Cast your mind back a few weeks to the days when football was in full flow, pubs and schools were open and life was pretty normal. It would have been hard to fathom a world where football in Belarus is suddenly catapulted into the continental spotlight. But due to the devastation and disruption caused by the coronavirus, every country in Europe has suspended the professional game. Every country except Belarus.
Now, unless you want to read up on football in Nicaragua, Burundi, Turkmenistan or Myanmar (the only other countries that haven’t suspended football) the Belarusian Premier League is the only place we’ll get a bit of a football fix for the next few weeks. Their attitude is to carry on as normal. A laissez-faire approach, which has caused some controversy.
Football Continues in Belarus
Why hasn’t Belarussian Football Been Suspended?
Because their president Alexander Lukashenko doesn’t seem to be afraid of the deadly bug. Lukashenko, often referred to as “the last dictator in Europe”, said last week:
“(Coronavirus) is just another psychosis, which will benefit some people and harm others. The civilised world is going nuts. It is absolute stupidity to close state borders. The panic can hurt us more than the virus itself.”
In addition, he said that instead of panicking, people should have 40-50 grams of vodka daily, go to a banya (a Russian sauna) two to three times a week and keep working on a farm, as “tough work and a tractor can cure anything.”
At the time of writing, the Eastern European nation has 94 confirmed cases of COVID 19. There are no plans to stop the season any time soon.
Underdogs Rule the Start of the Season
Whilst the idea of continuing football can be criticised, it’s hard to doubt that the early matches have thrown up a fair bit of excitement already.
BATE Borisov are one of the few widely recognisable names in the division. They’re the only Belarusian team to have ever reached the group stages of the Champions League, a feat they’ve achieved five times since 2008. However, last season’s runners-up have lost both of their opening games. Yesterday they were beaten 2-1 by Slavia Mozyr, who came eighth out of 16 teams last season.
On the opening day, BATE suffered a shock defeat to Energetik-BGU Minsk, a team who have only ever spent five seasons in the top tier in their history. Last season they avoided relegation by just four points. Energetik followed that up with a 1-0 win against Rukh Brest.
Champions Dynamo Brest have made a solid start – winning one and drawing one so far. And we’ve already had an upset in a thrilling derby, played out by FC Minsk and Dynamo Minsk. Dynamo, last season’s fourth-placed team, found themselves trailing 3-0 at half time against their neighbours, who finished five places and 14 points behind them in 2019.
They were also reduced to ten men early in the second half. Despite that, the away side still managed to pull two goals back – setting up a grandstand finish. However, the hosts held on for a well-deserved three points.
The top two of an embryonic league table meet next Sunday when Energetik host FC Minsk. BATE will hope to get back to winning ways when they take on newly-promoted Rukh Brest on Saturday.
Alexander Hleb: “No one cares” in Belarus
Former Arsenal man Alexander Hleb, widely regarded as one of Belarus’ greatest ever players, told the Sun that “nobody seems to care.”
“It’s incredible. Maybe in one week or two weeks, we will stop here. Maybe our President is just waiting to see what happens with the virus.
“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. A lot of young people and students here think like this. I’m keeping at home with my family. But when I go out, the streets and restaurants are still busy.”
This is a country that is never in the footballing spotlight. They’re ranked 32nd out of 56 UEFA member associations, and their national team have never qualified for a major tournament. TV companies in Russia and Ukraine have acquired broadcasting rights for the Belarusian Premier League until the end of the season. This is the first time that any channel outside of the country has shown football in Belarus.
38-year-old Hleb, who earned 80 caps for his country, did acknowledge that being in the spotlight and still getting to watch football is helping to keep the natives happy.