Minsk

The unveiling of the new Dinamo Stadium in the heart of Minsk epitomised the game in the capital of Belarus, a proud former Soviet republic. Surrounded by the Stalin-era colonnades still lining the arena’s refashioned grand façade, authoritarian national president Alexander Lukashenko and Alexander Hleb, the country’s one global football star, strode out together onto the turf.

The date was June 21, 2018. The following day would be yet another anniversary of the start of World War II in the USSR, three years before the Minsk Offensive that culminated in the city’s liberation in June 1944, its population reduced sixfold within three years. A decade beforehand, in June 1934, the original stadium had been opened to host the flagship club of the same name, Dinamo Minsk.

Welcome to Minsk/Matt Walker

Exactly one year after this 2018 curtain-raiser, the new Dinamo Stadium staged the opening ceremony of the 2019 European Games. The event was the most prestigious sporting event to take place here since the Olympic football tournament of 1980. Barcelona stalwart Victor and Bordeaux’s famed Vujović twins played for Spain and Yugoslavia when this was an arena of classic Soviet appearance.

In the decade between Dinamo Minsk leaving the old stadium in 2008, and Lukashenko and Hleb striding out into the new one, the powerbase of Belarus football had shifted. A former works team, BATE Borisov, had just embarked on a run that would stretch to 13 straight titles and nine lucrative group-stage European campaigns. During this unprecedented purple patch, the sleek new-build Borisov Arena became the de facto national arena.

In 2018, Belarus played their first game in the new Dinamo Stadium – by 2019, the year that BATE loosened their grip on the domestic game, Minsk staged half the home matches of the national team, the White Wings.

Welcome to Minsk/Matt Walker

Dinamo Minsk, league runners-up seven times between 2005 and 2017, were not the last team to call the old Dinamo Stadium home. That strange honour belonged to the city’s second club, FC Minsk, now housed at their own stadium, the former Kamvolschik, rebuilt and reopened in 2015. Set in a complex of football pitches, the FC Minsk Stadium stands on ulica Mayakavskovo in Lenin District (Dynamo’s lies next to Dzerzhinsky Garden, named after the founder of the KGB born near Minsk). To see the former Belarus Cup winners, head for the Kamvolny Combinat stop south of town, taking trolleybus Nos.5 or 6 from Minsk main station (Vokzal), or trolleybus No.5/bus No.2s from the Economic University. Tickets cost between 2 and 5BYN (€0.70-€1.80), the cheapest spots in sectors 5-7 (6 and 7 are for away fans), the dearest in sector 2.

As for Dinamo, while homeless they were consigned to the Traktor (formerly the ‘Red Flag’) Stadium and the modest Dinamo-Yuni in the far west of town. Perversely, almost, with the new Dinamo Stadium now barely even a quarter full for home games, the club’s notoriously right-wing following yearn for the days of crowding round the pitch with a few hundred others at the Yuni. But the former Darida Stadium, too, is under long-term reconstruction while Dinamo figure out whether they want a football complex for their youth sides or a 5,000-capacity ground for the first team – and how to fund it.

Welcome to Minsk/Matt Walker

Dinamo are the only Minsk club with any real football pedigree. When the game was slowly developing across this region, Belarus was still a backwater of Tsarist Russia. A young banker from Kiev, one AL Liebman, introduced the game in Gomel in the south-east of the country close to what is now the border with Ukraine.

In May 1913, a story in the Minskaya Gazeta referred to the setting up of a ‘football pitch’ on Kosharskaya ploshchad, site of what would later be a popular pre-war hippodrome, where the upscale Beijing Hotel stands today. Here, on June 29, ‘Olymp’ beat ‘Maccabi’ 3-0. The defeated side represented Minsk’s substantial Jewish community, at that time the majority of the city’s 90,000 population.

After World War I, partly fought on Minsk’s doorstep, came the Soviets. Just as Felix Dzerzhinsky had founded Dynamo Moscow in 1923, so similarly named and structured clubs sprang up around the newly formed USSR, including one in Minsk in 1927. In the early 1930s, the authorities started construction on a stadium of the same name in the centre of town where a Jewish cemetery once lay.

Welcome to Minsk/Vadim Martynov

Expanded in 1939, the year before Dinamo Minsk became the first and only Belarus club to reach the top division in the Soviet Union, the stadium went the way of nearly all of downtown Minsk soon afterwards.

The city of monumental avenues and architecture you see today arose from the post-war rubble at the same as a rebuilt Dynamo Stadium. Along with Dynamo, regular challengers for the Soviet title and champions in 1982, clubs of classic Communist character – Traktor Minsk, Torpedo Minsk – also emerged, both created in 1947.

As MTZ-RIPO Minsk and Torpedo-MAZ respectively, they would have bit parts to play when an independent Belarus league was created after the break-up of the USSR in 1991. Cup finalists in 2000, Torpedo were disbanded in 2005, reformed, promoted through three divisions, then collapsed again halfway through the 2019 campaign.

The Torpedo Stadium still exists – it was one of three grounds in Minsk, along with the Traktor and Darida (the later Yuni), to host matches for the 2009 Women’s Under-19 European Championships. England, with Toni Duggan scoring at the Darida against Sweden, would lift the trophy – in Borisov.

Welcome to Minsk/Vadim Martynov

MTZ-RIPO, meanwhile, became part of Vladimir Romanov’s mini football empire in 2004, along with Hearts and FBK Kaunas. Cup winners in 2005 and 2008, they beat Ferencváros when making their European debut in 2005, the first of three international campaigns played solely against ex-Eastern bloc opposition.

Renamed on a whim as Partizan in 2011, they folded in 2014 soon after Romanov’s creative accounting failed him.

Apart from Isloch Minsk, based at the FC Minsk Stadium, and who persuaded a 38-year-old Alexander Hleb to play a dozen or so matches in 2019, two more local teams merit a mention. FC Krumkachy, The Crows, were formed in 2011 by journalists from the Belarus forum PressBall. Persuading ex-Gomel midfielder Oleg Dulub to take over as coach, the club gained a legendary 2-0 win over Dnepr Mogilev in 2015 to reach the top flight.

Also based at the FC Minsk Stadium, having had to vacate the humble SOK Olimpiyskiy north-east of town, Krumkachy bumbled along for two seasons in the lower half of the Premier before the novelty wore off and the money ran out. Even by Belarus standards, crowds had been low, and demotion then condemned The Crows to the third tier. Taking flight once more as NFK Minsk, the club gained promotion in 2018 and, reverting back to Krumkachy, maintained second-tier status for the 2020 campaign, the sole representatives of the Belarus capital in the First Division.

Welcome to Minsk/Vadim Martynov

One rung above, the Belarus Premier received an inordinate amount of attention when it continued playing in March 2020 while the entire European game had shut down during the coronavirus epidemic. Even more bizarrely, one club in particular, Energetik-BGU Minsk, the former Zvezda (‘Star’), was granted particular focus by beating the many-titled BATE Borisov in the first game of the controversial 2020 season. They then won two more on the bounce, including victory at home to FC Minsk, to sit top of the league after three games.

With far more punters betting on them around the world than the 250 spectators who watched the derby in Minsk, Energetik-BGU earned a niche global following. To see what the fuss was all about at some point in the future, the unpromisingly named RTsOP-BGU Stadium is at ulitsa Semashko 13, a short walk from Petrovshchina metro station south-west of central Minsk. This is the student quarter – BGU is an acronym for Belarus State University. Admission to enter the one stand, the Tribuna, costs between 3 and 5BYN (€1.10-€1.80), the pricier spots in sectors 3-5 over the halfway line.

The anomaly of the virus-defying football season divided opinions – not least between national president Lukashenko and football icon Hleb, whose views on the matter ranged from strange theories about tractors to downright disbelief on the part of the former Arsenal and Barcelona star.

Bearings

UK, EU, US and citizens of some 74 countries require no visa to enter Belarus for stays of up to 30 days.

The local currency is the Belarus rouble (BYN), traded at around 2.80BYN/€1 – the standard admission to a league fixture in Minsk, give or take.

Minsk Airport is 42km (28 miles) east of the city. Shuttle buses Nos.1400-K, 1430-K and bus No.300E run every 30min-1hr from stands 5-6 outside Arrivals to Tsentralny station in town, journey time around 70min. Tickets (4BYN/€1.40) are sold at kiosks in the airport terminal or are purchased from the driver using coins or small notes.

A 135 taxi (+375 29 22 22 001/WhatsApp +375 44 55 55 135) to town should cost around 35BYN/€12.50. For all other cabs, agree a price first.

Tsentralny bus terminal is near the main train station of Passazhirskiy, south-west of the city centre, a 10min walk from the Dynamo Stadium. The nearest metro station, Ploshcha Lenina is one stop from the central crossing point of Kupulauskaya/Kastrupitskaya on the two-line network. Plastic tokens (жетоны/zhetoni) for a single journey are 0.70BYN/€0.25, 0.65BYN/€0.35 for the tram, bus or trolleybus. It may be far easier to buy a three-day pass (3 суток/tri sootok) for the metro, trams and buses (10.18BYN/€3.65), among a myriad multi-journey/day combinations. Tokens are sold at machines and ticket windows, where smartcards are also available. Top up at the same windows or, with a Russian speaker by your side, at machines.

Find all routes, timetables and an informative English-language journey-planner at Eway24, which also shows schedules for the communal minibuses, marshrutki. These have specified stops and cost 1BYN/€0.35 a ride, passed to the driver.

Hotel Minsk/Vadim Martynov

Bed

Unlike many ex-Soviet cities, Minsk has a tourist information office with an English-language hotel database.

The nearest hotel to the stadium is one of the city’s best: the Crowne Plaza Minsk, a four-star on a prominent corner of Kirova surrounded by bars and restaurants, with a pool, gym and its own decent eatery. Also very close and even more luxurious, at the Kupulauskaya/Kastrupitskaya metro end of Kirova, Minsk’s most showy hotel is the huge five-star President, with a spa second-to-none and 25-metre pool.

Behind the Crowne Plaza on prospekt Nezalezhnastsi, the Hotel Minsk dates back to 1959 but reconfigured its Soviet past with a huge overhaul in 2002, adding a sauna centre and gym. Four-star, going on five.

President Hotel/Matt Walker

The city’s other upper/mid-range hotels are near the city’s main sights and landmarks, at most a ten-minute walk from the Dynamo Stadium. The classiest hotel in Minsk, the exquisite Europe is a stylish masterpiece, with two bars, a spa and restaurant. Further along Internatsiyanal’naya, the Garni merits more than its three-star status, a contemporary remake of a 19th-century landmark lodging.

Halfway between the Garni and the Minsk on Myasnikova, the Buta Boutique Hotel charges a pretty penny for its chintzy rooms, sauna, gym and pool with water chutes – with extra charges for admission daytime and after 8pm.

Another cluster of hotels surrounds a leafy meander of the River Svislach north of town. Here, right on main prospekt Pobyediteley, the affordable Yubileiny provides that essential accoutrement, a bowling alley, near a complex with a cinema and main sports hall. It has its own stop on the No.1 bus route, terminating at the main train station. The nearby Planeta may be the ultimate Soviet throwback with its rattling lifts but its range of rooms from $45 a single, $55 a double can’t be beat and breakfast for a few dollars more features hefty meat and potatoes. English-speaking staff on reception. Again, the No.1 bus connects with the station, close to the Dynamo Stadium.

Gurman/Matt Walker

Beer

There’s plenty of drinking to be had in Minsk, and plenty of decent beers, too, Czech, Slovak, German, the lot. The main hub is, in fact, at the Crowne Plaza end of main ulitsa Karla Marksa, and so close to the Dynamo Stadium and featured in the section on Dinamo Minsk.

Further along ulitsa Karla Marksa in the opposite direction, Kuhmistr at No.40 is more restaurant (quality rustic cuisine nudged up towards gourmet level) than pub but has a bar menu featuring horseradish-flavoured vodka. Major games shown inside, view of the Soviet tank monument from the terrace. The other side of Gorky Park from Kuhmistr, Kamyanitsa also errs on the side of traditional. There’s a sturdy bar to prop up if you don’t fancy being waited on by staff straight out of the 17th century.

Malt & Hops/Matt Walker

A specifically football-oriented bar can be found in another pub hub between Holy Spirit Cathedral and the river, near Niamiha metro station. Malt & Hops on ulitsa Zybitskaya, a more English-style hostelry serving London Pride and other Fuller’s/Greene King beers at UK prices – cheaper domestic brews come by the bottle. Match action is beamed on big screens dotted around a modern interior.

One excellent find, just the other side of ulitsa Niamiha on Vitebskaya, is the Rakayski Brovar, an atmospheric microbrewery and beerhall-cum-restaurant, originally built as a synagogue in 1882. Choose from five delicious house brews to accompany your hulking platter of meat. There’s a small TV in the corner if you’re desperate.

Just over the river, the street of Starovilenskaya, lends its name to the Starovilenskaya Korchma, the old-school bar/eatery of the same name, whose waterfront terrace overlooks the Island of Tears. From there, on the other side of the Opera House, Gurman on Kamunistichkaya has a lovely bar area anchoring a decent restaurant, with quality beers on draught.


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