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BATE's qualification worth its weight in... sausages?

Belarusian football is on the rise, and BATE Borisov are leading the charge. Before last month's Olympic Games in Beijing athletes from Belarus found out that they were in line for a lucrative reward, should they bring home a medal. We're not talking cash incentives - though the Belarusian government reportedly offered up to £56,000 to each gold-medallist. We're talking about something far more valuable - sausages.

Boris Tsyporin, director of Belatmeat (the name says it all) announced a scheme to supply athletes with his company's finest wares in early August, stating that "naturally, we will take into account the athletes' tastes and choose with them the sort of goods they want." And for the privileged Belarusian women's basketball team there was a special prize for winning the gold medal - a lifetime supply of sausages.

Sadly the female basketballers went out to hosts China in the quarter-finals, and will have to do without their booty of viennas, chipolatas and salamis. But there is one Belarusian sports team who Belatmeat might want to consider showering with animal-based treats.

BATE Borisov have become the first team from Belarus to qualify for the group stages of the UEFA Champions League, and will begin their campaign on Wednesday night. And talk about a baptism of fire - BATE will begin against none other than the giants of European football, and the tournament's record winners, Real Madrid, who will host them at the Santiago Bernabeu. Alongside them in Group H this year are also Italian giants Juventus and near neighbours from Russia Zenit St. Petersburg.

The town of Borisov is a pretty humble place. 150,000 people live in Borisov, which is famous largely as a key train station between the Belarusian capital Minsk and Moscow. Legend also has it that Napoleon Bonaparte hid a large treasure trove on the outskirts of Borisov as his Grande Armée retreated from the Russian Empire in 1812. Occasionally treasure-hunters still travel to Borisov to dig around in the soil on the banks of the river Berezina. These days, though, it is the town's football team that are attracting attention.

BATE (pronounced Bat-EH, so as not to confuse it with the stuff you put on the end of a fishing line) are the most successful team to emerge from Belarus since the country's independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. They were originally formed in 1973 as a factory team for the BATE company, which still manufactures starter motors for cars and heavy machinery in Borisov. The team were disbanded in 1981, but in 1996 a local businessman, Anatoly Kapsky, resurrected the club and the name. Two successive promotions later and the town of Borisov again had a club in Belarus's top league.

Football in Belarus has changed, and the timing of this change has been to BATE's advantage. The country's all-powerful president Aleksander Lukashenko, a man with a penchant for professional sports, has personally overseen the development of Belarusian football. In 2003 he declined to meet Leni Fischer, a representative from the Council of Europe, because he had a football match to attend in Minsk. "Fifty thousand fans are waiting for me, I can't let them down," he was reported to have said. Presidential support - especially in a country which many refer to as a dictatorship - has been instrumental in getting BATE to the Champions League.

In addition, Dinamo Minsk, the powerhouse of the Soviet period, have fallen on hard times recently, their run to the quarter-finals of the European Cup in 1982 a distant memory. BATE meanwhile have racked up four national championships in the last decade, with a couple of second-place finishes to boot.

But we should not be so hasty in regarding BATE's rise as a product of political meddling and the failings of their rivals. The Borisov club's successes have been founded on genuine footballing talent - players such as Barcelona's Aleksander Hleb, Parma's Vitaly Kutuzov and FC Moskva's Yury Zhevnov have all left BATE after outstanding displays to move to the big leagues of European football. In the current side there is a smattering of excellent young, home-grown players. The team's average age is less than 24 and one young striker, 21-year-old Vladislav Mirchev, may catch the eye. Last week he hit a hat-trick in a cup match which BATE won 7-3. And perhaps the highest praise should be reserved for BATE coach Viktar Hancharenka, who at just 31 is the youngest in the Champions League. Goncharenko played for BATE in the 1990s but retired at 25 after a cruciate ligament injury and joined the coaching staff, moving up to head coach in 2007. He is, rather fittingly, a disciplinarian. "If our former coach Igor Kriushenko was a democrat, I came in to establish a partial dictatorship," he said in an interview this week. "You can call me the democrat with dictatorial touches. Above all I want to see discipline. That is one of the main keys to success."

BATE's qualification for the Champions League has been no fluke either. Their domestic form has been impressive, and they are yet to taste defeat this season with six games to go in the championship. Only a high number of draws means that they are still being challenged for the title by MTZ-RIPO, who, incidentally, are part-owned by Heart of Midlothian's eccentric owner Vladimir Romanov.

In Europe, after easing past Icelandic champions Valur in mid-July, the Belarusians then beat Anderlecht and Levski Sofia to reach the group stages. The victory against Anderlecht was especially memorable, with one of BATE's young guns, 20-year-old Pavel Nekhaychik, scoring the winner in Belgium two minutes from time with a wonderful dipping 20-yard half-volley.

Any group would have been tough for BATE, but to qualify from one containing both Real Madrid and Juventus, alongside UEFA Cup holders and Eastern Bloc rivals Zenit, is the stuff of fantasy. Speaking after the draw was made last month, Hancharenka was realistic about his side's chances in Europe's premier club competition.

"Of course, to predict a victory over such serious opposition is extremely difficult," he said. "But I promise that we will go out and fight for every match. We're not going to simply give up without a fight." And if the quality of their opponents was not enough of an obstacle, BATE have also been forced out of their home by UEFA. Anxiety that the 5,500 capacity Horodsky Stadium in Borisov was not up to the required standard led BATE's home matches to be moved to Dinamo Stadium in the capital, Minsk.

Whatever the result, though, BATE's participation in the competition is a triumph, not only for the club itself but for the whole of Belarus. No team from the country has ever played at such a high level, and Belarusian players have never been subject to this kind of media exposure.

Plus there are the obvious financial benefits of participation, estimated to benefit BATE to the tune of up to £4.7m. Imagine how many sausages you could buy with that.


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