The sleepy, Soviet-scarred city of Slutsk is more famous for its sugar factory than for football. In the 1990s it became well known for distributing thousands of tons of one of Belarus’ most valuable exports as the former satellite state’s economy limped out of the fractured USSR’s shadow.
Slutsk lies on the River Sluch a little over a 100km stretch due south of the Belarusian capital Minsk. That’s roughly the length of a thousand football pitches, or the equivalent of 50,000 people standing at least two meters apart to observe covid-19 social distancing.
But in Belarus, such restrictions have yet to reach football. The country’s Vysshaya Liga, the Belarusian top tier, is the only league in Europe yet to postpone matches despite the global coronavirus pandemic against which the continent and the rest of the world is currently battling.
Players continue to play. Fans continue to travel home and away. And people all over the world continue to tune in.
The medieval, metallic-grey landscape in Slutsk betrays nothing of the haven it has become for fans deprived of a live football fix. Thousands locked down in quarantine from Australia to the United Kingdom and New Zealand to the United States have begun religiously tuning in to follow their fortunes every week.
In 1998, the city’s sugar plantation created a football team for its workers, and Sporting Football Klub Slutsk was formed. Just over a decade later, it has garnered followers from all corners of the globe, thanks in no small part to their amusing name.
“The appearance of new fans from abroad surprised me. It’s interesting. I’m glad fans support us not only in Belarus. Such heightened interest doesn’t add pressure, it is nice they watch us from abroad from all corners of the world,” Slutsk midfielder Yuri Kozlov says.
Belarus is one of only four leagues in the world to continue playing football – the others being Taiwan, Nicaragua and Tajikistan – despite the country registering 4,779 confirmed cases of the virus and 42 confirmed deaths in total. For Kozlov, his main concern is preserving the health of those not on the pitch.
“Myself I’m not afraid of coronavirus, we strive to strictly follow all preventative measures. But I am anxious for my family, friends, loved ones and for everyone really. Because there is a likelihood of infection and it’s not known who and how it will affect,” Kozlov admits.
The 28-year-old has carved a living as a journeyman midfielder in Belarus. His winding career path has led him to some of the league’s more obscure but endlessly intriguing clubs including over 100 appearances for Luch Minsk, and then a stop at Dnyapro Mogilev.
In 2020 he ended up at FK Slutsk after Mogilev folded, for whom he has played two of their four league games so far this season, helping the club to fourth in the league. But where Kozlov’s journey began is perhaps more important in the current climate.
Kozlov was born in Vitebsk in Belarus’ extreme northeast close to the Russian border, a region which has borne the brunt of infections. The city itself recently registered as many 280 new confirmed infections a day and a higher daily pneumonia case count than Moscow, a metropolis of some 30 plus times the population of Vitebsk.
Nevertheless, Belarus has refused to adopt any measures to postpone games and its football league remains a worrying anomaly in the backdrop of a global crisis.
“In a situation like now, you worry about people who are coming to the stadium. If fans sit close together, in groups, then no one is safe from infection. It probably isn’t worth holding unnecessary mass gatherings and events,” says Kozlov.
“In front of a low number of fans, of course, isn’t great, it leaves its own mark on the atmosphere. But in the current situation you need to think about people’s health. Therefore, let them support us from a TV screen.”
Ultras of Neman Grodno recently announced they would be boycotting games, claiming they knew they were being “lied to” about the virus and called on other fan movements to do the same. Their match away at Dinamo Minsk’s 18,000 capacity Dinamo Stadium on Thursday was attended by 317.
The alternative for games to be played behind closed doors would more or less defeat the object altogether. Football is generally deemed a pointless exercise without fans and it would seem logically skewed to exclude only one group of a certain activity.
It would also mean footballers would effectively be on the front line during the epidemic, the equivalent of wartime entertainers but in this case placed right in the firing line and the most exposed to infection.
“The fans have a right to have such an opinion and if they’ve decided that, then it means taking into account the epidemiological situation, it makes sense for the best. Gatherings of people heighten the risk of the spread of infection,” says Kozlov.
“In Slutsk we have great fans, thank you to them, we always feel their support. Thank you to those who come to the stadium and to those who stay home and support us from a TV. It’s great of course that we have support in many countries, it’s very nice, we will strive to play as well as we canfor all of our fans.”
The spike in interest in the Vysshya Liga is no doubt welcome to a country usually firmly on the periphery of European football, but what has created a new craze could directly lead to a spike in cases of coronavirus infection throughout the country, and the novelty of newfound fame would quickly wear off if the nation’s health takes a drastic downturn.
While the rest of the world finds solace from isolation in Belarusian football, if the sport continues in the current climate, it isn’t outlandish to think it could well soon dispel a familiar football phrase and indeed become a matter of life and death.