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3 April 2020

How the Belarusian Premier League is attracting new fans – as Europe’s only championship

The former Soviet nation intends to carry on with its football calendar as planned in spite of a global pandemic.

By Rohan Banerjee

With most professional football competitions postponed or cancelled around the world due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, fans still in need of their fix have turned to an unlikely source – the Belarusian Premier League.

Europe’s last top-flight football league still active in the midst of Covid-19, the Vysheyshaya Liga – which launched in 1992 as a breakaway from the old Soviet League system – is continuing, for now, its March through December calendar as planned.

Fifpro, the world union of football players, has labelled this “frankly not comprehendible” and urged the division to use “common sense” to understand the safety risks involved in gathering crowds during a global pandemic.

At the time of writing, Belarus has recorded just 163 cases of coronavirus and only two deaths, leading the chair of the Football Federation of Belarus (BFF), Uladzimir Bazanaw, to give a bullish interview to the country’s state TV station. “There is no critical situation,” he said. “Therefore we are continuing the championship.”

The country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, has also played down the need for social distancing measures. “It’s better to die standing than to live on your knees,” the 65-year-old told All-National TV at an ice hockey match. Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994, went on to suggest that people washing their hands with vodka could serve as a useful home remedy against Covid-19.

The Belarusian Premier League has played two rounds of fixtures so far this season. It is made up of 16 teams, including Dinamo Minsk and 15-time champions BATE Borisov, who faced Arsenal in the 2018-19 Europa League round of 32.

The decision to continue to allow fans to attend matches has helped the Belarusian Premier League to secure broadcasting deals with sports networks in ten countries, including Russia, India and Israel, where fans have been left with no live football to watch.

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Spectators in the UK, meanwhile, can tune into the action via a streaming service provided by Bet365, on the proviso that they open an account and place at least one bet with the bookmaker.

There will also no doubt be numerous additional illegal streams made available to willing audiences in the coming weeks and months.

Are people really so desperate? Football, said the former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi, is the “most important of life’s unimportant things”. But the coronavirus crisis, in many ways, has highlighted this iconic quote as actually a bit of an understatement.

While undoubtedly there are more pressing items on world leaders’ agendas than the conclusion of football competitions at the moment, it would be unfair to suggest that these didn’t matter at all, or worse yet, that it’s just a game.

From an economic perspective, football’s near-total paralysis is having a profound impact – not just on clubs and players directly, but on the thousands of ancillary businesses and industries that rely on the sport taking place. These include bars, restaurants, travel agencies, local newspapers, and more.

The absence of a normal sporting calendar has left many fans feeling at a loss. Sport, and football in particular, is a social phenomenon, with the power to unify creeds, classes and cultures, over a common interest. It forms the bedrock of millions of friendships and even familial relationships.

With that in mind, then, it is easier to understand why in a time of international upheaval, the continuation of Belarusian football – however reckless on one level – also offers some welcome respite to the stress and uncertainty created by coronavirus.

Marco Spiro, a financial consultant from London and a season ticket holder at Arsenal, admits to feeling “conflicted” about watching Belarusian football, but nevertheless recognises its appeal. “People want the world to get back to normal as quickly as possible, and football is part of that.” Spiro says that there’s “only so much Netflix” that people will stick with before craving something that “isn’t scripted”.

For Daniele Palumbo, a data journalist at the BBC, the Belarusian Premier League has provided “escapism” for him during a difficult time. Until earlier this week, his wife and daughter were stuck in Italy, one of the countries hit hardest by Covid-19, before being able to fly back. “To be honest, it was just something to take my mind of things,” he tells me.

Palumbo, himself a Juventus supporter, says he tends to watch football, “independently of whether my team is playing”. He adds that coronavirus has left people, “clinging to whatever shred of normality they can find… It feels like something structured when everything else is so out of step.”

Whether Belarus persists with its Premier League programme remains to be seen, but at least in the short term it is basking in its new-found popularity – even hoping that the sudden surge of interest will carry on post-coronavirus, when other European leagues resume.

Alexander Strok, a club spokesperson for Dinamo Minsk, told Reuters that he hopes the international spotlight on Belarus will help to motivate players. “We hope it will improve the level of the game here because the players may [feel] more responsible.”

However, former Belarus international midfielder Alexander Hleb, who played for BATE Borizov, Arsenal, Barcelona, and Isloch Minsk Raion, before hanging up his boots in 2019, suggested during an interview with the Sun that the devil-may-care attitude being adopted by many people in his homeland was misguided.

“The coronavirus has closed the Champions League and the Europa League. This is good, because you have to try and stop it. Uefa have done the right thing,” Hleb said. “But in Belarus, it’s like no one cares. It’s incredible. Everybody here knows what’s happened to Italy and Spain. It doesn’t look good. But in our country, people in the presidential administration believe it’s not as extreme as the news says.”

Ultimately, the decision to continue with any sport in front of large crowds at the moment should be viewed as irresponsible. But to condemn the fans wanting to watch it is to underestimate its significance socially, culturally, and even psychologically.

The BFF, if it has any conscience or credibility, should heed the advice of global health experts and suspend its football fixtures. It should take the win of a novel few weeks, but accept that the safety of its fans is paramount.

Football is important, and a return to an active sporting calendar post-coronavirus should be further up the priority list than perhaps some realise. But right now, the short-term rewards presented by the Belarusian Premier League are definitely not worth the long-term risks.

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