Belarus coach Stange plots England downfall
Belarus coach Bernd Stange is hoping to build on football's recent wave of popularity in the former Soviet republic and inspire an unlikely success in their World Cup qualifier against England in Minsk on Wednesday night.
Belarusian football is enjoying its most successful period with the national team having reached its highest FIFA ranking, 57th, last month while club side BATE Borisov are competing in the Champions League group stage for the first time.
It has created a surge of popularity in the sport that can in some part be traced to the arrival of Stange a year ago.
Since taking charge last July the 60-year-old German has revamped the national team, opting for a youth policy that, while unsuccessful at first, has since seen the team beat Holland 1-0 to finish their Euro 2008 campaign, before friendly draws with Germany and Argentina.
And Stange is hoping his young side can add the name of England to that list in front of a sell-out crowd at the 40,000-capacity Dinamo Stadium in Minsk.
"Football in Belarus is now booming. We have a run for football," he said.
"Usually we had just 2,000 or 3,000 in the stadiums and it was not good. But after we played teams like Holland and Argentina, and we played well against them, now the crowds are coming to the stadium.
"Now we have England and of course it will be difficult. We are only little Belarus. It will be a European sensation if we even get a draw.
"But I cannot tell my young players only to go for a draw, we must be optimistic and play to win."
Belarus have shown signs of their improvement in the World Cup qualification campaign so far, with an impressive 3-1 win against Andorra preceded by a 1-0 loss in Ukraine, when a debatable last-minute penalty denied them a deserved point.
BATE have also shown they will be no pushover in Europe's elite club competition, a fact highlighted by their 2-2 draw with Juventus last month when the Italians had to come from two goals behind.
In that game the Belarusians showed their inexperience to leave the game open and allow Juve to come back, and Stange admitted there is still plenty for the country to learn about the game.
"We have a run of (success in) football, but maybe it is too much (to keep pace with the game's established powers)," he said.
"We do not have enough coaches to keep up, but we are starting programs to get more coaches trained. Sometimes you see even in my young players the coaching needs to improve in Belarus.
"It will be a lot of hard work but we look at the example of Russia and how they have progressed. We are working to a plan to be competitive with these teams in five years.
"I have a lot of work to do, but so far I am very proud with the progress I have made since I came here."
Stange is used to difficult tasks after a colourful and much-travelled career that has seen him coach the likes of Iraq, Oman, East Germany and as far away as Perth Glory in Australia.
His treacherous two-year spell as Iraq coach stands out from those assignments, with the German forced to flee the country in 2004 amid threats to his life after he was photographed with then Foreign Secretary of the British Government, Jack Straw.
The photo appeared in the papers in an Iraq still governed by Saddam Hussein, leading to death threats in the mail.
"I would have been killed if I stayed a week longer," he said. "I was assured of that."
It is therefore unsurprising that Stange claims he does not fear an England side that is yet to drop a point in qualification, and which has scored nine goals in their past two games.
He said: "It will be hard, of course. Most of my team are just boys but we will not make it easy.
"We are a fast-running team that works hard and we are the unknown little Belarus, so maybe we can cause an upset. We will try to play and entertain our new big crowd."