BATE Borisov face Bayern Munich this Wednesday in the last set of Champions League games until the new year. DW reporter Florian Bauer braved the November cold in Belarus to visit the team that beat the Bayern stars 3-1.
The industrial town Borisov has 170,000 inhabitants and lies an hour's drive from the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Its skyline is dominated by factories and Soviet-style prefabricated high-rise buildings. It is home to the surprise team in this year's Champions League competition.
It's the third time since 2008 that BATE Borisov got into the tournament, but they never managed a win - until this year. They kicked off the campaign with a 3-1 win over group favorites Bayern Munich, Bayern's only defeat in the competition this season. That secured BATE Borisov a special place in the football history books.
No sponsors in sight
President Anatoli Kapskiis the key figure at the club. In the mid 1900s, he financed the club's ascent to the top division. When DW finally got an interview with him, he told us that BATE is a club that is neither big, nor rich.
"We wouldn't mind having a rich sponsor, but we'd think twice whether the reliance on such a sponsor or oligarch might not take a toll on our team spirit," he said.
This seems to be an unusual statement for a club that has made it into the Champions League of ambitious teams. BATE's annual budget is under nine million euros ($11.75 million) - that's roughly the salary of just one of Bayern Munich's star players.
But then BATE Borisov does have a special history. It was founded in 1959 as the company team of BATE, a state-owned producer of electricity generators.
Since then it has always been at the top of the league in a country where all the soccer clubs are supported by a total of 600 state-owned enterprises.
The fans have a special commitment to their club. For example, it is quite normal for them to grab shovels and lend a hand in clearing the way to the stadium on snowy match days during the winter.
Training sessions take place on the BATE company premises. After the standard heavy snowfall in November the team moves into a makeshift soccer arena, which is an inflatable tent.
But there are plans for new, state-of-the-art training grounds, big enough to train up the 400 boys in the BATE youth teams. This is how the club wants to invest the Champions League money.
"Our main problem is that the teams in our national soccer league simply are not strong enough, that makes it difficult for us to keep up with western European teams," said national team coach Victor Goncharenko, deploring the lack of sports infrastructure in his home country.
At the age of 32, Goncharenko became the youngest coach in Champions League history when BATE made it into the competition in 2008. During every winter break he spends time with European top clubs like AC Milan, Ajax Amsterdam or Bayern Munich, sitting in on their training sessions and talking to their coaching teams. He hired two Spanish fitness-coaches during his time with Spanish side Real Valladolid.
Grand plans for the future
On the outskirts of Borisov the regional administration is building a new stadium with 13,000 seats on orders from President Alexander Lukashenko. Rumor has it that this is his way of thanking BATE club president Kapskifor his support for Lukashenko's last presidential election campaign.
"What we have achieved here at BATE with a handful of home-grown talent is really impressive," says Belarus soccer-legend Alexander Hleb. BATE Borisov was where he started his career, which took him to Germany and Bundesliga side Stuttgart, and then Arsenal and Barcelona. After a string of injuries, the 31-year-old signed up again where he started out.
His contract runs out at the end of the year. He is hoping to return to the Bundesliga, he says, but first he wants to secure a place in the Europa League for his team.
For that BATE needs to finish third in the group. And the first stepping stone on that way would be another victory against Bayern Munich.
Soccer pundits don't think there is much chance for that - but their predictions were wrong last time, too.