By Denis Orlov
The appointment of Yury Shukanov as player-manager of FC Dinamo Minsk proved inspired as the 33-year-old ensured his side put a poor start to the season behind them to claim the title for a seventh time.
Dinamo Minsk started the season with Russian coach Petr Shubin at the helm. Shubin's side were effective but not attractive and when they exited the Belarus Cup in the quarter-finals the change was made. Shukanov came in after seven rounds and led Dinamo Minsk to the title with one match to spare, as they held their nerve to beat second-placed FC BATE Borisov 2-0 in the title-decider on 31 October.
"We have a great team and we proved it many times," Shukanov said. "Every player that took the field gave everything to win. Now we have the psychology of winners as well. You have to enjoy playing football but never forget about the discipline and tactical directions. We succeeded in every way and became champions."
Minsk's triumph - their first since 1997, means that since 1996 no team has won the league for two years running. BATE, their closest challengers, finished five points adrift, having been hampered by the lack of a free-scoring striker - a problem that was exacerbated by the departures of Nikolay Ryndyuk and Pavel Begansky. FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk were a further five points, having put together an excellent run in the second half of the season after a poor start.
Shakhtyor Cup winners
In that time, Shakhtyor won 12 games and lost just once, 1-0 at home to Dinamo on 25 October, a defeat that ended the club's 60-match unbeaten home record dating back to August 2000. Still, Shakhtyor will take pride from a third-placed finish and victory in the Belarus Cup, beating 2003 double winners FC Gomel 1-0 in the final.
Gomel struggled to adapt to the loss of several key players midway through the season and dropped down to sixth. It was still a marked improvement on FC Belshina Bobruisk, who won the league in 2001 but were relegated after finishing bottom this time round. FC Lokomotiv Vitebsk and FC MTZ-RIPO Minsk will play off to decide who is relegated with them, while FC Lokomotiv Minsk and FC Vedrich-97 have been promoted to the top flight.
Belarussian clubs fared badly on the European stage, Gomel, BATE and Shakhtyor losing in the first qualifying rounds. Dinamo Minsk fared better, reaching the third round of the UEFA Intertoto Cup before losing out to French side LOSC Lille Métropole.
The season will, unfortunately, be remembered for the mass brawl between the players of FC Torpedo-SKA Minsk and FC Zvezda-VA-BGU Minsk, that erupted after Torpedo had lost 1-0 at home. Four players were dismissed - a league record - and the Football Federation of Belarus suspended nine players for sentences varying between five and ten games.
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