COVID-19 be damned, Belarusian Premier Soccer League plays on
In this photo taken on Thursday, March 19, 2020, football fans of FC Bate, one of them wearing a face mask, watch the Belarus Championship soccer match between Energetik-BGU and Bate in Minsk, Belarus. Longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is proudly keeping soccer and hockey arenas open even though most sports around the world have shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. | Sergei Grits/AP

Crisis is such a curious and complex system. This is something we can all agree on. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to much fear and uncertainty regarding what the near future will look like; it has also magnified and brought forward the best and worst in people.

On the front lines we see nurses, doctors, grocery workers, postal workers, gig workers, and anyone else deemed “essential” doing their best to keep the world running smoothly, to the best of their abilities, and without much support from the bosses. This crisis has shown how truly invaluable the working class (the hourly wage earner) is, and how unnecessary, unsafe, and selfish corporate culture is.

And whilst this is all well and good, crisis creates an opportunity for those cruel enough to take advantage of it. Workers aren’t walking off the job, organizing strikes, and finding new ways to organize while social distancing for no reason.

Since the outbreak, union elections through the National Labor Relations Board have been suspended through April 3. With the continuing spikes in reported cases nationwide, there’s no reason to believe the postponement of the elections would be extended, along with the “shelter-in-place” orders; let’s hope a mail-in ballot procedure is agreed upon.

More recently, since the announcement of an open-ended state of emergency March 15 in Serbia, President Aleksander Vucic has shut down parliament, shut all borders, imposed a 12-hour police-enforced curfew, and has, essentially, assumed full power of the state. Simply put, a dictatorship.

And, in the world of sports, an unknown, last standing soccer league is taking advantage of some newfound popularity.

With sports at a standstill globally, the Eastern European nation of Belarus, formerly a republic in the Soviet Union, is proudly keeping soccer and hockey arenas and seasons open to the public.

Even as COVID-19 cases rose, the Belarusian Premier League started a new season and has signed 10 new television deals. The move to keep playing has the full support of President Alexander Lukashenko, who himself took to the ice Saturday for an amateur hockey tourney with several hundred fans in the stands.

“It’s better to die standing than to live on your knees,” he said, defending Belarus’ refusal to introduce isolation measures and border restrictions like its neighbors, such as Russia. “Sport, especially on ice, is better than any antiviral medication. It is the real thing.”

With soccer fans looking for a fix, and sports betting firms struggling, Lukashenko was happy to say the pandemic is a perfect opportunity to put the country’s soccer league on display.

“I look at Russia and some people there are winning a lot on bets because beforehand they didn’t know our teams,” Lukashenko said. “Someone’s losing, someone’s winning. It’s all useful.”

Who the hell cares about flattening the pandemic curve, or, I don’t know, preventing further spread and possibly death, right?

Currently, Belarus doesn’t publish daily figures on the spread of COVID-19, and last Friday, the last day available for statistics, the country showed 94 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with no deaths.

As of this morning, Belarus reported its first COVID-19 death.

Fans entering and leaving the stadiums are given hand sanitizer and have their temperatures monitored by medics on site. Face masks are not too often seen as they’re not considered “necessary” for outdoor events.

Once a soccer league with rarely any international attention or pull—crowds barely averaging 1,200 per season, Russian TV has given its games major slots, and the rest of Western Europe is streaming the games for customers.

British fans, in particular, have picked their teams, have begun their new fandom, raising the profiles of unknown players.

“The whole world is watching our soccer right now,” said Sergei Melnikov, director of the Isloch soccer club, hoping to make a global impression during this pandemic. “That means we have to show the best that we’ve got.”

While Belarus’ gumption is sort of admirable, it still ranks as one of the worst responses to the pandemic.

This reporter will stick to watching prerecorded Arsenal games, in the hopes the BPL will see the light, and stick to focusing on stopping the spread.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.