Earlier this week, sports-starved fans around the world flocked to the Belarus football league – Europe’s last remaining football competition as sport across the world shuts down.
Suddenly, a competition unknown to even the most fanatical of football supporters found itself in the global spotlight.
That was exacerbated by the grandiose declarations of the country’s dictator-like President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who labelled the coronavirus “just another psychosis”.
His bizarre reaction also included declaring the country’s residents should keep working on farms, saying: “tough work and a tractor can cure anything.”
No wonder the country’s football competition was all-too-happy to begin its season on the weekend – and with fans in the stands.
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The opening weekend of the season was full of excitement, with three heavyweight sides all suffering shock losses.
It was enough to have fans around the world hooked, with countries such as Russia and Ukraine showing matches on TV – the first time in its history that Belarus sold football broadcast rights abroad.
And players in the tiny competition are overjoyed at the attention.
“It is indeed a nice feeling that the whole world is watching,” Isloch midfielder Sandro Tsveiba told ESPN.
“All of us can benefit from it, not just the players but Belarusian football as a whole. I’m happy to be playing while most of my colleagues around the world are killing time sitting at home. But once again, our health and the health of our families and loved ones is still above everything.”
It’s not just foreigners who are tuning in higher numbers.
“The funny thing about it all is that Belarusian fans have started to watch our football,” Yuri Dovnar, one of Belarus’s top journalists, told ESPN.
“Of course, everyone was watching English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga, which you can do for free in Belarus, and didn’t pay much attention to the local game, especially when kick-off times clashed.
“Now it’s all changed and our football surely benefits from it.”
While the popularity has gone off the charts, not much has changed on the park.
As Tsveiba said: “Not much has changed on the pitch, but we no longer shake hands, just fist bump each other. Oh, and we cough and sneeze in the dressing room, just for fun.”
His casual attitude toward the threat of the coronavirus pandemic isn’t uncommon across the country, which has had just 86 cases and no deaths in a population of around 10 million.
“On the one hand, of course, we are all wary of this, seeing what is happening in the world,” Isloch coach Vitaly Zhukovsky told ESPN.
“But on the other hand, in our country of 10 million people, during all this time there have only been 86 infected and not a single fatal outcome. You have to agree that these figures are pretty impressive and cannot be compared to other countries.”
The country has taken strong measures in response to the outbreak, despite the President’s ridiculous claim that tractors could cure the disease.
“You have to understand how strict everything is here,” Dovnar told ESPN.
“Last week, my colleague had a call in the office. It was from police. Apparently, his son’s classmate had just returned from abroad and had to get quarantined, so every single person who contacted with the boy in school and those who contacted with those contacted had to go to hospital for a test. ‘I can’t right now, I’m heading to the stadium,’ my colleague replied. ‘Either you come yourself, or you will be delivered here in handcuffs,’ he heard in response.
“I want to believe that this approach is good in this case. Our medical department is indeed among the best, we have the most number of hospital beds per capita in Europe, and the quality of health care is really high.
“So we can only hope that Belarus will not just keep on living its normal life, but also stays as the only European country [to escape without a serious outbreak].”
Belarus isn’t the only country with a football competition still going ahead – there’s also Nicaragua and Burundi. For now, at least.