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A league on its own: An afternoon watching the defiant Belarusian Premier League

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ByMichael Hincks
05/04/2020 at 13:14 | Updated 05/04/2020 at 14:45
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The Belarusian Premier League is in a league on its own in Europe. Michael Hincks reflects on the top-of-the-table clash he blogged between Energetik-BGU and Minsk…

It’s a Sunday afternoon and a quick glance online will tell you the only football going ahead is in Belarus, Burundi, Nicaragua and Tajikistan.

There are some friendlies in Sweden, Finland and Ukraine, but the Belarusian Premier League stands alone as the sole top-flight division in Europe persevering amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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There have been 440 reported cases in Belarus, resulting in five deaths, but President Alexander Lukashenko has played down the virus’ severity to date. A keen ice hockey player, Lukashenko was in full gear last weekend when stating, “It’s better to die standing than to live on your knees”, and he has since urged his civilians to drink vodka and visit saunas to prevent catching Covid-19.

And so, the show that is the Belarusian Premier League goes on.

The very fact it is still going ahead means the league has gained worldwide attention in recent weeks, with Reuters reporting that the Belarus Football Federation has secured broadcasting deals with sports networks across 10 countries.

It therefore felt like an opportune moment to take in my first all-Belarusian tie. Following a late-night pitch to Eurosport’s editor on Saturday, it was time to start researching Energetik-BGU vs FC Minsk come Sunday morning. Pitch accepted, but the balance would have to be right, this being a league held under a cloud of controversy, in a country going against the grain.

As such, the build-up placed a heavy focus on Belarus’ defiant stance, but as play got under way, the blog returned to almost normal.

BGU vs Minsk was ultimately a local derby between sides occupying first and second in the league, albeit after just two rounds.

With City Bragging Rights™ at stake, it was BGU who record an impressive 2-0 win, maintaining their perfect start to the season despite going down to 10 men with 20 minutes remaining.

It is almost impossible to watch one match from the Belarusian Premier League and decide where it ranks on the quality-ometer. Akin to a English League One affair? Maybe, but I’m not entirely sure who that is being harsh on. Meanwhile, BGU’s Uzbek talisman Jasurbek Yakhshiboev warrants a mention for an impressive showing. A hand in the first goal, while he netted the second in second-half injury time. The defending was questionable, sure, but overall it was entertaining viewing, and Yakhshiboev's footwork was certainly the standout.

The online stream came without commentary, while the stadium’s only stand was not visible from the main camera angle. The soundtrack was simply the inaudible shouts from the dugouts, the chants from the smattering of unseen supporters, or the wind blowing into the various mics. It all made for a stripped-back experience, unique viewing under unique circumstances.

Belarus’ bullish display of normality

Controversial or not, BGU’s victory over Minsk was 90 minutes of football at its core, and the wider story surrounding the match simply had no impact on the action that took place.

This, you would imagine, is exactly what Lukashenko wants people like me to take away from the experience of watching the Belarusian Premier League. It was a display of normality which millions of football followers are missing as the world continues to tackle this devastating pandemic.

This familiarity worked its charm on me for two hours, and you get the impression the Belarusian Premier League will not follow the status quo any time soon. Not if it keeps increasing in popularity, anyway.

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