After many protests from the players, Turkish Super Lig finally suspended its matches on Thursday, March 25. For a moment, it seemed that because of coronavirus pandemic all football in Europe has stopped.
But it wasn’t the case. UEFA had its meeting a week before, and heads of European football had to confess one unflattering truth. The situation is outside of their control, and football will remain suspended until health authorities and governments don’t advise otherwise.
But more than 2.000 kilometers from UEFA headquarters in Nion, 730 people attended the start of the new season! In Minsk, nobody cared. President Lukashenko gave the green light to start the league, and the league started in a spectacular fashion.
Belarus eternal champions BATE Borisov just lost their first title in 15 years previous season, and now they fell to Energetyk-BGU, who defeated them 3:1 in the first leg of the new season.
Sports TV’s across the world craved for football, so more than 10 new countries had a deal for a live broadcast of Belarus “Vysshaya Liga“. This particular game caught the eye of many football fanatics across Europe.
“All the world now watches the Belarusian league. Everybody should go to their television and see us. When the NHL closed the season, a lot of ice hockey players went to Russia to play. Maybe Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo might come to the Belarus league to continue. You know?“, said one former BATE Borisov player.
A man who has just finished his 20 years long career after 6 months played in Isloch Minsk, knew about who he was talking about. He played with Lionel Messi for a year. He is the man who put Belarus on the football map. The best ever player from this Eastern European country. And a man with the most incredible story.
His name is Aliaksandr Paulavich Hleb and this is a story about him.
Hleb family – dancing on the verge of death
Alexander Hleb was born in Minsk on 1 May 1981. The Soviet Union was alive and well at that moment, but just a couple of months earlier Lidiya Hleb wasn’t. Words evade from her when she’s trying to tell about how all this happiness could not have happened – doctors have been insisting on therapeutic abortion.
“Thank God I didn’t listen to doctors and saved the baby“, says happy Lidiya these days.
Alex Hleb went against the odds from the first moment. He was born against the odds, and like many of these kids – he lived against the odds.
His childhood was very tough, even for the Soviet conditions of that time. Like all empires in decay, USSR didn’t offer its residents much. Hleb family lived in a dormitory in Koropotkina street in Minsk, and there wasn’t much to do for kids. Sasha, as parents call him, just needed a ball. Even before he properly learned to walk, he kicked the ball against the walls of the dormitory.
Hleb family lived off the hard work. Alexandar’s father drove petrol tankers, and his mother was a physical worker, but somehow they managed to move to a one-bedroom apartment in Chervyakova street.
Sasha wanted to play football, but he had to start with gymnastics. Naturally gifted and passionate when it comes to competition, he thrived in all sports. He was a great gymnast, and later when his family moved once again, he started to train in the platform diving club.
He was just a kid when he had enough courage to jump off the 10-meter platform into the water. But for a kid that has seen so much in his first 5 years, nothing seemed scary.
Voices from… Pavel Hleb
On 26 April 1986 No. 4 nuclear reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant broke down. It was near the city of Pripyat in the north of the Ukrainian SSR, but Ukraine wasn’t the most affected by this. Winds blew towards Belarus that April, and most of the radiation went that way.
Soviet authorities didn’t respond quickly enough, and all hell broke loose. Soon, the government had to mobilize troops and specialists, but also ordinary people to help clear out the area, and do all precautionary measures needed to isolate Pripyat and Chernobyl.
Pavel Hleb, the father of two boys, had to go and work on cleaning out the houses near the nuclear power plant. He worked there for 6 months, without any salary, and his family didn’t have any contact with him. Lidiya Hleb was home alone, with two boys.
When Pavel returned home, he immediately granted a wish to his older son and took him to football training. Pavel was a die-hard Dinamo Minsk fan. He even went to away games, which isn’t that easy in a country as widespread geographically as the Soviet Union. Sasha was 1 year old, and Pavel was a regular spectator of Dinamo games when that side won the USSR championship in 1982. Dinamo Minsk finished the season a point ahead of Dynamo Kyiv, with 13 goals from Ihar Hurynovich, and a midfield presence of Sergei Aleinikov
Aleinikov went on to become a Juventus player, a thing that Belarus football never achieved until him. But in a time when Aleinikov was still anchorman in Dinamo’s team, Pavel Hleb brought his son to training. And when they arrived at the stadium, the sight wasn’t too nice. Everyone was soaking wet, and the pitch was covered in mud.
“When he first took me there, it was raining, but the practice was underway. The coach Vladimir Senkevich said:
“Come back other day.” I was mad, I’m soaking wet, and I said: “If I don’t enter the field today, I’m not coming back.” So Vladimir sent me to the locker room” recollects his memories Alex Hleb, 30 years later.
That day, Vladimir Senkevich saw what he got. A diamond. He immediately told other kids that this is the kid that they will learn from.
“Sasha stood out from the very beginning with the way he moved, the way he dribbled, the way he was thinking during the game. He had a good sense of humor and was fun to be around. When he enters the field he’s angry like a predator. He was unforgiving to himself and to the others“, said one of Hleb’s teammates from younger days in Dinamo.
But football didn’t stop at Dinamo Minsk training pitches. Hleb developed playing football on the concrete of Minsk. Asphalt was ruined, streets haven’t been repaired for years, and after two or three weeks of playing in the streets sneakers would completely wear off. And there was no money for new ones, so Hleb spent his childhood in worn-out shoes.
From 150 dollars to €1.5 million in a year
Hleb was talented and stood out from the rest of the kids, but at that time, that guaranteed virtually nothing. Belarus hadn’t produced a player that could go and play abroad for years, and Belarus league quality was close to amateur level. The infrastructure was poor, and salaries were quite symbolic.
And even there, he hit the wall. He graduated, and all of the players were getting a contract, but he didn’t get any offers. Not from Dinamo Minsk, not from any other club. Then all of a sudden, Yuri Puntus, coach of BATE Borisov called.
At that time BATE was an average Belarus club, with no titles won. They won Belarus’ third tier in 1996 when Puntus came to the club. Year after that they got promoted to a first-tier, and in their first top tier season, they finished second behind Dnepr Mogilev.
Puntus obviously knew what he was doing, and he saw an opportunity here. He offered a young boy a contract he couldn’t refuse.
“We came to Puntus’ house, and Yuri said “Sure, here’s a contract. ” so I signed it right away. I was supposed to receive 150 dollars a month, so I was happy“, recollects Alex Hleb.
That was the state of Belarus football back then. In a year that saw an average German salary go above €2.800, young and talented Belarus football player was happy with 150 dollars.
Dinamo realized that they have lost their star youngster, and upped the ante. They offered mouthwatering… 230 euros! But after talking to Anatoliy Kapskiy, the charismatic young chairman of BATE, and Belarus oligarch, he decided to stay in Borisov.
He was a top prospect, but being a top prospect in the Belarus football club at the end of the XX century wasn’t really a prestigious thing. Hleb was living in “some kind of basement, where senior players dried their clothes”, as he said later. All equipment was really rare, especially cleats, and nobody from the team even dreamed of playing abroad.
Hleb made his debut for Bate on 11 April 1999 against Torpedo, and he torpedoed his career. Young pair of Alexander Hleb and Vitali Kutuzov propelled BATE to the first-ever championship. Kutuzov was the second-best goalscorer in the league with 19 goals, but Hleb was the one that grabbed the attention of one man.
That man was Uli Ferber. A man best known as the husband of famous German pop star Andrea Berg took young Hleb under his wing. When a Belarus youth team went to Germany to play two games, Ferber saw an opportunity. Belarus kids played against Manheim and Stuttgart reserve team, and Ferber decided that was an opportunity he must seize. And that wasn’t an easy task.
“I wanted to take him to Bundesliga, but no one wanted to pay money for a then-unknown player. It wasn’t easy“, Ferber said.
He stationed Alex, and his younger brother Vyacheslav, also part of that junior team and BATE player, in his hotel. He fed them and cared for them. Ferber gave it all, pressed some people at Stuttgart, and they decided to try these two kids out. They invited them to a training pitch and put them against two towering black defenders. They were big and strong, but two brothers, Sasha and Slava destroyed them on the pitch.
Stuttgart decided to take a gamble and paid €150.000 for two unknown kids from Belarus. And this is very important, from Belarus. It’s easy to cash out on a Brazilian or French talent, but when did anyone from Belarus play in a Bundesliga?
Well, in fact, Stuttgart didn’t pay €150.000. Some money was given by Hleb himself, and a large portion was Uli Ferber’s investment. In the end, Anatoliy Kapsky saw the potential, and installed bonuses in the contract, so BATE eventually got €1.5 million from this transfer!
Two mistakes and a lost year
Hleb’s leap was tremendous. He played only one senior season, and he played it in Belarus. Stuttgart was an ambitious Bundesliga team, who thrived to play European football. Sasha didn’t know German, and for the first time, he traveled alone and lived outside of Belarus.
Stuttgart bought his brother Vyacheslav as well, but he was underaged, and he had to wait until he turned 18 to arrive in Germany. For a couple of months, Sasha was alone in a country where he didn’t know anyone and didn’t have any means of communication because he didn’t speak the language.
Dutch defender Frank Verlaat was having a farewell match between Stuttgart and his new club Ajax, and Hleb had a decent debut in that friendly game. Ralf Ragnick liked the kid and gave him the chance in one Bundesliga match. He lost the ball in the midfield, and his team conceded. So Ragnick sent him back to the reserve team.
“Back when I came were Ralf Ragnick was the coach, and the year with him was probably the hardest in my life, because of uncertainty,” recollects Alex Hleb.
Then Felix Magath took over, and opportunity had risen for young Belarus midfield maestro. But young Hleb was homesick, and when he went away to play for Belarus U21 team, he stayed with his family a day or two more than allowed. Magath, a coach known for his tough treatment of players, and iron discipline immediately sent him back to the reserves and suspended him.
He finished that season with reserves and didn’t get a call back to the first team even though he was by far the best player in the reserve squad. Some other clubs were interested in him, and Alex cried on his brother’s shoulder and wanted to run from Stuttgart. But a bad start of next season changed it all.
Balakov and Soldo: Slavic alliance for something great
After three straight defeats, things were not looking good for Die Swaben. Magath’s side didn’t play well, and before the fourth round match against Nurenberg two veterans approached Magath. Team legends Krasimir Balakov and Zvonimir Soldo asked Magath to put Hleb in.
“Before the match, Balakov and Soldo approached me and asked me to field Hleb. Yes, it’s true. If they didn’t ask, it would have been hard for me to bring Hleb back to the team“, Magath confessed.
Hleb was just a kid, and he couldn’t believe that he was in the team! He just wanted to play football, and that really put the weight off his shoulders.
“I just played the game. I didn’t take attention on whatever he was yelling. I was just playing for fun. And it worked out.”
Oh, it didn’t just work out. Everything just exploded. His brother Viacheslav was on the road with the reserve team, and he couldn’t believe it. Sasha was everywhere. Hе was flying, Stuttgart won 4:2, and he produced 3 goals!
He went from zero to the most important player in the team in 90 minutes. German press went mad about him, but Sasha was a cool, down to earth guy. Fame didn’t change him, and he continued to just work hard and play football.
Hleb established himself as the mainstay of this team. He was fast, he saw everything, and most of all – he played for the team. His 13 goals on 137 games don’t even begin to explain how good he was on a pitch. Bixente Lizarazu even asked him once:
“Dude, where are you from? For my whole career nobody exausted me like that!“
Hleb have done the impossible. He knew that day that he had put Belarus on the football map of Europe.
Two calls from Arsene
He was loved within the team, but Magath had many problems with his newly discovered gem. Hleb wasn’t too keen on playing defense, and Magath was a coach that demanded discipline. Sometimes when they clashed, Hleb arrived early on training only so he can park his car on Magath’s parking place. But the experienced coach knew he got to nurture his midfield genius or Zauberlehrling (Sorcerer’s Apprentice) as fans called Hleb.
Arsenal watched him play for two years and wanted him for the start of the 2004/05 season, but Magath left the club, and Matthias Sammer took his place. DDR’s best-ever player remained the coach of Stuttgart for just one season, but because of him, Hleb stayed one more year with Die Swaben. Sammer clearly told his only condition – keep Hleb in the team, or I am quitting the job!
Sasha loved the team, and the fans, so he decided to stay. And at the start of 2004/05 season, a guy who was playing for 150 dollars just 5 years before signed the biggest contract in Vfb Stutgartt’s history!
After that season, offers were coming from all over Europe. Milan wanted him. Real Madrid wanted him. But he talked with Arsene Wenger and he was sure that London is the right place for him. This time he was right, and after a second Wenger’s call, he arrived at Highbury.
Arsenal had a great, young team, that was led by experienced players like Henry, Bergkamp, Pires, and Ljungberg. The young core was there with Fabregas, Flamini, Rosicky, and Hleb.
Belarus maestro made his debut in the first round, against Newcastle. Jermaine Jenas was sent off in the 23rd minute, but Arsenal couldn’t score. Then Hleb came in, and in the last 10 minutes of the game after strikes from Henry and Van Persie, Arsenal won the game 2:0.
Quickly Hleb was deployed in the first team, either as a 10, either on the flank. And he developed an extraordinary friendship with his three young teammates – Fabregas, Flamini, and Rosicky.
“He’s probably one of 3 or 5 best players I played with. I liked the way we passed the ball to each other“, said Fabregas, and Rosicky recalled that that group has been given a rather curious nickname.
“I don’t know where it came from, but people started calling us “Spice Boys.”
They pranked each other, went out together, and dined together after the games, but most importantly, they understood each other on the pitch. Hleb’s dribbling was so beautiful, that fans immediately made a song to sing to him. He was a special player, and there is no better person to deal with that kind of magician on the pitch than Professor from France. Wenger knew what kind of player Hleb was.
“He was very sensitive, he had a hearth of an artist“, he said about Alex.
On 14th January, Alex scored his first Arsenal goal. Gunners thrashed Middlesbrough 7:0, and he scored 7th goal in 84th minute. Arsenal finished 4th and secured Champions League football, just ahead of arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur, but this season was the most glorious Arsenal season in European football ever.
Road to the finals
There were many nations that had a player in Champions League final, but Belarus wasn’t among them. A player from Belarus never even came close to this, and Alexander Hleb was in two finals in space of three years.
Arsenal first stormed through the group stage with 5 straight wins and a draw in the last game against Ajax. Then Wenger’s team managed to keep six clean sheets and to progress to the finals thanks to Riquelme’s late penalty miss in semifinals second leg against Villarreal. Previously they eliminated Real Madrid and Juventus.
Hleb was instrumental in this, and in the final against Barcelona, he was deployed at the left-wing. But the final didn’t go as planned. Jens Lehmann became the first-ever player to get ejected in Champions League finals after he fouled Samuel Eto’o outside the box. Manuel Almunia came in for Robert Pires, and Arsenal was down to 10 men.
But after Sol Campbell powered a header into Victor Valdes’ net in 37th minute, everyone saw a trophy heading to London. Gunners held until 76th minute, but then Eto’o and Belletti scored in space of 4 minutes, so trophy traveled to Spain.
Hleb and his teammates were devastated by this loss, and Arsenal never again reached this stage of the Champions League. But a midfielder from Belarus did. He played two more seasons in Arsenal and in his final one a loss to Manchester United in 34th round cost Gunners long-awaited title.
He was one of the best Arsenal players and started in almost every game. Many clubs came calling, including Bayern and Barcelona. Uli Ferber advised Sasha to go back to Germany, but the new Barcelona manager wanted Hleb in his team.
Young tactician was about to revolutionize football, and his name was Pep Guardiola. It should have been a swan’s tale, but it turned out to be a nightmare.
He injured himself in the second match he played for Barca, against Racing Santander. He was frustrated, and the competition for the place in the first team was incredible. With Messi, Henry, Pedro, Gudjohnsen and even young star Bojan Krkić in contention, he fell out with the manager after lack of playing time frustrated him.
His private life was in a mess, too. He was having a hard time in his marriage and was nearing a divorce. Even though at the time he was furious at Pep Guardiola, nowadays he thinks differently.
“Something happened in my private life, and it all went down from there. I paid no attention to anyone, didn’t listen to anyone… When Guardiola was trying to find words I didn’t listen.”
He played in 36 games, but he wasn’t happy. Andres Iniesta stoppage-time goal in London put the Catalans in the final, and on 27 May 2009, Hleb wasn’t in the team. Henry and Messi were on the flanks, Pedro, Bojan and Gudjohnsen on the bench. He was furious, and that was the last drop, He decided to leave.
A call from Mourinho, and a glorious end
He wanted an exit, and Barca was keen to let him go on loan. He already agreed to go to Stuttgart, to return to his favorite team. Die Swaben sent a plane to pick him up, and then his phone rang. It was Jose Mourinho, who wanted him to go to Inter.
In the end, he didn’t want to break a promise and returned home. He played a decent season back there, but Mourinho led Inter to Champions League glory. So, if he chose to break that promise, now we would be talking about Hleb’s goals instead of Diego Milito’s? You never know.
But world-class football was over for him. He went to England and got badly injured. Then he tried to get back in form with Wolfsburg, and it didn’t work out.
After playing for Krylia Sovetov in Russia, he returned to BATE. With his masterous displays in Champions League qualification, he dragged Belarus champions to the group stage, and the whole country celebrated when they defeated Lille and Bayern Munich.
Unfortunately, after two wins at the start, BATE lost all remaining games, but that was enough for third place in the group and a place in Europa League knockout stage.
Years passed, and Hleb returned to BATE three more times. In his last spell with the club in the 2018-19 season, he was still one of the best players in the team, and he managed to get his team through the Europa League group of Mol Vidi, PAOK, and Chelsea. On the knockout draw, they drew Arsenal.
On 14 February in Belarus BATE won 1:0. Seven days later, Arsenal won 3:0 and progressed through, but the key moment of the game was 58th minute. Alexander Hleb stepped on to the court, and the whole stadium applauded to their beloved magician from Belarus.
And why did they love him so much? Let Arsene Wenger tell you that!
“People wanted Alexander Hleb to have the ball. Why? Because it was cool to watch and because he gave hope. He did something special.“