Citizen deep inside

World handball star Sergey Rutenko was born in Belarus, but plays for the Slovenian team
Sometimes Sergey jokes that he has chosen the wrong sport. "If I were a football player," he offers a 32-teeth smile, "I would have earned millions and bought a small villa somewhere in Hawaii and a yacht..." Well, he is right. Compared with football or even hockey, handball is less profitable. But if we imagine Rutenko playing football or hockey, he would stand next to Andrey Shevchenko or Yaromir Yar as to the class and professionalism. And this is not an exaggeration.

But the thing is that Sergey Rutenko does not like football. It seems he has been created for handball. Actually, today he is the strongest handball player in the world. World best clubs want to have him and are ready to offer deals in telephone numbers.

Sergey Rutenko is a sportsman with a very interesting life story. He was born in Shabany (a village that has recently become a part of the city). The anthropometric data of the boy (he grew by leaps and bounds and "was looking down" on his peers) determined his future and he joined a handball section. But it was not until later that the coaches, who at first did not think much of the boy as a handball player, came to see a hidden talent in Rutenko, a diamond under the stones. Rutenko was very persistent (he is stubborn, never throws in the towel and finishes the things he got started), while life was springing more surprises. There appeared not to be a moment more suitable for failure and disappointment as when at a selection in the legendary SKA (one of the world´s top-rank clubs in the 1980s) great coach Spartak Mironovich ignored a tall but slim youth and sent him back to play in Arkatron, a team that could not have been less insignificant. And Sergey Rutenko´s life could have been as ordinary as it gets, but for one happening.

- The Slovenian referees, who were present at our match with a Serbian team, laid an eye on me, Sergey said. We were competing with the Serbs for the EGF Cup. I was looking good on court, has a high score. So, the Slovenians found me very attractive. They handed the video with the match to Gornje, the first Slovenian club I played in, and right before the Christmas I went there to probe the ground. Of course, I felt a bit self-conscious, but I had to go there to build a career. The trial period was over and I was offered to sign a five-year contract with the club. Surprisingly, I quickly got adapted and soon became the best striker and the leader of the team. An invitation from Cele, the second largest club in Slovenia, ensued. Being a member of that team, I have won everything that was possible to win, each and every trophy that is competed for in the world of handball. They vary in scope from the Slovenian Cup to European Super Cup and League of Champions.

However, back then the victories were ahead. First he arrived to a small town of Velenje and felt extremely lonely. He had no friends, he did not speak Slovenian and would spend most of his past-training time strolling in the park dreaming of becoming a winner. Sergey was waiting impatiently to be called back to play for Belarus, as it was his only chance to visit homeland, meet friends and enjoy their support. Besides, playing for the national team has always been deemed as prestigious. At the beginning of his career Rutenko was a member of the youth team that won silver at the European Championship in 2000. The competition revealed a budding professional and future star in the maturing Rutenko. He was recognised best bombardier of the championship and the doors of the great handball broke open in front of him.

- I would have never applied for a Slovenian citizenship should the Belarusian team has had any chances to make it to the finals and the Olympic Games. I am so ambitious about grabbing a title of the Olympic and world champions. I am vying to attain everything what seemed to be unattainable - to win absolutely all handball titles! I love Belarus and each summer I spend some time in my native Minsk, where I am having a real rest. But my professional life has made a "Slovenian" entry in my passport. There are several reasons behind that. I have pronounced the first one, while the second is... Once I stopped receiving the invitations from the Belarusian national team, they probably thought I was a "wrong" handball player. Nevertheless, I have done a lot of serious thinking before I accepted the proposal of Slovenia to become a citizen of that country. I realised it was a major step and I have made it. C´est la vie. And I am playing for Slovenia now...

And his performance is really great!

- True, it was difficult to blend with the national team. It is not a club, things are different here. Responsibility, a flag, a hymn... It is very important. The preparations took long, but the performance at the Olympics can hardly be called successful. Apart from that, I failed to find understanding with Tone Tissel, a new coach. It would be fair to say that it is he, who failed to come to terms with me. The team was far from showing a brilliant play and I spent most of the time on the sidelines, which was astonishing to me and both partners and journalists.

It is not surprising. Then in 2004 Sergey became best bombardier of the League of Champions and his team Cele won this craved-by-all prize for the first time in its history. The whole Slovenia adored him, Rutenko enjoyed enormous popularity. Who knows, maybe the Slovenian failed to take a higher place at the Olympics because this tall Belarusian with powerful serves, a menace to all goalkeepers, was reserved a supporting role. At the World Championship-2005 he was not given a lot of chance to play, though despite the fact he managed to clench a title of best striker.

I met with Sergey when I visited Slovenia-Belarus football match. Sergey is Belarusian deep inside, but has had a Slovenian passport for over a year. Local journos - mainly gossip columnists - were bombarding him with the question "Which team do you support?"

The Slovenes like him more than the Belarusians do. I am a witness.

Sergey spent a whole day showing me around the city, we saw all places of interest, were to many coffee-bars - people were recognising him and saying how they liked him. We arrived to the stadium a bit earlier and met a handful of Belarusian fans, who came to see the match. They recognised Rutenko and circled him in. They asked him questions for half an hour, autographs and photographs... He answered the questions, signed the photographs and invited this "band" to come to his training session. And they did show up. Can you imagine a group of Belarusian football fans at a training session of the Slovenia Cele? Young buffs, who unfolded Belarusian flags and were chanting at the top of the voice: "Sergey Rutenko! Be-la-rus! Sergey Rutenko! Be-la-rus!" Certainly, the players and the coaches were shocked. The security asked the fans to keep silent or leave the training hall. The latter decided to accept the conditions and stayed to watch a training session of the world´s best club and world´s best handball player, who used to be their compatriot.

We said good-bye to each other after the game was over. He noticed sadly that "our team was playing without the gates." I abstained from asking him what he meant by "our team" - each chooses his own way. Rutenko is appreciated and loved - it is clear. And Belarus, the citizen of which he is - maybe the passport does not say that but his soul does - is loved through him.

Sergey Kanashits
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