As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in cancellation of sports leagues and shuttered stadiums around the world, several countries’ soccer leagues stand as outliers.
The Belarus Premier League never ceased play and is the only European league still active, with its stands remaining open to fans. However, teams are drawing fractions of their normal attendance due to fears about the virus and active encouragement from players to stay away, despite no formal league mandate.
The country is under the direction of Alexander Lukashenko, the first (and only) president of Belarus, who assumed the office in 1994 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The leader, who some have accused of being an authoritarian dictator, has shirked calls to impose lockdowns similar to those of other European countries, as he donned hockey gear for an amateur match while most other heads of state were minimizing their exposure to others. “There are no viruses here. Did you see any flying around? I don’t see them either,” he told a reporter during the match.
This lax strategy in combating the virus has given Belarus’ soccer league the leeway to remain open in an unprecedented time, one that has generated an interest in Belarusian football for a sports-starved audience. The league is turning the occasion into a business opportunity by selling TV contracts to be broadcast in India and Russia. And for the vast majority of fans who are new to football in Belarus, superfans have put together quizzes (https://belarusfootball.outgrow.us/belarusfootball) so that prospective new fans can find a team to root for that matches their personality. Moreover, to ease the language barrier, fluent fans in the UK have been translating player and team information so that newcomers can have a better idea of the playing field, and amateur commentators have begun honing their craft by covering such games.
The Taiwan Football Premier League began Sunday (in addition to the Chinese Professional Baseball League, which debuted the same day) after aggressive measures taken to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The island has reported fewer than 400 cases out of its nearly 25 million citizens, which has been attributed to Taiwan’s foresighted policies introduced quickly after the first cases were reported in Wuhan. Although stadiums are still closed to fans to prevent additional spread of the virus, games can be streamed on the league’s YouTube page.
Play in Tajikistan, Burundi and Nicaragua also continues as most soccer leagues have shut down or delayed their start date. While Burundi suspended its league play on Monday, the hold was not due to COVID-19 (which has reportedly infected a small proportion of the country’s population), but rather due to scheduling conflicts in stadiums as the country prepares to hold rallies in advance of its upcoming May presidential election.
Of course, these leagues’ ongoing activity is a public health discussion in and of itself. For Taiwan, which has already fought off the virus and is keen on preventing a second surge, the beginning of play might make more sense than that in other countries, whose active leagues may represent a quixotic, impractical desire to cling to normalcy. But public health wisdom aside, the remaining matches represent a breath of fresh air for soccer fans around the world.
The circumstances also put the leagues, typically ignored by non-native fans due to perceived inferior quality of play, in the spotlight. Fans who would otherwise turn into an English Premier League match may find themselves drawn to the pitch in Belarus. Going forward, it will be interesting to see if any of the leagues continuing play garner popularity even after the more prominent divisions return. Will an EPL fan continue tuning in to support a surrogate Belarus team, or simply forget about the previously obscure league once a sense of normalcy returns? Additionally, the relative lack of competition presents some tempting business opportunities to leagues formerly mired in obscurity. We’ve seen Belarus leverage this in negotiations to be aired in other countries, but might other leagues follow suit and try to carve out a niche in an oddly open fan market? Only time will tell.