Last Saturday evening was a massive one in the footballing sphere, or at least what’s left of it. The eyes of the world convened on the Borisov Arena, as BATE Borisov hosted Torpedo Zhodino in a match that may have title implications in Belarus, with Torpedo coming into the match week at the top of the table, BATE only three points behind. A dark, cloudy sky accompanied the two sides at the 8 pm kickoff, as the players made their way onto the floodlight-illuminated pitch under a waning crescent in the brisk Belarusian night.
The match was a tightly contested one. Chances flurried on both ends of the pitch, with neither side being able to find a breakthrough. The match finished in a 0-0 deadlock, though goals weren’t the only notable absence from that night in Borisov.
While matches are yet to be ordered to be played behind closed doors, the reported attendance was only 652. In comparison, BATE Borisov averaged 5,050 fans per home match last season. Many fans have opted to stay away, as fears of COVID-19 sweep through the globe. Belarus is the only country in Europe with professional sports still in play. But as the absence of fans in the stands carries on, the Belarusian Football Federation has brought the game online. Live streams via YouTube regularly attract more than 10,000 viewers world-wide, with the league receiving more international attention than ever before.
“I saw it was the only league running on the news, I made a Twitter for the first time and saw there was English fans and coverage,” @Pavelsleftfoot, a Twitter page for Belarusian Premier League memes and discussion, administrator Gavin Mansfield said. “I enjoy it because it has the feeling of accessibility which you associate with amateur football, however the standard of the league is actually very good and watchable.”
With the emergence of the new international attention for the league, the clubs are also gaining more international traction. English language fan pages based in the U.K. have popped up all over Twitter, with hundreds of fans following teams that many didn’t know existed before the pandemic. Dimitry Podrubniy, the administrator of the @RUSNLF Twitter page that covers the semi-professional and amateur levels of the game in Russia, started to cover the game in Belarus after noticing there was an interest.
“I was a bit surprised of course,” Podrubniy said. “I’ve seen the first one of Gorodeya Twitter account and almost this day at the evening several accounts joined. Slutsk Facebook worldwide was already established then.”
“Tajikistan Higher League is also playing now and they haven’t had so many fans. I think the reason. is attended matches, also suitable time, European country and such moments like a fan with [an] accordion. It’s not only about FC Slutsk’s translation.”
In the midst of the explosion in popularity, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across Belarus and the world. Along with that, the Belarusian Women’s Premier League suspended play until further notice, while the men continue to play. President Alexander Lukashenko has publicly expressed his doubts about the severity of the virus, saying that “nobody will die of coronavirus in our country” and “tough work and a tractor can cure anything.” Despite this, at the time of writing, the Eastern European nation has 8,022 confirmed cases, with 60 fatalities due to the virus.
“It’s weird [that play is continuing] of course,” Podrubniy said. “President Lukashenko thinks that lockdown will kill Belarusian industry. Factories are working, even schools are still opened, so its maybe not very surprising that continues in such conditions. Footballers said they do their job. Fair play.”
“I think Belarus must postpone all sport for a bit,” he continues. “For today, it’s really unsafe. I think it all will continue until the first case among footballers- but is it right? Even with footballers are very strong immunity. Hope it won’t be.”
As with the newfound international fanfare, the league doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon. With the attention, the league is determined to finish its second half. Along with the league, the fans are eager to see how everything plays out. With the league playing out as it has, fans are eager to see where things go from here.
“If you look at last season, the results don’t make any sense,” Mansfield said. “There is still everything to play for this season and nobody is running away with it just yet.”
“The league has been a welcome distraction during the quarantine.”