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Belarus Does Not Give Up on Football

Football fans watch the Belarus Championship soccer match between Energetik-BGU and Bate in Minsk, Belarus, , March 19, 2020.
Football fans watch the Belarus Championship soccer match between Energetik-BGU and Bate in Minsk, Belarus, , March 19, 2020.

Football leagues around the world have canceled soccer games for the foreseeable future as one of the measures to slow a rapid COVID-19 spread. But soccer, or football, as it is called in much of the world, continues to be played in Belarus where the number of confirmed infections is still relatively low.

The country’s autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko has dismissed the virus scare as overblown and has advised his people to continue business as usual, especially agriculture. Local media published photos of the Belarus president playing ice hockey.

Top Belarusian football division, Vysheyshaya Liga, is run by the Belarusian Football Federation and currently includes 16 teams. The country has never excelled in soccer and has never qualified for the World Cup or the European football championships.

But with sports fans around the world deprived of their favorite pastime, Belarus is getting attention and signing broadcasting contracts with a growing number of countries to carry their games. People in India and Israel, not just neighboring Russia, could soon become familiar with members of teams such as FC Minsk or Dinamo Minsk and their individual styles.

Belarus soccer fans hope the exposure will inspire their teams to play better and qualify for the next UEFA (The Union of European Football Associations) champions league. UEFA Championship is also known as the European Cup.

The spokesman for the Belarus Football Federation Aleksandr Aleinik said the organization is respecting the recommendations by the Sports Ministry.

“All those who are in contact with fans were given protective gloves," he said. But images of fans from some of the games Saturday show very few wearing masks and some of them cheering without any shirts on.

The outbreak of coronavirus in Italy has been especially deadly for the northern city of Bergamo. The unprecedented toll has been traced to a February football match in Milan. More than 2,000 fans traveled from Bergamo to Milan to watch the Atlanta vs. Valencia match at Milan’s San Siro Stadium February 19. As they chanted in the packed stadium it is believed they picked up the new coronavirus strain and took it home to Bergamo. Two days later, Italy confirmed the first case of locally transmitted COVID-19. Six weeks later, Italy reported that the number of deaths from the coronavirus had topped 10,000. Bergamo is struggling to bury and cremate the number of bodies after several hundred people sometimes die in one day.

European football leagues have canceled local soccer matches until at least the end of April to help slow the rapid spread of COVID-19. The European championship has been postponed until the summer of 2021 because the domestic competition cannot be completed in time for this summer.

Most European countries have locked their borders and ordered closures of schools and all but essential businesses. People are asked to stay at home, gather in very limited numbers, sometimes no more than two, and keep a distance from others when they have to go out. In some cases, governments have imposed strict measures such as curfews and mandatory quarantine.

But measures vary from country to country. In Sweden, restaurants and bars in some cities seemed as lively this month as ever, with the government allowing people to choose how to protect themselves. Schools, day care centers, gyms and beauty salons remained open even as they closed in neighboring Denmark and Norway.

The government announced tougher measures last week after the number of infections and COVID-19 deaths suddenly soared. But Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said you cannot legislate everything and that individuals also have to take responsibility.

Some experts also say that it is counterproductive to impose measures that cannot be sustained for a long period of time. Meanwhile, ordinary people in countries hit by the virus may have to weigh daily the pros and cons of stepping out of the house for weeks or months yet to come.