Coronavirus: With handshakes and fans in stadiums, Belarus plays on

The Belarusian Premier League is far from being at the lockdown stage, in keeping with the country's stance towards coronavirus.

BATE Belarus

File photo of BATE, which lost 3-1 to Energetyk-Bgu in the season opener of Belarusian Premier League.   -  AFP

Still hungry for your football fix? Belarus was only too happy to oblige on Friday.

From India to Israel, Serbia to Slovenia, broadcasters availed themselves of a rare chance to show live football, but nobody outside the former Soviet republic needed a 60-inch screen to realise the bigger picture.

Without context, there was little to distinguish Friday's match between Torpedo Zhodino and Belshina in the Belarusian Premier League. The host won 1-0, a scrappy 50th-minute goal settling a so-so match in the second round of the championship.

Yet while large parts of Europe hunkered down, self-isolating, working from home, avoiding the neighbours, fearing the supermarket trip, in Belarus it was handshakes, high fives and hugs all round.

READ | Defiant Belarus league kicks off, to allow fans in stadium

Torpedo published a batch of anti-epidemic rules for supporters before the game, advising those over 65 and anybody with fever or signs of respiratory illness to stay away. Advising, though, rather than ordering.

All under-16s had to be accompanied by parents (because why not make a family day of it...) and fans were urged to stay 1.5 metres apart, a suggestion that was widely flouted despite there being thousands of empty seats.

It was those empty seats that provided pause for thought. How many could this stadium hold? The answer to that was 6,500.

And the latest coronavirus global death total? The harrowing number had climbed above 26,000 victims.

You could have filled the Torpedo Stadium four times with people who were alive at the turn of the year but have since succumbed to this terrible pandemic.

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When football returns, even when spectators are readmitted, there will be empty seats in stadiums across the world. Whatever became of the fan who had a season ticket for seat C32, or B12, or H43, those who stood behind the goal?

Now that there is no doubt what horrors COVID-19 can visit upon families, streets, towns, cities and countries, it seemed beyond scandalous that Friday's match in the city of Zhodino was going ahead.

Football is on hold almost everywhere but Belarus. Seasons have stopped and players are trying to ride out the storm. Some have been infected.

In Belarus, there is a sense of ignorance in play, or perhaps this is the denial stage. What else could explain the embraces between players, fans dancing arm in arm, the handshakes on the touchline at the final whistle?

Wes Craven's slasher parody 'Scream' shone a light on the inevitable grisly fate of the horror movie character that might dare utter, "I'll be right back", before leaving a room.

This felt similarly ominous, just as, it must be said, did Liverpool's Champions League match against Atletico Madrid on March 11, in front of a full house at Anfield.

The United Kingdom had 460 confirmed coronavirus cases at that point, and eight deaths. Belarus, as this match proceeded, was teetering on moving into three figures in terms of cases, still waiting for its first death.

The country's president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, subscribes to the theory that closing down industry could cost far more lives than this pandemic threatens.

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He wants life to carry on as close to normal as possible, and spoke of a "psychosis" that has "crippled national economies almost everywhere in the world".

Lukashenko says Belarus will be fine - buckwheat supplies are bountiful, and there are always potatoes if the country needs a back-up.

Speaking about US President Donald Trump, Lukashenko said just hours before Friday's match began: "I really like his recent statements."

Quarantining will come to Belarus "only when it is really needed", the country's president added.

"Time will tell," he concluded, whether the Belarusian authorities have got this right.

So Belarus played on. Footballers mingled, coaches mingled, fans mingled.

The unforgivable folly, the horror of it all.

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