Belarusian handball has a strong tradition, mostly based on the results of SKA Minsk in Europe during the 80's during the Soviet era.
Soon after Belarus became an independent country in 1991, its handball slipped into deep crisis. More than a decade was needed to reverse the negative trend.
But in the recent years, Belarusian teams again play an important role on the European stage. Dinamo Minsk regularly participates in the VELUX Champions League. This year, SKA Minsk after a long break won their sixth European trophy, this time the Challenge Cup, and the national team is trying to keep up with the clubs.
In January, the team led by Iouri Chevtsov played in the 2013 World Championship, where they finished 15th and now the Belarusians are looking forward to their second major tournament in a row, this time EHF EURO 2014 in Denmark.
Tests in Tunisia
In November, Belarus took part in a series of friendly games in Hammamet, Tunisia. Having lost to Tunisia and Russia and getting a draw against Brazil, Chevtsov's team were rooted to the bottom of the mini-tournament. The head coach was not very happy with the results, but found the matches helpful.
"We got some new experience and useful information, but I saw the problems which arose after some of our players signed contracts with foreign clubs. In these clubs, they play a different role and it is pretty hard for them to switch back to the national team," Chevtov said.
Indeed, a few Belarusian players have recently left their homeland. For example, three leaders of SKA Minsk moved abroad just after winning the Challenge Cup.
Centre back Barys Pukhouski joined the Hungarian side Csurgo, pivot Aliaksandr Tsitou opted for HC Motor Zaporozhye in the Ukraine, and right back Siarhei Shylovich signed with the Polish club Pogon Szczecin.
However, they all seem to play prominent roles in their new teams, so Belarus can set their hopes on that trio.
"Pukhouski and Shylovich can be very important for our team in Denmark, just like some other players, for example centre back Dzmitry Nikulenkau from Dinamo Minsk and goalkeeper Vitali Charapenka from Brest HC Meshkov, who had a very good World Championship in January,” said the renowned Belarusian handball expert and 1988 Olympic champion Aliaksandr Karshakevich.
Although these players will be important, there is no doubt as to who the most crucial player will be in Denmark, FC Barcelona’s Siarhei Rutenka. The 32-year-old left back is the only true world-class player in the national team.
Rutenka has won many big trophies in his career, and is regarded among the best left backs in the world.
"Belarus with Rutenka and Belarus without him are two different teams, and it is not just my opinion.
"Too much in our team depends on Siarhei. When he is in good shape, he leads the team. However, his dominant role is like a double-edged sword. Because when he has a bad day, no one can really replace him," admitted Karshakevich.
Siarhei will be joined in Denmark by younger brother Dzianis, who is also in good form at the moment. The 27-year-old is the undisputed first-choice right wing at Dinamo Minsk, a club which nowadays relies mainly on foreign players.
In fact, there are four Belarus national team players at Dinamo, but all bar Rutenka lack playing practice, especially in the VELUX Champions League. This is also a concern for Iuri Shevtsov ahead of EHF EURO.
In Denmark, Belarus will not belong to the favorites, but the fans are hoping for a surprise and so are the players.
"We are still weaker than other teams. If we advance from the group in Denmark, it will be a big achievement.
"Belarus may provide a lot of problems for the strong opponents, but also may lose against a team which is weaker on paper.
"In fact, merely a participation in any major tournament is already an achievement for us. But we want to move on," says Siarhei Rutenka.
Aliaksandr Karshakevich, who himself used to be a head coach of Belarus, also believes than the mission is not impossible:
"Everything depends on our players. In my opinion, the first game is the most important. If they start well, they will have a good tournament,” said Karshakevich.
Belarus will play all three group matches in the Danish capital Copenhagen. Croatia, Sweden and Montenegro are all tough opponents in Group D, but Chevtsov's team are also a hard nut to crack.
After all, they qualified for the tournament after beating the more fancied Slovenians, who had a very impressive World Championship earlier in the year, and now the Belarusians are going to compete with two other teams from the Balkans.
"If we qualify for the second round, we can certainly call it a successful tournament,” concluded Karshakevich.