Belarus v England
4th Qualifier for World Cup 2010

14-17th October 2008
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Mark Perryman organised goodwill events under the guise of Englandfans starting with wreath laying at the war memorial followed by a school visit. Due to an eventful bus ride we arrived in dribs and drabs at Linguistic Gymnasium number 7 and Mark entertained the kids with stories of English football fanship. On this occasion me and Bev were not called upon to make any contribution other than to sing along, clap and boo at the mention of any football team other than the Saints. The band played When The Saints Go Marching In and we donated a programme from the 2006 World Cup finals to the school library.
Following lunch at a tavern serving casseroled chicken and potatoes it was off to the superb facilities at the Belarus FA for a fan-friendly match between some keen and technically gifted locals and our bunch of bar dwellers. Alas, predictions of a 10-0 drubbing were matched by the 8-2 scoreline. Lord Triesman, chairman of the FA and other VIPs popped over to witness the carnage. Triesman dutifully handed out certificates to the players.
Our apartment lay only 2 blocks away from the stadium, so following a quick pizza, beer and a shot of vodka from a group of friendly Belarus fans it was off to the Dinamo Minsk stadium for the meat & potatoes part of the trip. Belarus were technically superb but England responded with neat football of their own and 3 brilliant goals from Hard-Gerrard and Rooooooonhey saw us finish comfortable winners. We're looking confident, organised, resilient and professional. The ghost of McClaren is laid to rest. With Croatia only managing to draw in Kiev we edge 5 points clear in our group. Sweet.
We spent Thursday in full tourist mode visiting the museum of the Patriotic War and taking a stroll along the river up to the Island of Tears; a visit to the Church of Peter and Paul and finally a stop at the site of Nazi atrocities in WWII. The city architecture is more Stalinist neo-classicism than Soviet functionality, even the KGB building on the high street has romanesque columns and capitals and a sign on the door saying "K G B", so no secrecy there then.
The final evening was spent at the Staroe Ruslo (Старое Русло, Ulyanovskaya 7) micro-brewery near the football stadium which offered belarus cuisine and excellent beers. Bev had homemade sausages in sour cream and I had (tiny) shashlik trout followed by blinis with honey. Much vodka fuelled flirting, arguing and arm wrestling was going on around us. It was all fun to watch but some bleary eyed beligerance was directed at us from some old blokes on the neighbouring table who seemed offended by me taking photographs. Nevermind, Minsk left a good impression on us as a clean, airy, friendly place and we wouldn't say no to future visits.


Having got no joy dealing directly with the Belarus embassy in Berlin, Bev opted for the visa service offered by AuslandsVisum.de. Despite the uncertainty of the cost for non germans applying through Berlin, the visa was delivered with no further problems. We had to supply passport, Aufenthaltserlaubnis, photo, health insurance (Die Europäische), application form and invitation. The invitation was supplied through Belarus Rent who had provided our accommodation. They organised the paperwork from their end and emailed a scan of the authorised invitation at a cost of 35 euros per head. The visa cost 50E per head and the visa service cost  52E in total. The process lasted 3 weeks from start to finish and the stuff was sent using registered delivery in both directions.


The guide books recommend renting an appartment as the quality of the hotels is dodgy. However there seemed to be a number of posh places in the centre of town which no doubt were expensive. The Englandfans lads were staying at the group of modern looking hotels along Pobeditelei Avenue opposite the Hero City statue and they appeared from the outside to be fine. Nevertheless Bev booked a place via Belarus Rent Service and we ended up with a 3 room appartment at Gorodski Val 10 flat 31.Although not of the highest quality it was spacious and adequate and I felt more comfortable there than in a hotel room. There was space to lounge around and watch satellite TV and the flat only cost 138E in total for 3 nights. Belarus Rent are friendly and efficient and can be recommended. Naturally Bev had booked the place way in advance, a smart move as soon there was a block on all further reservations in Minsk!


Its not possible to buy or exchange Belarus rubles outside of the country and so I took euros aswell as some US dollars and russian rubles left over from our trip to St Petersburg. There are exchange booths at the airport for travellers but they were shut both on our arrival and departure and so we negotiated a 30 euro taxi ride from the airport to Minsk (ca. 40 mins). There are exchange booths scattered around the city centre which are used by the locals changing their hard currency for Belarus rubles (due to previous economic fluctuations they don't value the local currency). Therefore buy rubles from these booths as you need it, trying not to have too many left over prior to departure. Theoretically you have to declare any remaining amounts at the customs point prior to check-in but we kept ours and spent them in duty free on choccies (its either that or booze and ciggies). We didn't risk using credit cards, nor did we try the ATMs.


Immigration on arrival was as straight forward as it had been in St Petersburg and this time we didn't bother with a customs or currency declaration. Once in the country you are required to register your visa with the police but we forgot about this at least for the first couple of days. Belarus Rent did not offer to register our stay and so we elected not to bother. This might of landed us in double trouble if we had been stopped by the fuzz and interestingly immigration did not ask or check this on departure at the airport. In St Petersburg the hotel had registered our stay on arrival but did not give us any documentation to that effect and so it seems unlikely that the police can ask to see anything during a spot check. In addition to the visa you carry around the second half of the immigration card and this is surrended on departure at the airport.


Minsk is not the bastion of Soviet architecture that the guide books like to make out. Stalinist neo-classicism is simply normal neo-classicism you get in western cities and Minsk is fortunate that it has this legacy to present to tourists. There are a few mausoleum-esque Soviet buildings around but in no way do they dominate the look & feel of the place. Minsk has a eutopian layout but this is as much modern as it is Soviet and there are green spaces and wide boulevards to give a clean, airy feel. Its an attractive city with a relaxed atmosphere and I think this contributes to the fact that Minsk is regarded a safe place to stay.


Following on from the visit to Russia in March, Belarussians are also polite and friendly and have a considered attitude. They stand patiently in queues and don't make a fuss. The more I travel outside the EU the more it seems to me that its the West that promotes stress, uptightness, pushyness and disrespect. Soviet times may have been oppressive but it didn't harm their attitude to each other and to strangers alike.