WHILE the rest of the world has placed its football kit in mothballs, switched off the electricity at grounds and watched the grass grow at their stadiums, Belarus started its 2020 season, suggesting the game was good for morale.
True, one of the things football fans have recognised is the absence of the regular weekly fix has left something of a vacuum on a Saturday and Sunday. However, the ambivalence of Belarus towards the Coronavirus is somewhat disturbing, especially if it becomes a trend.
The highlight of week two was the Minsk derby between FC Minsk and Dinamo, a game watched by a capacity crowd of 3,000 (although some foreign websites claim the ground was half full) and won 3-2 by the home side.
There was a time when Minsk, when it was part of the USSR, was something of a footballing hotbed. Dinamo were one of the best supported clubs in the Soviet Union, playing at a very notable stadium which was recognisable for its classic style and huge floodlights. It was built in 1934 but was almost destroyed during WW2, “The great patriotic war”, only to be rebuilt and extended, eventually hosting football in the 1980 Summer Olympics. The ground fell out of favour in the 1990s and was used as a market place and a concert venue. Since then, the Dinamo Stadium has undergone several renovations and has a current capacity of 22,000. Simon Inglis, in his Football Grounds of Europe book (1990), called the stadium a “flamboyant curiosity”.
Dinamo have been Belarusian champions seven times, the last occasion being 2004. The club won the Soviet league once, in 1982, with a team that played a purist style, managed by Eduard Malofeev. Dinamo beat off the challenge of Dinamo Kyiv, winning the title by a single point after winning 4-3 at Spartak Moscow in the final game. Among the players adored by the fans was leading scorer Igor Gurinovich and the bohemian midfielder Alekdandr Prokopenko, who had a unique relationship with the supporters. Dinamo were the only club from Belarus to make an impact in the Soviet league.
A handful of Dinamo players made it through to the USSR World Cup squads. Malofeev was one such player, appearing in 1966 and playing in the Soviet team that finished fourth. Others who made the squads include the excellent Sergei Aleinikov (1986), Sergei Borovsky (1982) and Andrei Zygmantovich (1990).
When Dinamo won the Soviet title, they averaged 26,000 at their home games, making them the fourth best-supported team in the league. By 1991, that figure had dropped to 11,000 and by the turn of the century, Dinamo were attracting 2,000 to their home games. They have lost their pre-eminent position in Belarus football and BATE Borisov, a club that has benefitted from developing talent on a regular basis, shrewd player trading and regular European football income, has taken over as the country’s most successful club.
Minsk FC were formed in 2006 after aquiring the licence of Smena Minsk, a student-based team that dated back to 1954. The club’s only major honour so far is the Belarusian Cup, which they won in 2013, beating Dinamo Minsk on penalties at the Torpedo Stadium in Zhodino.
FC Minsk play before small crowds, less than 1,000 at a stadium that was only completed in 2015.
There are other clubs in and around Minsk. FC Torpedo Minsk have been having a rough time recently, losing their sponsor and due to financial problems, withdrawing from the Belarusian Premier League in 2019. FC Energetik-BGU are another small club, averaging less than 700 at their tiny stadium. FC Isloch Minsk Raion, also based in Minsk, are named after the Islach River.
Like all former members of the USSR, Belarus – and its football clubs – had financial problems after the collapse of the union. At the time of the dissolution, the country was one of the world’s most industrially-developed states. After a steep economic decline, Belarus became one of the fastest-growing former Soviet Republics. The country still has a strong relationship with Russia, who account for 56% of all imports into Belarus.
Minsk has a population of around two million. It has a reputation for being a safe city, but the Mercer 2019 Quality of Living index ranked it 188th, the lowest position among European cities. At the same time, other similar studies place Minsk higher than the likes of Barcelona, Milan and London.
Will football continue in Belarus and its capital city, or is the can being kicked down the road? Belarus has had 100 cases of the Coronavirus and so far, not a single death. The country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, who dismissed the crisis as a “psychosis”, has advised people to drink vodka and work on a farm to combat the virus. “The fields heal everyone,” he insisted. As fans filed into the Minsk stadium, their temperature was checked, but some demonstrated their resilience and cojones by watching the game completely naked from the waist up.
Despite the relaxed Trump-like tone coming from the top, not everyone is so laissez-faire about the virus in Minsk. Public transport is less full than usual during the busy working hours and over-65s are being encouraged to stay indoors. On the other hand, bars, cafes and shops are still open.
Until something changes in Belarus, this former Soviet state is likely to be in the spotlight among football followers desperate for some action in their favourite pastime. As one wag suggested, “by the end of the lockdown, everyone will have their favourite Belarusian team.” The Belarusian Premier League has signed 10 new TV rights deals, including Russia, India and Israel. These are strange, worrying times indeed.
While it’s important to keep spirits up, it is hard to be so blasé as the death toll rises elsewhere. Is Belarus merely behind the curve in being heavily affected and in dealing with the virus or is a diet of optimism, vodka and fresh air really why they do not appear to be in the front line? The people of Minsk may soon find out.