favorites: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Belgium
First up: Tuesday — Wales at Andorra, Cyprus at BNH

Prognosis: Hard to imagine the first two spots aren’t settled with Belgium followed by Bosnia-Herzegovina, but perhaps Gareth Bale can inject Wales into the discussion. Israel, Cyprus or Andorra finishing anything other than 4th through 6th would be quite the surprise.

 

Group C
Teams: Spain, Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus, Macedonia, Luxembourg
The favorites: Spain, Ukraine
First up: Monday — Macedonia at Spain, Slovakia at Ukraine, Belarus at Luxembourg

Prognosis: It’s a little interesting after Spain’s fall-off this summer, but surely the death of tiki-taka has been greatly exaggerated. Could Ukraine or Slovakia pull off a surprise dash to the top of the group? It’s possible, but more likely that they’ll be working for second while Belarus hopes the group sleeps on its BATE Borisov-heavy roster.

Group D
source: APTeams: Germany, Ireland, Poland, Scotland, Georgia, Gibraltar
The favorites: Germany, Poland
First up: Sunday — Scotland at Germany, Poland at Gibraltar, Ireland at Georgia

Prognosis: Between Bayern Munich stars on Poland (Robert Lewandowski) and Germany (seemingly everyone else), the first two spots can be settled if Germany avoids a historically-bad hangover and Poland gets past its World Cup qualifying ghosts. It doesn’t get much better than Scotland and Ireland in the same group, though, and surely they’ll try to put a charge into Poland… and each other.

 

Group E
Teams: England, Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, San Marino
The favorites: Switzerland, England
First up: Monday — England at Switzerland, Lithuania at San Marino, Slovenia at Estonia
Prognosis: England can cast aside plenty of demons by picking up three points in its opener against the Swiss, though one gets the feeling Roy Hodgson would take a single point with glee. Slovenia is the class of the remaining four teams and has proven it can scare the Three Lions, but surely England will be a Top Two side, right? Right?

 

Group F
Teams: Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland, Northern Ireland, Faroe Islands
The favorites: Greece, Hungary
First up: Sunday — Finland at Faroe Islands, Romania at Greece, Northern Ireland

Prognosis: While the Greeks will be favored to put the rest of the group into a slumber to win the way Downtown Abbey must clinch its many awards, this group could see just about anything happen. I like Hungary and Finland, while Vlad Chiriches and Romania did get to the World Cup qualifying playoff before falling to Greece (who actually scored thrice in the match). All bets are off.

 

Group G
source: Getty ImagesTeams: Russia, Sweden, Austria, Montenegro, Moldova, Liechtenstein
The favorites: Sweden, Russia
First up: Monday — Sweden at Austria, Moldova at Montenegro, Liechtenstein at Russia

Prognosis: Surely Zlatan will be charged up to lead Sweden to the top of the group after the nation’s World Cup qualifying failure, while Russia will be keen to erase its summer failings. Austria should have David Alaba and Andreas Weimann in the fold in an effort to hold off the other three — and make a charge at a Top Two spot — while Stevan Jovetic and Montenegro beg to differ.

 

Group H
Teams: Italy, Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Malta
The favorites: Italy, Croatia
First up: Tuesday — Bulgaria at Azerbaijan, Malta at Croatia, Italy at Norway

Prognosis: It’s a battle for third, if we’re honest, and even that fight should fit neatly into Norway’s favor. US, or at least Jurgen Klinsmann, fans will be hoping that special advisor Berti Vogts can help the Milli or Azerbaijan into shockingly-good form.

Group I
Teams: Portugal, Denmark, Serbia, Armenia, Albania
The favorites: Portugal, Serbia
First up: Sunday — Portugal at Albania, Denmark at Armenia

Prognosis: This group is tricky tough, with Armenia and Albania each finding their way into the Top 40 since 2013. It’s very possible that the top-ranked third place team deserves to come from this group, but they are going to take a lot of points off each other.

source: APFinal prognosis:

Group winners: Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Sweden, Italy, Serbia

Second place: Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, Poland, England, Russia, Croatia, Portugal

Highest-ranked third place: Austria

Playoff qualifiers: Czech Republic, Wales, Slovakia, Ireland, Slovenia, Finland, Norway, Denmark