We often hear complaints that certain leagues are less interesting because only one or two teams can ever realistically hope to win the league title each season. For example, picking from the top European leagues, the Bundesliga almost always sees Bayern challenging at the top, and they have won four of the last six Bundesliga crowns. In Spain, except for Atletico’s surprise win in 2013-14, the title has been shared between Barcelona and Real Madrid since the 2003-04 season. In Serie A, Juventus have won the past five straight titles, whilst in France PSG’s Qatari takeover has seen them win the past five titles (this year’s success coming 62 days before the end of the season).
England’s Premier League may be about to crown a fourth different champion in four years, but before that the hegemony that Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal held over the title made many complain that the division had become boring. Speaking of boring, Greece’s Olympiacos are one of the most dominant forces, having won 18 of the last 20 Greek Super League titles – although questions as to whether or not they won them fairly are a story for another time.
But even Olympiacos’s ridiculous dominance has at least been interrupted over the past decade (thank you Panathinaikos!). The same cannot be said for the current Belarusian champions, BATE Borisov – a club only founded in its current guise in 1996, and named after the local car and tractor factory.
In the Vysheyshaya Liga, BATE Borisov have won the last ten titles. To offer some perspective, in 2005 – the last time a team other than BATE won the title – YouTube was less than a year old, and Chelsea had just won their first Premier League title.
Apart from the first title in BATE’s monotonous stream of wins, where they pipped Dinamo Minsk to the title by two points, the Yellow and Blues have never even been really challenged for their seat at the top of Belarusian football. They have won the title by at least five points in the past nine years, and on three occasions have finished 12 points ahead of their nearest rivals.
Despite clearly having sleepwalked their way to the title for the past decade, BATE have not managed to go a full season unbeaten. That said, in three seasons they have managed to limit themselves to just a single defeat per year.
It is tempting to argue that such a level of domination is not entirely unexpected in a league that struggles for money and, with a couple of exceptions, attracting high levels of attendance. Moreover, for the most part the teams in the Vysheyshaya Liga have to rely on the best players that Belarus – a country sitting 64th in the FIFA world rankings – has to offer, as few clubs can afford to bring in foreign stars, and Belarus’ stringent immigration policies means that it is hard for players from outside of the former-Soviet Union to get work permits. Even BATE, who have frequented the lucrative European competitions for a decade, have a squad that is almost 100% made up of Belarusian players.
Given this, then, one would expect BATE and Belarusian clubs to struggle in Europe. Even worse, thanks to the way UEFA assigns Champions League spaces, Belarus’s champion only gets a space in the Champions League second qualifying round, meaning no automatic qualification to the group stages. Despite this additional challenge, BATE have proven to be remarkably successful, relatively speaking anyway, in their sojourns outside of their country. Since 2008-09, BATE have come through the early rounds to qualify for the Europa League group stages twice, and the group stages of the Champions League five times. This is quite an impressive record for a team that consists of mainly Belarusian players and whose budget is dwarfed even by some of the teams that they meet in the qualification phases.
Even more impressive is BATE’s record in the group stages. It goes without saying that they are usually seen as the whipping boys of whatever group they end up in, and while this is usually borne out in reality the Yellow and Blues have pulled off a number of big wins for their fans to savour. Wins against Everton, Athletic Bilbao and Bayern Munich, plus draws against PSG and Juventus, are the highlights so far, but the crowning glory nearly came in this year’s Champions League.
After having beaten Roma 3-2 in Borisov, securing a creditable draw against Bayer Leverkusen, and coupled with the incompetencies of both Roma and Leverkusen in their other fixtures, a win for BATE in the final game of the group stage would have seen BATE leapfrog both teams and finish second in the group, behind Barcelona. Unfortunately, BATE could only draw 0-0 in the Stadio Olympico (in itself an impressive result), but the fact that BATE were even in contention for qualification in the final game showed the progress that they have been making as a club.
Whilst BATE have been enjoying their trips around Europe more and more each year, they have struggled to translate their total league dominance into any lasting grasp over the Belarusian cup (the Kubak Belarusi, in case you were wandering). During their decade at the top of the league, BATE have only come away with three cup successes to their name, meaning that fans of competitive football in Belarus have been at least able to enjoy the magic of the Kubak each season. In fact, much like the present incarnation of the Champions League (at time of writing), no team has ever successfully defended the Kubak Belarusi – quite a grand comparison. This, one would speculate, gives the cup a bit of added excitement – anything to warm those cold, Belarusian nights.
BATE, having moved into their newly built, 13,126 capacity ‘Borisov Arena’ in 2014, are a beacon of professionalism and class in a league full of decaying and decrepit stadia, and poorly run, supported and financed teams. Their hegemony in the league is unlikely to be challenged in the near future, even by the traditional powerhouses of Dinamo Minsk or Shakhtyor Soligorsk. Because of this, don’t be surprised to see BATE begin to build further on their progress in Europe – Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk’s recent run to the Europa League final shows that ‘smaller clubs’ from Eastern European nations have the ability to go deep into European competition. Who is to say that the next won’t be BATE?