11 months ago, Siarhei Rutenka announced the end of his highly successful playing career in a press conference in Minsk, Belarus. But the six-time EHF Champions League winner remains connected to handball, as he was elected Vice-President of the Belarusian Handball Federation in the summer of 2017.
Currently, the 36-year-old former left back is in Porec to attend the EHF EURO matches of his successors – and his younger brother Dzianis, who is still part of the national team.
After the close opening win against Austria, Belarus put on a great performance against Norway, but were ultimately defeated. Therefore, ahead of their final Group B match versus France on Tuesday, they have not yet booked a place in the main round.
Handball gaining increased popularity in Belarus
Rutenka, one of the most outstanding Belarusian handball stars of all time alongside the likes of Sascha Tutschkin, is sure that the current team have a great future: “Thanks to coach Iouri Chevtsov and the efforts of the whole Federation, mainly our President, handball is getting more and more popular in Belarus again.”
One of Rutenka’s current tasks is to support Chevtsov & Co. from a grassroots level: “I take care of development, and bring more boys and girls to handball. And, of course, I have a quite a good network to attract sponsors for handball as, in contrast with other countries, we do not have that much state funding.”
Currently, Rutenka lives in Minsk. He also works on upcoming business projects beyond handball in his country, which he left at the age of 18. “I was the first post-Soviet player, who did not have to stay until his 25th birthday. Looking back on my career, this step to join Slovenian side Gorenje Velenje was perfect. I would do it this way again.”
From Velenje, Rutenka made it to RK Celje, where he raised his first EHF Champions League trophy in 2004, before joining Ciudad Real. At La Mancha, he won the Champions League three more times, then moved to FC Barcelona in 2009 – at that point the most expensive transfer in handball’s history. In 2011 and 2015, he won two more trophies to sit just below the Champions League record winner Andrei Xepkin (seven trophies – six with Barcelona, one with Kiel).
“At a certain point you have to say stop and focus on a new chapter of your life”
In 2015, Rutenka left Barcelona. First, he went to Qatar, then back to Belarus (SKA Minsk), before he quit playing handball last year. “I still had many offers to continue my career, but at a certain point you have to say stop and focus on a new chapter of your life.” The last international tournament he played for Belarus was the EHF EURO 2016 in Poland, where he was injured.
With his departure, the transition in the national team started. Though experienced players like Barys Pukhouski and Rutenka’s brother are still part of the team, Chevtsov is adding fresh blood. “We have some highly skilled players born 1995 and even younger. They are the future of Belarusian handball,” says Rutenka.
And does he support those young players going abroad as early he did? “We currently have a good relationship between players, clubs and the Federation in Belarus. We sit together and discuss the individual situation of each player. For some, it is good to stay in Belarus; for others, it is better to go abroad – and then obviously it makes a difference if you go to Poland or the top leagues and top clubs. There is no general advice.”
“The level in our domestic league is increasing”
Thanks to the financial potential of their top club Meshkov Brest, Belarus are now regularly represented in the EHF Champions League and the SEHA League.
“Meshkov is good for handball in Belarus. On one hand, young Belarusian players can gain international experience on the top level there. On the other, Meshkov have signed many international top players, which raises public interest in handball,” says Rutenka, adding: “And with SKA Minsk, we have another club in the group phase of the EHF Cup. Thanks to those two sides, the level in our domestic league is increasing.”
With all these steps focused on development, Rutenka hopes for a good result at the EHF EURO 2018 in Croatia, but Rutenka does not want to name a certain position he expects his compatriots can reach: “I never bet in my whole life and I never make any predictions.”
But of course, Rutenka crosses his fingers that Belarus will continue the tournament in the main round.