Football tournaments around the world have ground to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic, but in one European league it’s business as usual.
The Belarusian Premier League has seen its popularity soar among football fans these past two weeks, as it is now the only competition on the continent to continue amid the Covid-19 outbreak.
Not only are the league fixtures being played out as scheduled, but fans are also still attending matches across a country that has not yet implemented restrictions on mass gatherings.
Saturday’s derby between two teams from the country’s capital, Minsk, drew 1,750 fans as supporters flouted World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for social distancing.
According to WHO statistics, Belarus, a country with a population of 9.5 million, has recorded 94 cases of coronavirus and zero deaths.
Fans had their temperatures checked before entering the stadium and very few wore protective face masks. Many even cheered on their teams while shirtless in the stands.
Aside from perhaps BATE Borisov, the country’s most successful team, Belarusian clubs are largely unknown, even among the most ardent of European football fans.
The league’s increased popularity has seen the country’s football federation secure new broadcasting deals in as many as 10 countries, Reuters reports, including Russia, Israel and India.
“This is an unprecedented situation,” Alexander Aleinik, a federation spokesman, told Reuters.
Former Arsenal and Barcelona player Alexander Hleb, Belarusian football’s most famous export, insisted the situation is “under control” and urged calm among his fellow countrymen.
“I understand that these are difficult times and all news about the coronavirus causes both unrest and great interest,” he wrote on Instagram.
“I’m now in self-isolation and in our country it’s allowed to do so for those who really see the need for it, but in an interview I said that since the Presidential Administration does not see the real need to quarantine the country, the situation is under control.
“I am against any kind of panic. Regarding attending football matches – here, everyone decides for himself. Our players do not panic out onto the field and play. Among them are many of my friends and, if there is a real threat to their health, the health of the crowd, I’m sure the matches will stop.”
Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko said on Friday that concerns about the coronavirus pandemic were “psychosis” and has previously suggested working the tractors, going to saunas and drinking vodka could prevent the virus.
“People are working in tractors. No one is talking about the virus,” Lukashenko said, per The Washington Post. “There, the tractor will heal everyone. The fields heal everyone.
“I don’t drink, but recently I’ve been saying that people should not only wash their hands with vodka, but also poison the virus with it. You should drink the equivalent of 40-50 milliliters of rectified spirit daily. But not at work.”
“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 inside (with) 100 grams (of vodka).”
FC Minsk won Saturday’s match 3-2 against its more illustrious rival Dinamo Minsk.