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Doing their own thing

Belarus has continued to plough its own furrow in this crisis as the show goes on

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Dummies replace spectators (including a lucky Irish fan) at the OSK Brestsky Stadium in Brest, Belarus on Sunday

Dummies replace spectators (including a lucky Irish fan) at the OSK Brestsky Stadium in Brest, Belarus on Sunday

REUTERS

Dummies replace spectators (including a lucky Irish fan) at the OSK Brestsky Stadium in Brest, Belarus on Sunday

Anyone who had had the pleasure of visiting Belarus knows it's not a normal country.

They've had the same president for 26 years, a man who won the last election with 84 per cent of the vote. Visit any cafe, hotel or public building in Belarus and the image of Mr 84pc, Alexander Lukashenko, is there, gazing down from a portrait, a Leonid Brezhnev for the modern era.

Dissidents are locked up, journalists and playwrights are silenced and jailed, in a country usually untroubled by vast numbers of tourists, bar football fans from places like Ireland who end up spending Thursday nights in Minsk thanks to the vagaries of a UEFA draw (Dundalk, Derry City and St Patrick's Athletic have all been to Belarus in the last few years).

But now, the football world has cast a gaze on Belarus, for one reason.

Normality

Across the world, football is in lockdown. Some countries are edging towards normality, German clubs returning to training (albeit limited) and English football's decision makers trying to find a path back to the playing field from the Covid-19 lockdown and Spain and Italy attempting to inject some normality into the lives of their populations by easing non-sporting restrictions.

But in Belarus it's 'Carry On Regardless', where games are played in front of a paying attendance of 253 punters, a crowd so small that cardboard cutouts have been used at some grounds to make the backdrop more attractive.

They are supposedly headshots of 'virtual fans' from around the world who have bought 'virtual tickets' to view the games.

It's a league where clubs have asked their fans to stay away, but the clubs play the matches anyway.

After one game last weekend, the players stood in front of an empty stand and applauded the fans who were not there, a gesture, they said, of thanks to the supporters who followed advice to not attend.

It was akin to a boast from the Belarus sports website tribuna.com yesterday when they declared that the game between Slavia Mozyr and Ruh Brest was "the only official match on the planet" taking place that day.

It was reported that former Arsenal and Barcelona man Aleksander Hleb, regarded as the country's greatest export, had criticised the decision to carry on playing as "unbelievable".

He later claimed his position, first printed in the Sun in England and then taken up by local media in Russia and Belarus had been misrepresented and said a photo he posted on Instagram, of him making a "shushing" gesture, was his response to the Sun.

"Since the Presidential administration does not see the need to quarantine the country, the situation is under control," he said in a follow-up Instagram post.

"I am against any kind of panic. About attending football matches: here everyone decides for himself. Our players do not 'panic' out onto the field and play.

"Among them are many of my friends and, if there is a real threat to their health, the health of the audience, I'm sure the matches will stop!"

Given that critical journalists in Belarus have been jailed and exiled, a prominent footballer falling in line with with the president's stance is no surprise.

Belarus is probably the only country in Europe where Diego Maradona could arrive off a plane, be declared president of a team he'd never heard of before, be greeted by a crowd of 10,000... and depart days later (for Mexico) without even seeing the team play.

That happened, in 2018, his brief flirtation with Dinamo Brest another verse of the insanity that is soccer in Belarus.

Belarus is the only European country where football has continued in spite of Covid-19, the country's leader attempting to wave away the virus with a mixture of nationalism and his own remedies, such as drinking vodka.

Players and coaches have expressed their fears and concerns, but games go on, goals are scored and the sponsors roll up to be associated with it.

Rights to the Belarus league have been sold, to TV stations and online bookmakers, around the world, football in Belarus thriving while the rest of the world worries, while the Italians and the Spanish count their dead in hundreds, not dozens.

Parimatch, an online betting firm with a HQ in Cyprus, are now the proud sponsors of the Cup in Belarus.

Belarus as a nation is in a time warp, still stuck in 1994 as that was the year authoritarian Lukashenko took the reins of power which he has since refused to relinquish.

Football there is also frozen in time. The news section of the Belarus FA website today underlines that, nothing about coronavirus but just two news stories, congratulating clubs on major anniversaries.

Wages in the league in Belarus, especially outside of European regulars BATE, are poor, which makes it very much a local affair. Clubs tend to have home-grown players in their squads, with some imports from former Soviet states and a couple of little-known African or Brazilians added in, the average weekly wage for a player €500.

On Sunday, Smolevichy played out a 0-0 draw with Shakhtyor in front of 127 fans.

Alexander Brazevich, coach of Smolevichy, complained that in his post-match press conference, he was only asked about the game, not coronavirus. "I had a speech about Covid-19 ready but no one asked me," he said.

He has learned the lesson familiar to any gambler: the house always wins.