Damian Hall tells the sorry tale of a a fragile winger who valued the art of passing over the business of winning and made a mistake leaving Arsenal
Alexander Hleb was a classic Arsène Wenger signing. He was relatively unknown in England, technically excellent, yet cursed with a pathological preference for a pass over a punt at goal. When the six-time Belarus player of the year and sometime captain of the national team arrived in 2005, he did not look like a footballer. Hleb was scrawny, too thin for his shirt – which always went untucked – with socks around his ankles. But he could play.
Hleb was an old-school wing wizard: a dribbler for the sake of dribbling, yet one who preferred to come infield to link up, almost psychically, with Cesc Fàbregas. As well as making it to the Champions League final in 2006, his thrilling young Arsenal side should have won the League in 2008.
Hleb did not score many goals, but his play merited a new phrase. He was the king of the assist-assist, or the "hockey assist". "I should score more," he admitted. "But since I was a child, my first instinct on the pitch has been to make chances for others. It’s something in my blood."
Hleb could be frustrating and he was a divisive figure among fans. He personified the flawed beauty of Wenger’s football philosophy. But Barcelona wanted him and, with a painful predictability, he followed a well-trodden path in 2008. You could not blame him for moving on.
As well as the attraction of playing for the best side in the world, he came from an impoverished background in part of what had recently been the Soviet Union. He did not own football boots until he was 12 and his father had been forced into "volunteering" for the relief effort after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which lead to ill health.
After shining in England, it seemed his joie de vivre on the ball could be a good fit at Barcelona. Although the club won trebles and doubles, Hleb remained a bit-part player. He managed only 19 appearances in four years, before being released him in January with six months of his contract remaining. While in Catalonia, he was loaned back to VfB Stuttgart, and also to Wolfsburg and Birmingham City.
In January the free agent was linked to Liverpool, Fulham and QPR, before he eventually joined three of his compatriots at Krylia Sovetov, who are currently 13th in the Russian Premier League. Hleb has had injury problems since leaving London, but surely he could be doing a job for a better team or in a better league.
His scruffy, farmyard appearance belies something of a superstar mentality. He loves fast cars – a road accident in Minsk resulted in a fatality – and is married to an ex-popstar from the Belarusian group Topless. He has been accused of acting like a prima donna by a former international team-mate, who claimed that Hleb and his brother, also an international, are chauffeured to games while the rest of the team take a bus.
Hleb is also outspoken. In England he was quick to bemoan the lack of a winter break. "I preferred the way things happened in Germany. It was more organised, no traffic jams and I had a lot of friends." Of Barcelona he said: "It is difficult when you are not from Spain. Josep Guardiola picks the Spanish players. I have not had a lot of chances." Of Birmingham: "Here you need to just fight and run, not too much passing. I prefer to play and to enjoy football." But then again, are any of those quotes unreasonable? He does not seem to have caused any trouble at Arsenal.
If there was one place artistic indulgence is tolerated and even encouraged, it is the Emirates. Hleb has admitted leaving the club was a mistake and given several painfully public come-and-get-me pleas. "I love Arsenal," he said in January. "It is always in my heart." Hleb and Arsenal were the perfect fit. He just could not see it at the time.
From WSC 302 April 2012