How Belarus is fighting the coronavirus: vodka first, football second

Belarusian football is not something even the most fanatical game lovers across the globe have been following over the years. Belarus is ranked 32nd out of 56 UEFA member associations, between Liechtenstein and Israel, while the national team -- ranked 87th, between Haiti and Zambia, in the FIFA World Ranking -- has never qualified for any major tournaments. (The best effort: finishing third in their World Cup qualifying group, two points shy of reaching the playoffs... in 2002.)

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Yet it does get into the world's news feed from time to time, albeit for different reasons. Like, in 2012, when Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool travelled to play a Europa League tie against FC Gomel, the players, staff and traveling fans were advised to abstain from drinking tap water, as the city of Gomel is 70 miles north of Chernobyl and certain actions could still have consequences. Or, in 2018, when Diego Maradona was paraded in a huge military vehicle at the stadium before being unveiled as the new Dinamo Brest chairman.

These days, Belarus has centre stage, drawing the attention of any football fan from all over the world. The reason is simple: Belarus is the only country on the European continent that continues to play football during the coronavirus crisis. Why? Because Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of the country and a man often referred to as the "last dictator in Europe," said so. (The other leagues still in action, for now, are Nicaragua, Turkmenistan, Burundi and Myanmar.)

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"[Coronavirus] is just another psychosis, which will benefit some people and harm others," he said last week. "The civilised world is going nuts. It is absolute stupidity to close state borders. The panic can hurt us more than the virus itself."

To add to that, he suggested that instead of panicking "like those in Western Europe," one should have 40-50 grams of vodka daily, go to a banya [Russian sauna] two to three times a week and keep working on a farm, as "tough work and a tractor can cure anything."

There was not much doubt that in a country where people follow the president's instructions -- they have little choice -- everything went on as usual and the 2020 Belarusian Premier League season began last Thursday as planned, with Energetik-BGU defeating BATE Borisov 3-1 in the highlight of the round.

"On the one hand, of course, we are all wary of this, seeing what is happening in the world," FC Isloch head coach Vitaly Zhukovsky told ESPN. "But on the other hand, in our country of 10 million people, during all this time there have only been 86 infected and not a single fatal outcome. You have to agree that these figures are pretty impressive and cannot be compared to other countries."

"I do trust our health care system," Valery Isaev, one of the top football agents in the country, told ESPN. "I trust it way more than those of neighbouring countries, including Russia and Ukraine. Of course, I do worry about my family, my players [15 in the Belarusian Premier League] and their families, but we've been assured there is no critical situation and no state of emergency in Belarus, and I trust this information."

Among the players, however, the attitude is slightly different from the one mentioned above.

"There is no panic in the team, but surely all of us hear and see what's happening in the world and it does get in our heads," said Isloch midfielder Sandro Tsveiba, son of the former Soviet star Akhrik Tsveiba, the only person who played for four different national teams (USSR, CIS, Ukraine and Russia). "Not much has changed on the pitch, but we no longer shake hands, just fist bump each other. Oh, and we cough and sneeze in the dressing room, just for fun."

Meanwhile, Belarusian football has seen an enormous rise in interest, not just in the country but also from abroad. Russia's Match and Ukraine's Futbol 1 TV companies have acquired the rights to broadcast the Belarusian Premier League until the end of the season, the first time in history anyone from outside Belarus has done so.

"It is indeed a nice feeling that the whole world is watching," Tsveiba said. "All of us can benefit from it, not just the players but Belarusian football as a whole. I'm happy to be playing while most of my colleagues around the world are killing time sitting at home. But once again, our health and the health of our families and loved ones is still above everything."

"The funny thing about it all is that Belarusian fans have started to watch our football," Yuri Dovnar, head of Pressball and one of the top journalists in the country, told ESPN. "Of course, everyone was watching English Premier League or Spain's La Liga, which you can do for free in Belarus, and didn't pay much attention to the local game, especially when kick-off times clashed. Now it's all changed and our football surely benefits from it."

According to FC Ruh head coach Andrey Ferapontov, who spoke to sports.kz, continuing to play has become a political battle between Belarus as a country and its European peers, including UEFA.

"There are many reasons [why the Belarusian league hasn't been suspended], and one of the main ones is the political will of our leaders," he said. "Our league has started to be broadcast on many popular sports TV channels in neighboring countries, and that gives [them] an excuse to continue holding games. The tournament attracts increased attention, bookmakers are happy, and in general this situation popularises Belarusian football.

"I still think there is a possibility of the league being suspended, though. The Football Federation and the Ministry of Sport are facing a lot of pressure from UEFA and other countries' football federations, and it could be vital."

There is still a firm belief that everything will stay as it is and it won't really do much harm to anyone.

"You have to understand how strict everything is here," Dovnar said. "Last week, my colleague had a call in the office. It was from police. Apparently, his son's classmate had just returned from abroad and had to get quarantined, so every single person who contacted with the boy in school and those who contacted with those contacted had to go to hospital for a test. 'I can't right now, I'm heading to the stadium,' my colleague replied. 'Either you come yourself, or you will be delivered here in handcuffs,' he heard in response.

"I want to believe that this approach is good in this case. Our medical department is indeed among the best, we have the most number of hospital beds per capita in Europe, and the quality of health care is really high. So we can only hope that Belarus will not just keep on living its normal life, but also stays as the only European country [unscathed]."

In the meantime, the Premier League is set for more action this weekend, starting on Friday with Torpedo-Belaz Zhodino vs. Belshina and Ruh Brest vs. Energetik-BGU, followed by the Minsk Derby (FK vs. Dinamo) on Saturday morning.