By Denis Orlov
February in Belarus is a time for pre-season training as the start of a new Premier League campaign looms in April.
The last two years have seen 16 teams contest the Belarussian title, and it had been hoped a similar amount of sides would compete in the top flight in 2005. However, that number has fallen to 14 with FC Vedrich-97 Rechitsa and FC Torpedo-SKA Minsk both dropping down the divisions.
Vedrich, the second division champions, were unable to meet the necessary requirements to qualify for a club licence at the élite level, and were therefore excluded from the top flight by the Football Federation of Belarus (BYEL). This was no real surprise to the Rechitsa outfit, who had made no secret of their poor infrastructure and ongoing financial problems.
Meanwhile, Torpedo's plight was precipitated by the club's private owner withdrawing his financial support, resulting in their sponsors, a local car factory, stepping in to shoulder more of the burden. In accordance with BYEL regulations, Torpedo had to re-form after going bankrupt and will start anew in the league's third and bottom tier.
Despite Torpedo's demise, capital clubs are still likely to dominate. FC Dinamo Minsk, FC Zvezda-VA-BGU Minsk, FC MTZ-RIPO Minsk and FC Lokomotiv Vitebsk all look ready to fight for honours, while the other ten Premier League sides each represent a different Belarussian city.
The majority of teams have been preparing for the 2005 campaign abroad. Dinamo, FC Dinamo Brest, FC BATE Borisov, FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk, FC Naftan Novopolotsk and FC Darida Zhdanovichi are currently in Turkey, from where MTZ-RIPO and Lokomotiv Vitebsk have already returned. Torpedo, FC Gomel and FC Slavia Mozyr have been based in Poland, with FC Neman Grodno and FC Transmash Mogilev training at Crimean Black Sea resorts.
Also in February, the BYEL hosted an international indoor tournament in Minsk, with the Under-17 squads of Belarus, Serbia and Montenegro, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, plus a Belarussian U16 side, all competing. The final went to penalties as Belarus's U17s lost out to Serbia and Montenegro.
The Belarus national team also showed signs of progress by winning 3-1 in Poland on 9 February in a friendly, to move up to 64th place in the FIFA rankings.
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