Last season delivered one of the closest title races the Premier League has seen in years as Manchester City and Liverpool slugged it out like two heavyweight fighters desperate to land a knockout punch deep into the 12th round.
In other European Leagues, however, the trend was dramatically different. Bayern Munich were pushed harder than in previous years but ultimately secured a seventh consecutive title, while Juventus went one better and finished ahead of everyone else in Serie A for the eighth straight season.
Two of the Premier League’s closest neighbours also witnessed prolonged domination, with The New Saints winning the Welsh league for the eighth time in a row and Celtic doing the same north of the border. Not content with an eighth SPL title, the Hoops added both domestic cups as well, completing the hat-trick of Scottish trophies for the third straight season.
Impressive as each of those achievements are, they pale in comparison to what BATE Borisov have done in Belarus. On 13 July, BATE trounced Torpedo-Belaz Zhodino 4-1 at home, while Dinamo Brest lost 2-1 at home against Dynamo Minsk, allowing BATE to go top of the league.
In normal circumstances, a one-point lead at the halfway stage of the season – the Belarusian Premier League runs from March to December – would not be particularly significant, even when held by the best team in the league. BATE, however, aren’t just the best team in Belarus: they are a ruthless winning machine.
In December, they finished nine points ahead of Shakhtyor Soligorsk to secure a 15th league title. A relatively impressive figure but no big deal, one might say. After all, Liverpool have three more titles and have not won the league in 29 years.
The championships tally alone, however, barely scratches the surface of BATE’s dominance. To put things into context, 13 of those titles have come in the last 13 years. In other words, aside from BATE, no other team has called itself Belarusian champions since 2006. In the same span, the Premier League, Serie A and LaLiga have each had three different winners, while four different clubs have won the Bundesliga.
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The 13-year run is the longest current streak in European football. Coupled with the two titles BATE won in 1999 and in 2002, it makes them most successful club in Belarus and it also means they have won the title in more than half of the seasons since the league’s inception less than three decades ago. Or, to put it another way, they have won the title in 71.4 percent of the seasons they have competed in the Belarusian Premier League.
With very rare exceptions, such prolonged spells of domination are extremely difficult to forecast. In BATE’s case, it was nigh-on impossible as the club was only formed in 1996.
By the time the Belarusian Premier League kicked off its inaugural season in 1992 – the first for independent Belarus since the dissolution of the Soviet Union – BATE hadn’t been on the map for almost a decade. They had folded in controversial circumstances in 1984, just 11 years after first entering the world of Belarusian football.
The brainchild of Nikolai Busel, the director of the Borisov Automobile and Tractor Electric Equipment factory from which the club got its acronym, BATE’s first spell in the domestic league was short but sweet. In 1974, their second-ever season, BATE won the title, before repeating the feat in 1976 and 1979. Within five years, however, the doors on their ground closed permanently and Barysaw – as the city is officially referred to in English – was left without football for eight years.
As Belarus geared up for its first football season as an independent nation, football returned to the city, albeit under a different guise. The halcyon days of BATE were a long way away and the task of flying the flag was left to Berezina.
Named after the river that flows through the city which Napoleon crossed during his Russian campaign, there was nothing imperial about the club which unsuccessfully toiled away in the third tier for two seasons before renaming to Fomalgaut.
The change of identity prompted a change of fortune, with Fomalgaut securing promotion to the second tier at the end of the 1994/95 season. The feel-good factor, however, quickly evaporated as the team encountered financial difficulties and folded. It was left to the man who had kickstarted BATE’s revolution two decades earlier to rescue football in Barysaw and ultimately changed the landscape of Belarusian football for a generation.
Having put the city on the football map in 1973, Busel thought it was time to do so again.
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A town of 145,000 inhabitants approximately 50 miles northeast of Minsk, Barysaw might not fit the typical requirements of cities hosting football royalties, nor it is likely to ever be mentioned in the same breath as Madrid, Liverpool, Barcelona or Milan. And yet, for Busel and those who gathered alongside him in his office in the spring of 1996, the industrial giant had all it took to be turned into a football hotbed.
For all their endeavours, however, Busel and his supporters soon encountered a problem. The club had a name and a chairman – local businessman Anatoli Kapski – but no manager or players to speak of.
If Busel provided an everlasting reminder of what BATE had achieved, Kapski was firmly focused on the future and intent on avoiding the same issues that had plagued Fomalgaut, who had been sponsored by his own company. “There was just no strategy, and I did not like that,” he explained in an interview. “And the bosses of Fomalgaut were not ready to come up with one. With BATE I wanted to make it differently. I wanted the club to develop sustainably and to have a clear vision of what we try to achieve.”
The vision soon paid off and within two years of being reformed, BATE returned to the top flight for the 1998 season and finished runners-up. Their manager, Yuri Puntus, was appointed as the club rose from its ashes. A year later, he became the first man to guide BATE to a league title in two decades.
A second and a third-place finish followed in the next two seasons, before BATE clinched another title in 2002, dramatically edging out Neman Grodno on goal difference. It would not be the last time they won the title by the slenderest of margins.
Runners-up in the following two seasons, BATE then finished fifth in 2005 during Igor Kriushenko’s first campaign in charge. By the club’s relatively new but already lofty standards, it represented a dramatic fall from grace. To this day, 2005 remains the only season the team hasn’t finished in the top three since making its Belarusian Premier League debut.
However, far from signalling the beginning of the end, that fifth-place finish triggered an unparalleled run of success. It didn’t simply stir the club into life; it provided it with the catalyst for a period of unprecedented dominance in Belarus that would see BATE lift the league titles 11 times in a row.
Kriushenko left Barysaw after the second of those titles, to be replaced by Viktor Goncharenko. The son of an engineer who died in 1993 of illnesses related to the Chernobyl disaster, Goncharenko had won BATE’s first two league titles as a player and added another five to his trophy cabinet while in the dug-out.
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By then, BATE operated their own version of the famous Anfield Boot Room and in 2013 Goncharenko handed the reins over to Alyaksandr Yermakovich. The latter’s fifth and last title as BATE player had come during Goncharenko’s second season in charge, after which he joined his former teammate’s staff as assistant coach, just as Goncharenko had done under Puntus and Kriushenko.
A club icon who had amassed over 220 league appearances and won nine titles with the club, it seemed perversely timed that Yermakovich would have to be the man overseeing BATE’s grip on the title being loosened. And yet, by the end of November 2017, it was almost fait accompli.
BATE and Dinamo Minsk had pushed each other in the most absorbing title race Belarus had seen since, well, the former had won the title on goal difference 15 years earlier. In scenes reminiscing of the finale of the 2011/12 Premier League season, BATE and Dinamo kicked off the final match of the season with the defending champions leading the league by two points and boasting a superior goal difference.
With 15 minutes left in the season, there had been a five-goal swing towards Dinamo. Not enough for them to win the title on goal difference alone, but more than enough for them to momentarily take a one-point lead in the title race. With BATE 3-1 down away against FC Gorodeya and Dinamo cruising to a 4-1 some 200 miles away in Vitebsk, the trophy looked well and truly on its way to Minsk for the first time since 2004.
Perhaps Yermakovich was mentally rehearsing his concession speech, like a politician who has been informed he has not won enough votes on election night. Perhaps he was pondering the wisdom of the cliche that suggests that all records eventually come to an end.
Either way, he shouldn’t have bothered. Vitali Rodionov pulled one back for BATE in the 78th minute to set up a grandstand finish, before Mirko Ivanić wrote his name in BATE’s folklore with an equaliser in the fifth minute of stoppage time.
It is difficult to compare Ivanić’s goal with Sergio Agüero’s winner against QPR, largely because of the different circumstances surrounding both events. BATE had won the league in the previous 11 seasons, while City had waited 44 years for a title and were locked in an arm wrestle with their local rivals. For the neutrals, Ivanić’s goal might carry less weight, but within Barysaw, it is Agüero who enjoyed an Ivanić moment.
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After such a thrilling act, the following segment of BATE’s tale of domestic domination was always unlikely to live up to the drama and, in fact, it didn’t. The Belarusian giants won the title at a canter last season, finishing nine points clear of second-placed Shakhtyor Soligorsk and ten ahead of Dinamo Minsk. BATE could even afford to change their manager shortly after the start of the season, with Oleg Dulub replaced by Aleksei Baga.
The first man since Puntus to take charge of BATE without having played for them, Dulub lasted only six months in Barysaw before being making way for Baga. The latter played for BATE in two different spells and delivered the kind of continuity his predecessors had made synonymous with the club, winning the league in his first season in charge.
As is the case for every club who has won consecutive league titles, during their 13-year run BATE have not only had to contend with their rivals but with enemies from within. Through a series of managerial changes, they have so far managed to remain as hungry and as desperate for success as they were when they first returned to the top-flight.
It would be preposterous to suggest the Belarusian Premier League is extremely competitive, but for all the criticism the league receives, retaining a steadfast desire to win while keeping complacency at bay for 13 years is no mean feat.
BATE aren’t alone among teams whose achievements are somewhat devalued because of the league’s overall level. Winning successive titles over such a long period of time usually translates into criticism of the competition. It happens in every sport and BATE’s case is no different but, as one of football’s oldest cliches goes, teams can only beat whichever opponent they are playing.
Their run will eventually end, perhaps even this season as Dinamo Brest have so far shown they have the mettle required to dethrone the defending champions. One more title, however, would see BATE make history and become only the third European team to win 14 straight titles.
The feat has only been achieved by Latvian side Skonto Riga between 1991 and 2004 and Lincoln of Gibraltar. The latter’s run came to an end in disappointing fashion on the final day of the 2016/17 season, when they were pipped to what would have been a 15th consecutive title by rivals Europa.
If recent history is anything to go by, few would bet against BATE sitting alone at the top of that particular leaderboard in two years’ time.
By Dan Cancian @dan_cancian