Since the final whistle blew in the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb on the 10th September, the optimism surrounding the England team, and more importantly our chances of reaching South Africa (or is it Germany Mr Blatter??) in June 2010 has risen dramatically. The four weeks between the Croatian game and the next set of games with Kazakhstan at Wembley and Belarus in Minsk had been awash with talk about whether Capello was going to break up the winning team, replace Barry with Gerard or bring back Michael Owen.
The loyal fans however were more worried about trying to sort out Visa’s, travel into the country and where we would be drinking. Belarus only normally gets just under 4,000 annual visitors from the UK so this game was seen as very high profile as it would deliver almost the same number into Minsk in a 48 hour period. With only a couple of direct flights from England most fans had to look at alternatives once again. The most popular routes were via Lithuania and Poland, taking advantage of a cheap night out in the likes of Vilnius and Warsaw before a train down into Minsk. It looked so easy on paper.
However, every single train trip into Belarus (and consequently out) required a stop at the border where the carriages of the train would need to be lifted off the wheels and transferred onto a new set of wheels as the Belarusian rail network used a different gauge. This was historically to stop invaders trying to use the rail network to invade the old Soviet Union, but now it just acted as a massive incovenience as it took up to 2 hours to complete the task. And this was always done in the middle of the night so that any sleepers (excuse the pun) would be woken up. Of course once the work was done and they could return to their slumber they would be woken again by the border guards who would need to check visas.
Talking of visas it is worth a little comment here about this anarchaic process. Why do we still need to jump through hoops just to get a stamp to enter a country in these days? The two page visa application required for my trip, which would see me in the country for less than 16 hours and not include an overnight stay, asked me questions such as my wife’s maiden name, and the names of my children? Why? Are they planning on sending them birthday cards or checking CMF’s GCSE records? After going through the pain of trying to get my Russian visa two years previous I intended to use the services of a private company. Due to work commitments and my reluctance to let go of my passport I delayed applying for my visa until late September, by which the Belarusians had realised that they were only charging £19 for a visa, which if applied for the other way round (Belarusians visiting the UK) would have been £63. So without warning the price trebled and I ended up paying almost as much for the visa as I did for my whole trip. And that made me feel really good when on landing in Minsk I was told that they could process one there and then for $30!
Belarus is known as White Russia, not because of the snow that falls but because of the race of people who first settled the area – the Slavic tribes. It was first claimed as Russian territory in the late 18th century and stayed that way until the end of the First World War when it claimed independence as the Belarusian People’s Republic. Unfortunately this situation lasted less than a year before it was back under Soviet Rule.
In the Second World War the city was decimated, firstly by the invading Nazi’s who ruled the whole country by 1944, and then again by the Soviets as they repelled the Germans. The whole of Minsk was basically flattened and approximately 25% of the population of the country lost their lives. Life under Stalin was far from easy after the war as he saw Belarus at the frontier of Western temptations so he imposed harsh conditions on the people.
When the Soviet Empire fell in 1991 the Belarusians were the least prepared state in the old republic and struggled to cope with life not being tied to Mother Russia’s apron strings. Today, the country has changed, but it still retains some of the Soviet scepticism. Minsk has more police per capita than anywhere else in the world, and this trip was always going to be an excuse for them all to come out to play.
The only real option open to me for this trip was the Thomas Cook day trip from Gatwick. Rob the Red was in the car for this one along with Dennis who was making his England Fans away trip debut. Thomas Cook had recently lost their franchise to print money from the England fans and this was to be their last official trip as from November the German firm TUI would take over ripping the fans off on a regular basis. It did mean a 3am start from SE9 but spirits were high both from the senior team’s 5-1 win against Kazakhstan on Saturday as well as the victorious Under 21’s performance at Villa Park the previous night when they did something the senior team haven’t done for nearly four years – qualify for a major tournament when they beat the Welsh over two legs 5-4.
Our chartered flight landed, for once, on time into Minsk after one of those really annoying flights. Obviously Thomas Cook were trying to get as much money out of us credit crunch hit fans as possible before they lose their franchise because from the first minute of the flight they went to work on us. Headphones to watch the in flight movie (£2.75), a blanket and pillow (£5) and of course all of the usual duty free crap. All announced by our stereotypical camp Steward who spent most of the time telling passengers off for “leaving their rubbish in the seat pocket”, “talking too loudly” and “leaving their seat belt undone”. He also started a witch hunt at one point suggesting that someone had their phone on and could he see everyone’s MP3 player! Sleep was impossible but at least we could have an early morning beer. WRONG! Thomas Cook had deemed this flight was “dry” although they were happy enough to sell us duty free alcohol towards the end of the flight from Mr Dolly Trolley’s dolly trolley.
As expected we were met on landing by dozens of Belarusian military personnel, all sporting huge outsized hats and grim faces. However, they had at least had the forethought to put some of the better looking personnel behind the immigration counter, and although they tried not to smile, many couldn’t resist the typical English humour, which did lead to a few faces cracking.
So that was it. Thirty minutes after landing we were all on our coaches. The so called fuss and delays did not materialise and it was amazing that there was a general lack of people trying to exploit us as we had been subjected to in Zagreb, Skopje and Moscow. The presence of a couple of British Bobbies was the major story, and as we would come to see them throughout the day, locals were queuing up to have their photo taken with them laughing at their strange hats – pot, kettle. black as they say! The coaches left with a full police escort and we powered down the empty motorways then bisected fields with rural peasants using old fashioned farming equipment to tend their crops. It seemed that this particular motorway had only been built to serve the airport, as we drove for miles without passing another car on either side of the carriageway.
We eventually reached the city outskirts after 35 minutes and soon were transported back into 1960’s Russia with huge ugly grey concrete housing developments, people queuing at bus stops and strange kiosks offering all sorts of home brew treats every few hundred yards. Everyone stood and stared at our convoy and it struck me that this was the closest most of these people had seen to royalty. It must have also been one of the biggest police operations for many years, and they revelled in the opportunity to speed along the roads, closing them off in rolling roadblocks and bearing their weapons.
The coaches were parked opposite the stadium and we were herded across the main road. Our guide, Tania, who had promised to show us a “good time” in Minsk actually meant directions to the nearest cashpoint, McDonalds and Irish Bar – as she had been told this is what all England fans wanted so she led the way. We walked passed the stadium and noticed the gates were open and diverted inside. Soon Tania’s following party had decided that the good time would start with a wander around the stadium, much to her disgust as obviously she was on commission from the numerous bars that she was going to take us in.
After a wander around the stadium, where we took the opportunity to sit on the bench and even a brave soul who decided to run onto the pitch, we headed off down the main drag to the supposed nearest ATM, which of course didn’t work. However, in the shed (well it was a wooden structure, and had a felt roof) next door was a bank supposedly. So in we went and were greeted with a nice smile and a flash of legs as the blonde behind the counter was sitting back on her chair with her feet up. It was indeed a bank and my £20 got me 38,900 Belarusian Roubles, including 2 x 10 Rouble notes that were worth the equivalent of a quarter of a pence. As we exited the Shed Bank, we bumped into the odious Mike Parry, of Talksport fame. “All right lads” he quipped “Seen any action?” We simply ignored him and walked off – not giving him the satisfaction of any lies he would then spin later on air.
We walked the 500 yards up Niezalieznasci, the main road through the city centre looking for a place to eat. So far England fans seemed to be thin on the ground, although there were hardly a lot of bars around this area of the city. What there was though were hundreds of women walking around with tiny skirts and long boots on. Obviously the arrival of 2,500 England fans had caused them to dig out their Sunday best and go on full husband alert, and they seemed to love the attention. We saw them at various points during the day casually walk backwards and forwards past the bars full of fans, stopping in the middle of the street and bending down as if to pick something up and basically doing anything they could to draw attention to their fine assets.
We eventually came to a decision point in the day. We all wanted to eat and restaurants were thin on the ground. Close to the main square, Kastrycnickaia, was a major junction with a McDonalds, TGI Fridays and a local restaurant. We ruled out McDonalds as we would have to cross the very busy main road, so we flipped a coin and it came down in favour of TGI Fridays. Big mistake. We entered the restaurant and there was only about a dozen tables taken, all with England Fans. Ten minutes later we got menus, another ten minutes and they took our drink order (4 cokes). Ten minutes later we were told there was only 3 cokes left in the bar so could we change our order. Ten minutes later we ordered our food. Thirty minutes later Rob’s and Shent’s food turned up. Twenty minutes later after numerous complaints Dan and my meals turned up, looking suspiciously like it had come from McDonalds across the road (including the obligatory pickle inside the burger). By this stage the restaurant was full and they announced they had run out of Coke, Fanta, Sprite and ultimately bottled beer. Amid all of this chaos I saw a familiar face. In one of those bizarre “what the fuck are you doing here?” situations, I saw my postman, Jamie, sitting at the bar. Granted I knew he was an EnglandFan, and I knew he travelled abroad but you never really put 2 and 2 together in such situations! At least I had an opportunity to berate him about the post we keep getting for our next door neighbours.
We had been in the restaurant for nearly two hours when we tried to get the bill. Tables all around us had simply given up the ghost and left after waiting so long for their food, yet they still brought it out and placed it on empty tables as if they expected the diners to miraculously return! We eventually decided to walk out without paying, in full knowledge that Belarus was the only country in Europe that has retained the death penalty and that probably they had a statute that made leaving a Western chain of restaurants without paying a capital punishment offence. However, it had the desired effect and we were presented with a bill by the burly manager. We paid the 87,000 Roubles (or £20 for lunch) and he “assumed” that the additional 13,000 we had given him was a tip and we didn’t want any change. Customer Experience at its best!
With 8 hours still to kick off we planned on an afternoon of sightseeing. One of the warnings we had been given by the authorities was that taking pictures of the KGB building and Palace of the Republic in Kastrycnickaia was a strict no-no. So of course if you wanted to find out exactly which building this was you just had to head for the building where all of the England fans were standing outside with their cameras! Across the square was the highlight of the city centre, the Belarusian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War, depicting the struggle of the nation between 1941 and 1945. I appreciate that the number of English speaking visitors is low on an annual basis bit we did not have a clue as to what the exhibits were about as they had no English text. We were, however, followed around by a giggling school party of girls who obviously saw the opportunity to try and snare a husband early in life. And that was the highpoint of our sightseeing. We wandered around for another hour, more in awe of the skirt/boot combinations than any other sights. Based on our 3am start tiredness was beginning to take effect and so we headed back to the Hotel Planeta, where Dan and Shents were staying and spent the rest of the afternoon watching snooker on Eurosport. Initially I had been due to put on the sheepskin coach to help in the Fans match, but the events of the day so far had left me without inspiration so I left it to the new manager to lead them to glorious defeat (which he duly obliged with a 8-2 defeat).
We managed to sneak onto a coach that had been laid on by the hotel for fans going to the game and were delivered back outside the Crown Plaza hotel, where the team were staying. I bet the players had never stayed so close to a major stadium before, as we paced it out it was 123 steps from hotel steps to entrance to stadium, but of course the FA wanted to do their bit for the environment by arranging a coach with police escort for the 100 yard drive. We waited around outside for a while and Rob the Red was approached for his autograph. After confirming exactly who he thought he was, Rob duly obliged and more and more fans came over and asked him for the same – very strange. Outside the hotel our two bobbies were again centre of attention and lining up for pictures with the locals. I suppose it makes a change from ducking bullets in Southwark.
We headed round the stadium towards our gate, with the temperatures dropping. However, the local ladies were still trying to find their export husband so kept to their dress code despite the freezing conditions. We were thoroughly frisked, tickets checked twice and then frisked again before we were allowed into the away fans “compound”. It was good that they had thought of everything. One small refreshment stand, one tiny souvenir stand selling all of your balsa wood accessories you have never wanted, hundreds of portaloos and prostitutes. Oh yes, the authorities had obviously felt sorry for us with 90 minutes to go to kick off so had laid on some entertainment. With so many portaloos available they obviously fancied their chances of a nice little earner before the game but no one was buying and with time ticking down to kick off they headed off into the stadium, obviously looking for a local customer.
Belarus 1 England 3 – 2010 World Cup Qualifier – Minsk – Wednesday 15th October 2008
The authorities had allocated the England fans seats along the side of the pitch which gave us a great view of the action. They also did their bit to get the crowd going with very loud techno rock music being pumped out of huge speakers right in front of our section. Just before kick off they filled the pitch with children with bunches of balloons that were released as the teams lined up for the national anthems.
The band then threw us a curve ball. Not only did they play the anthem slowly so that by the time we finished signing, they were only 3/4th’s of the way through, but they added a second verse. With only a few of us knowing “O Lord our God arise” the majority reverted back to verse one again.
So with Ashley “Boo Who” Cole out through injury, and John “I respect referees” Terry out still the team had a familiar look to the one that had started on Saturday. My concern about Cole is that apart from being THE most hated person to play football in this country, he was in many people’s opinions, average. So to replace him with the person who plays as his reserve at club level suggests that we are desperately short of cover in this area. Add the continuing presence of Mr Baked Bean head at right back and the whole footballing world could see how week we are in this area. Barry, Lampard and Gerard had been included in midfield with Rooney and Walcott adding pace down the flanks and the born again Emile Heskey (“He used to be shite, but now he’s alright”) acting as the link man.
The game started at quite a pace and Belarus soon showed by Capello had been wary of them as they created a number of good opportunities in and around the box. However, it was England who took the lead on 11 minutes with a classic Steven Gerard shot from 25 yards beating the goal keeper and nestling in the back of the net.
England then sat back on the lead, inviting the Belarusians to attack, and it was no surprise when they equalized after a good move left Sitko, the central midfielder, unmarked in the penalty area and he headed home. In the past the team might have folded but this new England squad under the Italian are made of sterner things, and so they simply buckled up and carried the game back to the home team. One all at half time was no disgrace and the fans appreciated that.
The second half started with the home fans turning up the atmosphere a notch. It was never intimidating as it had been in Zagreb, but it was certainly loud and passionate. However, England struck another blow in the 50th minute as Rooney finished smartly from close range to score in his third consecutive game. Twenty five minutes later and the impressive Heskey broke clear of the defence and set up Rooney to score the third and put the game to bed.
The authorities had said they would keep us in for fifteen minutes and they were true to their word. Five minutes later we were on the coaches waiting to leave. Except one of our passengers was missing. To make it worse his mate hadn’t seen him since lunchtime, still had his jacket which had his camera, passport and mobile phone in. After a wait of 30 minutes with Thomas Cook staff trying to call local hospitals and police stations we headed off. A much needed hour trip on the snooze express I awoke at the airport and we started the process of going through security. Initially we had been due to depart at 12.30am, but it was already 12.45am so the best we could hope for was 1.30am. However, we had no factored in the thoroughness (or was it simply beauocracy) of the authorities. We were all asked to queue up outside the security area, and then they invited us in one at a time.
Step One – Check boarding card for signs of forgery (bear in mind the seat numbers had been written on in pen by Thomas Cook at Gatwick earlier in the day).
Step Two – Put bags and coats through X-ray machine
Step Three – Check boarding card against passenger list
Step Four – Hand over passport and have visa stamped
Step Five – Hand over passport to another immigration officer who removed landing card
Step Six – Check boarding card against passport
Step Seven – Put bags and coats through smaller X-ray machine
We then were told that under no circumstances were we to take Belarusian Roubles out of the country. Fortunately they had opened their duty free especially for us, and took pleasure in offering us the finest potato vodka, and the latest Belarusian scent – Tractoria! Most people simply wanted to get on a plane and go to sleep but it took another hour before we were finally allowed to depart some 3 hours late. Someone had obviously had a word with John Inman on the plane as this time around he arranged for food to be served as soon as we were in the air and then he shut up.
Oh, our missing passenger had also turned up by this point as well. Apparently he had fallen asleep in a disabled toilet after one too many at lunch. He consequently missed the game, had his wallet stolen and then had to pay for a cab to the airport to catch us up which he managed after getting £100 wired to a Western Union office. The evils of alcohol in a foreign country!
So at 5.25am I opened the door of Chez Fuller and crawled into bed, knowing I was due up in less than 3 hours. CMF rolled over and asked me the killer question – “Was it worth it?” If I think of the dull buildings, the lack of food and drink, the depressing conditions of life for the locals and the simple lack of anything to do then it would be a negative answer. But if I think about the passion they showed for the game, the smiles on the faces of some of the locals and those boots then it was definitely a “oh yes”!
About the Dinamo Stadion
The national stadium of Belarus is a typical Soviet affair. Big imposing floodlights towering over an open air bowl of a multi-purpose stadium. What that basically translates to is a visitor experience that is unpleasant to say the least. This means that for 10 months of the year it is either too wet, too cold or too hot to really enjoy a game in the open air seats. Come spring time and it is a wonderful venue though! The presence of the athletics track is an irritation – especially if you are in the stands behind the goals where the height of the converted terracing means views are poor.
The two tiered main stand does offer some better views, and is worth the extra few roubles for a seat here if you can. During the qualifying tournament for Euro 2008 the national team averaged 21,000 for the games played in Minsk which is almost ten times the average attendance when Dinamo are at home meaning that you should have no problems at all getting in to see a ticket here. For the 2010 tournament the top tier was not opened.
The stadium was originally built in the early 1930’s and opened in 1934 with a capacity of over 50,000. It was badly damaged during the conflict in the 1950’s and was completely re-constructed before opening again in 1954. The stadium went through a major re-construction and redevelopment programme in the late 1970’s in time for it to be a major venue in the 1980’s Summer Olympics football tournament. Whilst the stadium did not host the most attractive matches, it provided enough interest to sell out the quarter final match between Yugoslavia and Algeria.
Who plays there?
The Dinamo Stadion is currently home to the National team as well as Belarus’s most famous club – Dinamo Minsk. Dinamo are the only club from the state of Belarus to have played in the Soviet Top League – and actually winning the title in 1982. They played the following season in the European Cup for the first time, reaching the quarter finals before they lost 2-1 on aggregate to Dinamo Bucharest.
Since the fall of the Soviet empire the team have had limited success in the newly formed national league. They won the first six Belarusian Premier Leagues – a similar situation to the position of Dynamo Kiev and Skonto Riga in Ukraine and Latvia respectively. However, as with many other Dinamo teams (teams controlled by the State Police), since the fall of communist rule, funding has become more and more difficult to get hold of and so performances on the pitch have declined.
Since 1997 the club have won one single championship in 2004, although they also won the Belarusian Cup in 2003 beating FC Lakamatyu Minsk 2-0. Although they finished runners up in the league to FC Bate, they look painfully short of talent on the field under the leadership of Peter Kachuro. The current squad is a mixture of young Belarusians and the more and more common smattering of 2nd rate Brazilians and Africans.
The national team have not yet made an impression on European football. Their most famous result ever was actually against England B in Reading when they won 2-1. Their first ever competitive international was on the 7th September 1994 when they lost 1-0 in Oslo to Norway. They did win their first home game though against Luxembourg 2-0. They finished bottom of the next few qualifying tournaments but in 2006 they nearly upset the apple cart, losing their last game away in Cardiff to Wales which if they would have won they would have qualified for the Play offs at the expense of Ukraine. Under the captaincy of Arsenal’s Alexander Hleb the team struggled in a tough group for Euro 2008, finishing fourth in the end behind Romania, Netherlands and Bulgaria.
How to get there
The stadium is no more than a 5 minute walk north east of the main station. Simply exit the station and follow Ульяновская to the ground. From the Palast de Republik simply head south down Ул ленина – approximately a 10 minute walk.
Getting a ticket
It has been along time since a game at the Dinamo stadium sold out. During qualifying for Euro 2008 they averaged just over 20,000. Any empty seats in the stadium tend to be filled up with the Belarusian army, giving the impression that the stands are fuller than they really are. Tickets for home internationals are sold via the Belarusian website at http://www.bff.by. Tickets for Dinamo Minsk games are sold from the small cabins around the stadium – with an average attendance of under 2,000 you will have no problems getting a ticket. Tickets for the upper tier of the main stand cost 5000BYB.
The Minsk metro runs from 5.30am to 1am daily, and offers regular safe trains, in a network similar in design to Moscow. Fares are 600BYB for a single journey. The network has two lines, running across the city with 25 stations. The two lines cross at Oktyabr’skaya. To complement the rest of the network there is an extensive route map of buses and trams – with single tickets also 600BYB.