Since coronavirus canceled all the sports, the Belarusian Premier League (BPL) has acquired an unprecedented level of significance among soccer-starved fans and sports bettors. Outside of the small, landlocked former Soviet Bloc republic, they would otherwise only have been very dimly aware of the existence of Belarusian soccer.
But it could be putting people’s lives at risk.
With the exception of Australia’s A-League, which is in the final throws of its season and is being played behind closed doors, the BPL is the only professional soccer league that we know of still functioning in the world.
But unlike the A-League, the BPL is not trying to quickly close out its season before its players hunker into lockdown, nor is it denying paying fans entry to the stadiums.
In fact, the league is only two games into its season.
Last Saturday saw six BPL matches, including the headliner between local rivals FC Minsk and Dinamo Minsk, which was watched by a full-capacity, 3,000-strong crowd in the Belarus capital.
It may have something to so with Belarus’s strong-arm president, Alexander Lukashenko, who has been characterized by media outlets in the West as “Europe’s last dictator.”
‘Tractors Cure Everything’
Lukashenko is convinced that the world is overreacting to the coronavirus. He says it’s nothing that can’t be cured by a few shots of vodka (but not at work) and a sauna.
“The world has gone mad from the coronavirus,” he told The Times in London over the weekend. “This psychosis has crippled national economies almost everywhere in the world.”
“There shouldn’t be any panic,” he told citizens in a public address earlier this month. “You just have to work, especially now, in a village. Tractors will cure everyone! The field heals everyone!”
And Lukashenko’s official advice for warding off the virus?
Go to the sauna. Two or three times a week will do you good. When you come out of the sauna, not only wash your hands, but also your insides with 100 milliliters of vodka.”
Belarus has reported only around 100 cases and, on Tuesday, its first death. But the true figures are likely to be much higher, and privately, many citizens are becoming concerned.
Players Union Weighs In
Many believe that the issue has become a matter of pride for the President, who is determined to prove that he is right and the rest of the world is wrong at the expense of people’s lives.
On Tuesday, the head of the global soccer players’ union, FifPro, said it was “frankly not comprehensible” that the BPL was in full swing during the crisis.
FifPro General Secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann said that while his organization does not have representation in Belarus, he was appealing for the league to take the “same cautionary measures that have been taken in the rest of football.”
In the meantime, Belarusian teams appear to be enjoying the limelight. Dynamo Minsk spokesman Alexander Strok told The Sun this week he hoped the international audience would stay tuned to the league once the sporting schedule returned to normal elsewhere.
“We hope it will improve the level of the game, because the players may get more responsible,” he said. “[New fans] will not only watch English or Italian leagues, but also the Belarus one from time to time.”