Turkmenistan football season restarts, crowds allowed to attend matches

Despite international concerns that Turkmenistan authorities are underplaying the threat of the coronavirus, football is returning to the stadiums.

Increasing numbers of professional footballers are struggling with anxiety and depression having been forced out of action with the sport suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Representative image)

The Turkmenistan football season will resume when reigning champion Altyn Asyr take on early table-topper Kopetdag in the capital Ashgabat on Sunday. (Representative image)   -  Getty Images

Turkmenistan is rebooting its football season on Sunday, with fans flocking back to stadiums in one of the few countries yet to declare a case of coronavirus.

The reclusive Central Asian state followed other countries around the world when it suspended its eight-team league in March just three games into the season.

The national football federation cited recommendations by the health ministry and the World Health Organisation for preventing the spread of the illness.

A month later, and despite international concerns that Turkmen authorities are underplaying the threat of the virus, football is returning, with supporters only too happy to follow the action from the stands.

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“Joy boosts our immunity,” joked Ashir Yusupov, a 34-year-old entrepreneur.

He said he would be watching reigning champion Altyn Asyr take on early table-topper Kopetdag in the capital Ashgabat on Sunday.

Yusupov said he had no fear of crowded places, despite being aware of bans on sports events in other countries.

“We have no coronavirus, so why not restart our league?” he asked.

Three ex-Soviet states have bucked the global trend for suspending professional leagues: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Belarus.

Global interest in the Belarusian league has surged on the back of its decision, while the Tajikistan's Super Cup final earlier this month attracted a curious multi-lingual online following.

But Belarus, which has confirmed 4,779 coronavirus cases, has been strongly criticised for allowing fans to attend games.

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Tajikistan has begun its season with matches held behind closed doors, even as its authoritarian government, like that of Turkmenistan, continues to insist there are no cases in the country.

Ashgabat-based Altyn Asyr, whose name translates as “Golden Age”, won the Turkmen title last year. Victory against Kopetdag would take it top of the table, with other teams set to play on Monday.

Vepa, a 20-year-old student, said he “never misses a game” and will go to the match on Sunday despite not supporting either team.

His club is Ahal, which represents the region outside Ashgabat from where the family of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and much of the political elite hail.

Vepa said he was not sure Ahal can mount a serious title challenge but he has high hopes for new signing Elman Tagayev, a 30-year-old midfielder who has returned from a stint with a club in neighbouring Uzbekistan.

“His game is dynamic and beautiful,” said Vepa, who did not give his second name.

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