Interview with Alexander Hleb: "Ronaldo is great, but Messi is the best"
Ex-Barcelona and Arsenal star Alexander Hleb speaks about Messi vs, Ronaldo, the Catalans, the Gunners, Wenger and his career.
Alexander Hleb is one of the most spectacular football players of modern times. Beginning in his native Belarus, the nimble-footed midfielder went on to not only play at the very top level with clubs like Barcelona, Arsenal and Stuttgart and but also winning titles with them. This fact alone says a lot about his worth.
The former Belarusian international reached his peak during his times with Arsenal and Stuttgart. He was runner-up in the 2005 FA Community Shield, the 2006 UEFA Champions League and the 2007 Football League Cup with the Gunners, while he finished with a runners-up medal in the 2002-03 Bundesliga with the Stuttgart.
The Minsk-born then went on to win several more titles with Barcelona (La Liga 2008-09, Copa del Rey 2009 and UEFA Champions League 2009), Birmingham City (Football League Cup 2011) and BATE Borisov (Belarusian Premier League 1999, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016).
The 35-year-old footballer has gone on to garner a number of individual prizes as well: Belarusian Footballer of the Year (2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008), first ever Belarusian footballer to play in the Champions League Final (2006), first ever Belarusian footballer to win UEFA Champions League (2009), Top assists in the Bundesliga (2004–05), Arsenal Player of the Month (August 2005), Member of the kicker team of the year (Bundesliga 2004–05).
Alexander Hleb recently opened up to Sportskeeda about his past, present and future in football and revealed that he declined offers from the likes Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Bayern Munich.
You currently play in BATE Borisov, a team with which you have spent many years during your fledgeling footballing years. Is it because they helped you initiate your career in football?
Yes. I always had perfect relations with the board, the coaching staff and the players. I know them very well and they know me. I just wanted to help the club to make it to the UEFA Champions League group stage, as FC BATE gave me the start in professional football. This is why I am always happy to return here.
BATE have been the winner of the Belarusian championship for the last eleven seasons. Do BATE have a similar style of playing with a top league team?
This is a tough question. Especially due to the fact that FC BATE play differently in different tournaments. In Belarusian Vysshaya Liga we play one way, and in European matches, we can switch to a different one. I can only say that FC BATE try to take the best from top European clubs as much as it is possible.
What is the style of football in Belarusian League? Does it have a resemblance to any top championship?
I think that our championship does not resemble any particular top competition. I cannot say that Belarusian clubs rely on technique and ball work, but I also would not say it is a power-based football. I would put it somewhere in between.
You are perhaps the most famous football player from Belarus of all time. How did you manage to distinguish starting your career from a country that hasn't got tradition in football?
I was in love with football from my very childhood. I believed that in Belarus you can grow into a good player. My father played an important role in it. He is a great football fan and wanted me to go for it. I counted on my father's love for football and did not think about anything else. Little by little I developing by training hard. But the most important thing was to believe that Belarusian championship was not the limit.
Belgium has progressed a lot in football the last few years. Is Belgium a good example for Belarus in order your country to develop?
I think there are many football talents in Belarus as well. We have a lot of gifted kids. We, however, can’t send our young gifted players to the big powerhouse nations unlike Belgium, which is a part of EU. And this is a great advantage comparing to Belarus.
Did you ever have a proposal from a very big club such as Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester United or Manchester City and you rejected it? If yes, why?
Yes, I had. I rejected them just because I chose other options. When I was playing in Stuttgart I was contacted by Chelsea and Liverpool, and while in Barcelona I had an offer from Manchester City.
Your first big move was to Arsenal, where you played the period for three years between 2005 and 2008. These were the years that the Gunners began losing their path. Were there wrong choices that prevented Arsenal from winning many trophies in the subsequent years? If yes, which were those wrong choices? If no, what is to blame for this situation?
I think there weren't any wrong decisions at that time. Arsenal had a fantastic squad with great players. In 2008 we were leading the table and we were about to clinch the title. We just lacked a bit of stability at the finish. And Eduardo's bad injury influenced us psychologically. We were just not lucky.
You spent four years in Barcelona, but you didn't play much. Why do you think it was difficult for you to establish yourself there?
In Barcelona, I had everything to develop and play regularly. Everything that happened is purely my fault. I took things too easily, my character prevented me from progressing. Instead of working hard I was too often grudging at the coach's decisions.
You have said that you regret leaving Arsenal for Barcelona in 2008. You prefer to have stayed at Arsenal. If you had the chance to go to another club then, which one would you choose? Perhaps Real Madrid, an English club like Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool or a German team?
I think I had to move to Barcelona anyway. It was the number one team in the world at that time, and you just cannot refuse such offers. Otherwise, I would regret dropping a chance to play in the best club in the world. I think that this was the right choice. Arsene Wenger is a great coach and he trusted me.
At Arsenal, I felt at home, really comfortable. At Barcelona, it was a bit different. But anyway I think moving to Spain was the right decision. Talking on the second part of the question, when I was moving to Barca I had also an offer from Bayern, and I was ready to go there. But there was a two-day pause, and Barcelona was just more persistent.
What is your opinion about this year's Arsenal? Can they win Premier League or Champions League?
I think at the moment Arsenal have good players and play great football. But they lack stability that results in dropped points. In the Premier League, it is hard to recover after dropping points. But you really have to minimise those losses.
Are you in favour of Arsene Wenger staying much more years at Arsenal? Or are you with those who believe that his time in the managerial position of the Gunners has ended a long time ago and he cannot offer more to the club?
I am sure Wenger is to stay in charge. He is the man who has made Arsenal the club we know now, loved by millions of supporters around the world. I am sure Wenger still has got a lot to give to the club; he is always full of ideas. And if a new coach comes, it would be a different team. There is no guarantee that Arsenal would remain a bright team like they have been for many years. You can take Manchester United's example after Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
Barcelona don't seem in the condition they were the previous years, nor Lionel Messi. Do you think that Barcelona and Messi are currently in decline?
I am not in the team anymore and this is the result (smiles). But jokes aside, I think Barcelona used to have stronger players in the past.
You played as an opponent against Cristiano Ronaldo and you were a teammate of Lionel Messi. What is the view you have as to which of the two players is the best?
I am sure Messi is the most gifted and the best player in the world. I do not have a single doubt about that. Cristiano Ronaldo is a great player, but he is not Messi.
What are your dreams for the future as a footballer and as a person after retirement from football?
At the moment I want to continue playing and get a lot of pleasure from it. As for the rest, I just want to enjoy my life. Before the new year, I had a daughter born, and this is a really fantastic feeling. I am very happy. I want her to be healthy and make my wife and me happy. And also I hope she will grow up a good person.