Come on you redcurrants - and the man from Minsk

Hleb, the most celebrated Belarussian, is already feeling at home in Arsenal's cultured company
Click to follow
The Independent Football

It goes without saying that much has changed, though apart from seating on all four sides of the ground, the greatest difference is in the composition of the team. If the band of the Royal Artillery, Woolwich, were to strike up the national anthem at a home game this month, only Ashley Cole would be qualified to sing.

The first-day ritual of cheering new players may have been used as recently as the George Graham era to greet familiar names signed from places like Stoke, Crystal Palace and Queen's Park Rangers; this afternoon's invitation before the game against Newcastle will be to offer a warm Highbury welcome to a man from Minsk.

Alexander Hleb, the most talented footballer to have come out of Belarus since its breakaway from the Soviet Union 14 years ago (and possibly beforehand too) does not appear in the slightest bit fazed. So entrenched is he in western football culture five years after leaving home for Stuttgart as a teenager that even a transfer fee of £10m, almost as much as Arsenal received for Patrick Vieira, is so much water off a slender midfielder's back. "The fee didn't surprise me," he said, speaking in German through an interpreter. "At the end of the day I don't care how much they had to pay to get me here, whether it's four million or 40 million. I just like playing."

Back home in Belarus, you suspect, eyebrows will have been raised, heads shaken. In the days when it was down to loving parents to fund a son's sporting obsession, Hleb's father drove a petrol truck and his mother worked on a building site. There were no football boots for young Alex until the age of 10, though to be fair, none were required in Minsk: "There were no fields with grass, we just played in the street."

Not until a trip to Italy, soon after independence, was improved footwear called for. "I got my first boots when I went there with the youth team, from the family I was staying with. At that age I didn't realise the value of money. That was in the days when opportunities first arose to go somewhere else and play abroad. I don't want to go into the subject too much, but under the Soviet Union everything was controlled and regulated. It was nice to be able to escape that and have some other options."

More permanent escape would follow at the age of 19, having already won the national championship with BATE Borisov and been voted Footballer of the Year. In 2000 he headed for Stuttgart, initially playing wide, then taking over as playmaker two seasons ago and appearing in all four of the club's Champions' League games (won one, drew one, lost two) against Manchester United and Chelsea.

He has been a regular for some time now in the national team, one of Europe's most improved sides. Once ranked as low as 114th in the world, they finished a good third to Poland and Ukraine in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, and in the current competition are an outside bet for a play-off place in Scotland's group, having lost only one game, 4-3 in the last-minute away to Italy.

There is an important double-header coming up at the start of next month, against Moldova and then the Italians. Before then, Hleb hopes to have made a favourable impression on his new club's supporters, some of whom saw him score within two minutes of his debut in a friendly at Barnet, then replace Robert Pires at half-time in the Community Shield game last Sunday.

Once quoted as calling Scotland "a typical British primitive team", he has stressed that he feels Arsenal, with the speed and incisiveness of their football on the ground, are different to other British sides, which was clearly an attraction for him. "I did have some other offers, including some from England, but as soon as I got the Arsenal offer, I wasn't interested in the others. The quality and level here are quite a lot higher than in Stuttgart, so that's something I'm looking forward to getting involved in. I'm certainly excited by the entire prospect."

There is one other topic that needs to be covered and while not keen to dwell on the matter, he is prepared to confront it: the car crash in Minsk last December, when his Audi collided with a BMW, one of whose passengers later died in hospital. "Of course I feel lucky to be alive," he says. "It was a difficult time and a hard part of my life and now I'd rather forget about it and move on than dwell on what happened. I wouldn't wish it on anybody to go through that, it's something to make you take stock of your life and think about the future and where you want to go."

So he is moving on, one of surprisingly few players to attempt the step from Bundesliga to Premiership. Willowy and quick, with smart feet and a fierce shot, he ought to make the transition comfortably, whatever Newcastle and the rest have in store.

Comments