Vladimir Sinyakevich still shudders when he thinks how close he was to missing out on the best player tohave come out of Belarus since the fragmentation of the USSR.
Alexander Hleb was six when his father, Pavel, a tanker-driver and Dinamo Minsk fan, took him to the club's academy, but they were late and it was raining, so head coach Sinyakevich asked him to come back the next day. Hleb was already keen on gymnastics and diving but his father preferred football, so they did try a second time. His impact was immediate.
"When I saw him working with the ball, my first impression was that there was real talent in that boy," Sinyakevich says. "In every training session from then on I saw he was very capable, not just at football, but all sports. Nature had given him a real explosive acceleration and even at that age you could see he was strong enough, he had everything you need to be a great sportsman."
BATE Borisov this season became Belarus's first representatives in the Champions' League, and much has been made of their academy, a cornerstone of the club's development plan since they refounded in 1996. Dinamo's school has had a big impact too, and Belarus's surge – they have drawn with Argentina and Germany this year – is attributed to investment in the academies in the late 1990s. However, Sinyakevich knows Hleb (below) had something that cannot be taught on the training pitch. "The street gave him the knowledge," he says. "Our generation played outside and we used to do different things, but he came ready, even if he did watch too much television. All I had to do was polish him up a little to give him the opportunity to develop.
"He was stubborn. He never [gave] up. Sometimes you had to guide him when he was not getting on well with other boys on the team. Sometimes I helped him on the tactical side. On the technical side, he was developing himself."
"I could name 20 players," says Sinyakevich of the academies' successes. "If we had proper opportunities, they could form the kind of team Dinamo had when they were champions." That Soviet league success in 1982 casts its shadow over Belarusian football, and the attacking, almost naïve, style of their coach, Eduard Malofeev, remains the preferred mode.
Yuri Puntas, who worked with Hleb when he moved to BATE aged 17, says he felt an obligation to entertain in his spell in charge of the national team. "Malofeev created Belarusian football," he said. "And football is a beautiful game when the stars are shining.
"Hleb is a star. God created him to play football. He is one of the sensations of my life. He grew up on a field with no grass, just rough mud. How can it happen from such a pitch that you get a good player?"
Injury could yet rule Hleb out of Wednesday's clash: "I would love to help my countrymen cause a sensation," he says. Were they to do so, it would be a triumph of the academy system and, particularly, of Sinyakevich.Reuse content