With professional soccer at a virtual standstill worldwide, fans in need of a fix are getting it from an unlikely source – the Belarusian Premier League, which is carrying on with matches despite the coronavirus outbreak.
The competition is one of Europe’s least glamorous, and its teams rarely reach the group stage of UEFA’s elite Champions League.
But it is drawing foreign fans’ attention and a string of new broadcast deals in its new season, which began early in March.
It is one of the few leagues still playing around the world, and the only one in Europe. The league has said it has no intention of postponing matches or cancelling the season.
On Saturday, the league played six top-flight games, including a derby between FC Minsk and Dinamo Minsk watched by a capacity 3000 crowd in the Belarussian capital.
“It so happened that this derby was practically the only official football match on Earth,” read Dinamo’s match report after its 3-2 defeat.
Belarus, a former Soviet nation, has so far reported 94 coronavirus cases, and no deaths. It has taken few measures to curb the outbreak.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who has held power in the country of 9.5 million people since 1994, has downplayed the need for social distancing and bragged that he continues to play ice hockey and embrace fellow players.
“It’s better to die standing than to live on your knees,” he told local television on Saturday after a hockey game.
“There are no viruses here [at the rink] … I don’t see them.”
The decision to carry on and allow fans into stadiums has helped the Belarus Football Federation secure broadcasting deals with sports networks in 10 countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Israel and India, where fans have been left with nothing to watch.
Most of the league’s teams are unknown to the majority of soccer fans, except perhaps BATE Borisov and Dinamo Minsk.
Dinamo Minsk’s popularity has spiked on social media as interest has grown in the local league.
Unfortunately for the Belarus players, when top European soccer resumes interest in them is likely to disappear.
“They will not only watch English or Italian leagues, but also the Belarusian one from time to time,” Yuri, a Dinamo Minsk supporter, said.