‘The fans in Belarus have been told coronavirus can’t reach them here. So the league keeps going...'
Updated: Apr 29
Belarusian football journalist Dzmitry Khviedaruk on sport as a propaganda tool and is there a parallel between today’s situation and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster
Dzmitry, the Belarusian Premier League is the only football league in Europe still in action. Do you believe it will keep on going in the upcoming weeks as well?
The very first thing you should know about our league is that it is very much dependent on the government. There is an act of financial state support for the entire Belarusian sport, including all professional football teams that are involved in the first three professional and semi-professional tiers. A significant part of their budgets consists of state money. BATE Borisov are one of the few exceptions to the rule following their Europe League and Champions League success. Dinamo Brest, meanwhile, have investors from abroad, whereas FC Isloch try to be a private club. Here I have to also clarify that the Association Belarusian Football Federation (ABFF) is well connected to the state. To put things into perspective – the new head of ABFF is colonel and Afghanistan War veteran Vladimir Bazanov, who is also a member of pro-Lukashenko political party Belaja Rus as well as a member of our Security Council. What’s more, sport is never just sport in Belarus. It is always playing a huge role when it comes to ideology and politics, as it used to be in the Soviet Union three decades ago. And we can say that’s true not only as far as Belarusian football is concerned, but also about hockey or biathlon. As for the situation with Covid-19, the official state position is denying the problem and any danger that the virus might lead to. President Lukashenko asks everyone in the country to keep calm, drink 50 grams of vodka, take advantage of Russian sauna and do their everyday job as if nothing happened. He is convinced that pandemic is just some kind of hysteria. Organising public sport events is a very important issue on the state’s agenda. With that in mind, for now it looks like our football league will continue – at least until something truly horrible happens.
The fans have their temperature checked before entering the stadium, yet a few of them are even wearing face masks in the stands – it (almost) looks like a normal matchday. Are the fans happy with the situation or do you think as time goes by more and more of them will prefer to stay at home in order to avoid public events such as football games?
The league’s average attendance has already dropped this season by 60%. It’s a proof that many people try not to take any risk by attending public events such as football matches. On the other hand, though, there are a lot of people who still go to games. Organised ultras groups are among them. They continue to support their teams despite the danger of staying close to each other, while singing together. It seems like all these people will firmly continue to attend games, because they’ve all been told that the virus can’t reach them in Belarus.
You’ve already mentioned president Lukashenko’s comments that working in tractors, going to saunas and drinking vodka (as well as washing your hands with it) is more than enough to stay safe. What do you make of his piece of advice?
Nice question! For sure, we all know that tractor is the best possible cure when it comes to AIDS, cancer, radiation, Ebola or coronavirus! It’s really horrible that people representing the state can say such things in time of global pandemic! My mom told me the story of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, when Soviet leaders first tried to hide what had happened, then denied it had actually happened and in the end asked people to drink some alcohol in order to stay safe and keep them away from radiation…
Do you think that by keeping the football league going Lukashenko wants to make a point as far as rest of Europe is concerned? That Belarus is not afraid of a virus that has caused so much panic across Europe?
Yes, that’s the case. Every time Lukashenko compares the situation in Belarus with the one in Western Europe, he says that there’s nothing special or dangerous about Covid-19. The truth is he is afraid of economical collapse during the pandemic. That’s why the authorities don’t even consider the option of putting Belarus under quarantine. Since the start of March Belarusian ruble’s exchange rate has dropped by more than 10% and it looks like it will continue to fall down.
Have you started drinking vodka yourself as per the president’s advice?
No. I don’t like vodka. I prefer drinking some beer to avoid the virus. 😉
There are reportedly 10 new countries which have bought the TV rights in order to broadcast the Belarusian league, including Russia, India and Israel. Do the Belarusian clubs see this period as a gold mine they need to capitalise on?
That TV rights news is amazing! I couldn’t even imagine such things would happen. I feel like as if we were on Netflix’s popular TV show Stranger Things. This might well become a golden age for all our football clubs, but… All the money will go to the federation and col. Bazanov and as of today, no one knows how they’re planning to reinvest that money. The most likely scenario for that source of new income is to be given to the state or become a part of the so-called Sports supporting law. In that case the clubs wouldn’t really feel any change. I’ve seen some really funny stories about FC Slutsk attracting some interest from people from the UK and Australia, because of how funny the name sounds in English… Unfortunately, that club is not prepared to meet that level of interest from abroad.
Can you give us some insight into the league – what’s the average attendance, for example? How much does a match ticket cost? What's BATE Borisov's club budget like?
We have major clubs like Dinamo Brest, BATE and Dinamo Minsk who all have some good attendance rates. Brest had lots of sold-out games last season. Brest’s average attendance last season was 6,000 people, BATE’s – 4,260, Shakhtar Soligorsk’s – 3,020, Homiel’s – 2,950, Dinamo Minsk’s – 2,760. As already mentioned, this season’s attendance stats have dropped. The match with the highest attendance was in Brest, where Dinamo started the season against Smalevichi in front of 3,648 people. The lowest attendance, meanwhile, was registered in Minsk, where FC Isloch played Nieman Hrodna, with just 350 people at the game. As for the average prices of the tickets, they vary between 1.5 and 5 dollars.
In Bulgaria we’re well familiar with BATE’s rise to prominence because it all started with one Champions League qualifier against Levski back in 2008. Are BATE the big favourites to win the title this season as well?
I remember that game and season, when no one could even imagine BATE were capable of beating Levski and then Anderlecht. 12 years later lots of things have changed at BATE. Their chairman, Mr. Kapski, died in 2019, they’ve changed the club crest, their management, they’ve built a beautiful new stadium in Barysau, they did win 13 league titles in a row between 2006 and 2018. It was only last year when Dinamo Brest knocked them off their perch with the help of lots of transfers, funded by rich investors.
This season BATE have started the season really bad, having lost the two opening league games for the first time in their history. Still, they have the money and the ability to turn the situation around but I think reigning champions Dinamo Brest are going to be the team to beat once again.