In a world without sport, one country is ignoring all advice and playing on – but for how long?
Saturday 28 March, fans poured into the Stadion FK Minsk to watch the Belarusian classico. For those of you who aren’t avid Belarusian football followers, the classico is the meeting of FC Mink and Dynamo Minsk, with the latest of their derbies finished 3-2 to the home side, who also happen to be the current league leaders. Why is this so important? Well, amidst lockdown and social distancing measures being imposed across Europe due to the coronavirus pandemic, Belarus continues to play on.
The country has taken an extremely unorthodox approach to the crisis. According to President Lukashenko, 50ml of vodka a day and regular saunas will keep you clear of the virus, which he assumes was invented "by Euro-Atlanticist spy chiefs, CIA operatives, the LGBTQ community... in cahoots with educated women, EU diplomats and migratory birds."
The scarcity of sport in the current climate has led to a growing fanfare of the Belarusian Premier League around the world. The league has secured 10 new broadcasting deals, meaning that the games will be shown live in countries around the globe from Russia to India. On Twitter, there are thousands of people professing their newfound support for clubs such as Bate Borisov, a side that has won 13 consecutive league titles and who are proving a favourite for glory hunters despite a poor start to the season. Another team with increasing support is FC Slutsk, who have had to create an English language Twitter account to capitalise on increased popularity abroad, as well as the emergence of fan Facebook groups springing up across the globe. As Belarusian football site Pressball put it, ‘FC Slutsk has seen hype due to its name… sounding similar to the rude colloquial English word 'slut'. Initially, this trend appeared to be a lighthearted attempt to feel the void of football in this country, with social media full of memes and jokes about the league, however, it has manifested into far more than that.
Looking to capitalise on this football fad betting sites are awash with articles offering tips with so-called pundits offering their expertise on this weekend’s hotly-anticipated fixtures. The bookies are one of the many industries suffering at the moment, profits and share prices plummeting one of the only markets offering a lifeline is Belarusian Premier league. It has been reported by the Guardian Australia that Tabcorp has seen a 2000% increase in bets on the market aided by countless promotions looking to hook in sport starved punters. For the supporters, Bet365 enhance the experience by letting you get your Belarusian football fix via live stream, as long as you have an active account.
The betting industry is not one famed for moral and social responsibility (although the gamble aware campaign is trying to change that), so can it be viewed as morally acceptable to allow betting on a market that is ultimately putting the lives of fans and players at risk? The head of the Global Players Football Association Fifpro, Jonas Baer Hofferman, has condemned the continuation of the Belarusian football league saying that "it is frankly incomprehensible", stating that he has had numerous complaints from the players in regards to the current situation. The official response from the country's football association President Uladzimir Bazanaw is one of defiance stating that "there is no critical situation", however, with the first death due to the virus in Belarus on April 1st, surely the responsible decision for the welfare of its citizens should be to call full time on the league. Until then, Belarus are playing to the whistle.