COVID-19 has taken live soccer away from almost every country on the planet. But a few leagues remain.
In Europe, the Belarus Premier League is the last man standing. Normally, Belarusian soccer has only ever made it onto western Europe’s radar when BATE Borisov are playing in the UEFA Champions League or Europa League. But with nothing else to watch on a weekend afternoon, some European soccer fans are tuning in to watch the likes of Dinamo Minsk and Shakhtor Soligorsk.
Soccer might not seem like the most important thing in the world right now, but it can provide three vital services to help people get through the next few months: a routine, a distraction and a community. For people working at home, at the laptop while still in sweatpants, days start to merge into one. Soccer at the weekends provides structure to the week for fans around the world, it is something the week builds to, and without it, the weekends feel somewhat flat.
The quality of soccer on display in the few remaining leagues might not be up their with the Premier League, but it is providing soccer-addicts with the fix they need.
The Belarus Premier League is getting the most interest of the leagues that remain. It has sold the broadcast rights to several countries around the world including India and Russia. For the rest of us, it is available free online on the Belarusian Football Federation’s Youtube channel. It can also be watched for free on the website MyCujoo.tv, which broadcasts lesser-known leagues to viewers around the world. Together, those two channels were seeing around 30,000 to 35,000 viewers a match on Saturday.
Most overseas viewers won’t have a strong connection to any team, or even know which team to support. To help viewers choose who to cheer, a group of Belarus soccer fans from the UK made a site that tells you which team matches your personality. The site told me I should support FC Minsk who take on the local giants of BATE Borisov later on Sunday.
BATE have been the dominant force in the league for more than a decade and even reached the group stage of the UEFA Champions League several times, but last year, they lost their crown to Dynamo Brest. One of the main narratives of the league this season is whether BATE can regain the title. Both BATE and Brest have got off to slow starts so far this season with BATE losing their first two games and their manager already under pressure.
To try and give English-speaking fans a better understanding of Belarusian soccer, the fans from the UK have been translating information from players’ and clubs’ social media to help give fans more information about the league than they can find on Wikipedia or Transfermarkt. And amateur commentator Chris Walker, who usually spends his Saturday’s describing the action at English non-league grounds or covering the third tier of women’s football, has even been providing a commentary in English to sync over the live footage of the Belarus Premier League games. Although he hasn’t had many listeners yet, he says he’s received comments from fans saying that this is helping them get their soccer fix and “something to look forward to.”
As well as being the only European league, the Belarus Premier League is the strongest of the surviving leagues in terms of quality. The difference in quality was clear when I watched some of the Tajikistan Higher League (CSKA Pamir vs FC Khujand — also on MyCuJoo) in the week, where the ball seemed to spend most of the match in the air. The league has been dominated in recent years by Istiklol, a side with government connections and relative financial muscle, who won their opening game of the season 7-0.
Many of the leagues still in action have seen some criticism about the risks to players, and claims that politics is coming before player safety. Carlos Mosquera, a goalkeeper in the Nicaraguan league told Reuters that “Mentally, you are not focused on the game, you are always thinking that opponents may have the disease.”
In East Asia, the situation is a bit different. As the first area of the world to be hit by the outbreak, some countries have got the virus under control and are looking to restart their postponed leagues. China and South Korea are still a few weeks away from starting their leagues, but Taiwan’s 2020 soccer season kicked off on Sunday with a clash between last years champions Tatung FC and runners-up Taipower FC, albeit behind closed doors. Tatung lost some key players in the close season, and Taipower took advantage of that in the season opener, winning 3-2 with a last minute goal. Taiwan’s soccer association is broadcasting the league’s matches on it’s Youtube channel.
With Germany’s Bundesliga considering starting behind closed doors in the middle of next month, many fans will soon go back to watching Europe’s big leagues and overseas interest in Dinamo Minsk, Taipower FC, and CSKA Pamir will likely disappear, but for the next few weeks at least, some of the world’s less well-known soccer leagues will still have their moment in the limelight.