BATE Borisov is Belarus’ best-known club, thanks to years of appearing in Champions League and Europa League. (Reuters: Vasily Fedosenko)
Coronavirus has crippled the sporting landscape across the world. Unless you’re a fan of the Belarusian Premier League, that is.
- The 16-team Belarus Premier League is still continuing despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic
- It is one of only four football leagues in the world — the others are in Nicaragua, Burundi, and Tajikistan — with a season not postponed or cancelled
- The league has the backing of president Alexander Lukashenko, who has downplayed the threat of COVID-19 in his country
That’s right, the Belarusian Premier League, or Vysheyshaya Liga, has captured the imaginations of football-starved fans from around the world by playing on despite the risks of the coronavirus pandemic.
With virtually no other football being played around the world, the Belarusian league has continued apace — and fans worldwide have begun to take an interest in the competition and its clubs.
So seeing as the league appears to be set to continue, who should you support?
Who are the key characters in this little-known league? And should you favour a team because its mascot plays the accordion?
Why is the Belarusian Premier League still on?
FIFPro, the global players union, described the continuation of the league as “frankly not comprehendible” in the face of the escalating coronavirus outbreak across Europe.
The reason the Belarusian league is charging on is due to President Alexander Lukashenko’s unique take on the threat of coronavirus in his country.
Mr Lukashenko, who has been in office since the position was created in 1994, told his countrymen at an ice hockey match in the country on Saturday, which he also played in: “It’s better to die standing on your feet than to live on your knees.”
The 65-year-old added that people should drink vodka, continue to work and visit a sauna to stay healthy.
He did clarify that people should not drink their vodka at work — although it is not recommended that you drink and visit a sauna either.
“The world has gone mad from the coronavirus,” he told The Times.
Stay up-to-date on the coronavirus outbreak
Regardless as to whether or not playing on is a good idea or not, the Belarusian league has exploded in popularity in recent weeks, with the league securing broadcast rights in 10 different countries.
So far Australia is not one of them — if you want to keep track of things, it would require looking far and wide on the internet for unofficial streams … not that we recommend doing that either.
Most clubs in the league have upped their social media game however, with fan-operated English-language twitter feeds popping up to cater for their new, remote fanbases.
Give me some background
The league has been in existence since 1993, when Belarus gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Featuring 16 teams, who play each other home and away, the league is not known for being one of the better supported competitions in Europe, with clubs normally only attracting a couple of hundred supporters for each match.
Dinamo Minsk was the first dominant side, claiming six of the first seven Belarusian league championships but has only won the title once since 1997, despite finishing as runners up on eight occasions.
Dinamo Minsk was Belarus’s only representative in the top flight during the Soviet Union era, winning the Soviet Top League in 1982.
Which club should we love to hate?
Nobody likes a winner, right? Especially a serial winner that has dominated the league for more than a decade.
BATE Borisov — which stands for the humble-sounding Borisov Automobile and Tractor Electric — is that team in Belarus.
BATE won an incredible 13 titles in a row between 2006 and 2018, monopolising the competition, giving it the chance to play in the Champions League against the likes of AC Milan, Arsenal, Barcelona and Chelsea.
Interestingly, fans I spoke to were not absolute in their dislike of BATE.
FC Slutsk supporter Yahor Khavanski said: “BATE used to be the most hated team in Belarus, but it isn’t the total hate.
“Many people in Belarus supported BATE when they played in Champions League and Europa League.”
Who is the reigning champion?
Dynamo Brest tweet: (translation) The main winning photo from the locker room! #fcdb1960
That would be Dinamo Brest, which dethroned BATE Borisov by five points after losing just once all year.
The team from the far south-west of the country, next to the now-shut Polish border, had won the domestic cup two years in a row before developing the consistency to challenge for league honours last year, for the first time in its history.
Who’s the player everyone loves to hate?
One of the most polarising figures in the league is 35-year-old Artem Milevskiy of reigning champions Dinamo Brest.
Milevskiy is one of Belarus’s finest ever footballing exports, playing a starring role for Dynamo Kiev as it dominated the Ukrainian domestic league in the first decade of the millennium.
However, Milecskiy rather blotted his copy-book in his homeland when he opted to represent Ukraine at international level, despite representing his homeland at youth level.
If turning his back on his country was not bad enough, Milevskiy has been dogged by poor discipline off the field throughout his career, episodes which have cost him contracts across the continent.
So who should be our Belarusian team?
It would go against ABC policy to favour one team, but FC Isloch makes a compelling case as to why they should be your team in these strange times.
FC Isloch twitter: Reasons to make @fcisloch your Belarus team 1. We have an accordion
If the accordion-playing Valeriy Kolontai is not enough, Isloch has an adorable wolf mascot, who also plays the accordion.
Case closed, so where do I sign up?
In all seriousness, 35-year-old manager, Vitali Zhukovski, has lead Isloch from the depths of Belarusian amateur football to the top flight over a decade in charge.
Isloch are one of four teams unbeaten after two matches this season, along with Minsk, Energetik-BGU Minsk (who meet this Sunday) and Torpedo-BelAZ Zhodino.
How long will the league continue for?
As one of three leagues currently operating at the moment (the others being in Nicaragua and Burundi) the Belarusian Premier League is in something of a precarious position.
Local Ultras (organised supporters groups) from Dynamo Minsk, Shakhytor Sologorsk, Neman Grodno and Vitebsk have all said they will not be attending their team’s fixtures this weekend as the coronavirus pandemic continues to develop.
The question is whether or not the league will bow down to the fans’ pressure.
If it does, we may not have to venture too far geographically to find another league to watch.
Tajikistan’s eight-team Higher League is set to get underway this weekend, with six-time reigning champions Istiklol favourites to add another title to its impressive recent record.
Belarus Premier League:
Teams (and best social media feeds where available)
- BATE Borisov — @FCBATE
- Dynamo Brest — @DynamoBrest_en
- Dynamo Minsk — @FC_Dinamo_Minsk
- Energetik-BGU — @EnergetikBGU (unofficial)
- Gorodeya — @GorodeyaFC
- Isloch — www.facebook.com/fcisloch
- Minsk — @FC_Minsk
- Neman Grodno — @fcneman
- Shakhtyor Sologorsk — @fcshakhterby
- Slavia — www.instagram.com/fcslavia/
- Slutsk — www.instagram.com/sfc.slutsk/
- Torpedo-BelAZ — @fcTorpedoBelAZ
- Vitebsk — @fc_vitebsk