May 26, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko called the country's national hockey team ''spineless'' after it failed to qualify for the playoffs at the world championships.

Lukashenko, an authoritarian leader who has held power since 1994, told government officials the Belarusian players lack ambition, have ''no commitment at all'' and are ''absolutely spineless.''

Skill, fitness and teamwork are all lacking, he added.

''Even if you lose, then play with soul and the people will forgive you,'' Lukashenko said in comments posted Thursday on the presidential website. ''But when you go out there you've lost the game before it even begins and your legs are shaking.''

The team's staff didn't escape censure, with Lukashenko saying ''the coaching work is disgusting.''

Belarus won two of its seven games at the world championships this month, finishing second from last in its group but avoiding relegation. It won't play at next year's Olympics after losing to Slovenia in a qualifying tournament last year.

Lukashenko has played hockey with Russian President Vladimir Putin and says the sport is like an ''ideology'' for the roughly 9.5 million inhabitants of his ex-Soviet nation.

As a remedy for poor performance, Lukashenko said Belarusian hockey clubs show lower salaries and offer bigger bonuses for success.

''Everyone's driving around in a Mercedes,'' Lukashenko said, ''but there are no results.''

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