'Ravens' challenge soccer orthodoxy in Belarus

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.

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)."

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.

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."

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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