MINSK – With most sports around the world shutting down because of the coronavirus pandemic, longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is proudly keeping soccer and hockey arenas open.
The Eastern European nation of nearly 9.5 million even started a whole new soccer season this month as coronavirus cases rose.
The move has the full support of Lukashenko, who took to the ice in an amateur hockey tournament on Saturday with a few hundred spectators in the stands.
"It's better to die standing than to live on your knees," he said, defending Belarus' refusal to introduce isolation measures and border restrictions like its neighbors, such as Russia.
With foreign sports networks having little to show and few other options for sports betting, Lukashenko says the pandemic is a perfect opportunity to put the country's soccer league on display.
“I look at Russia and some people there are winning a lot on bets, because beforehand they didn't really know our teams,” Lukashenko said. “Someone's losing, someone's winning. It's all useful.”
Fans entering the stadiums in Belarus are given antiseptic hand gel and some have their temperatures monitored by medics. Few wear masks because they're not considered necessary for open-air events, Belarus soccer federation spokesman Alexander Aleinik said.
Belarus doesn't publish daily figures on the spread of the virus. On Friday, the last day for which statistics are available, the country recorded 94 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with no deaths.
The Belarusian league isn't usually an international attraction. Crowds this season barely average 1,200 and UEFA ranks it the continent's 25th strongest, just below Norway, Israel and Kazakhstan.
But Russian TV has given its games prominent slots on state sports channels and betting firms around Western Europe are streaming them for customers.
British fans on social media have picked teams to follow and thrown themselves into a new fandom, elevating obscure players to hero status and berating coaches for supposedly negative tactics.
There isn't much competition, with betting sites offering little more than Nicaraguan soccer, Tajikistan basketball and Russian table tennis as rivals.
Sergei Melnikov is one of those hoping to make an impression on the mostly empty global sports stage. He is the director of the Isloch club, which beat Smolevichi 1-0 on Sunday to keep pace with the leaders on points.
“The whole world is watching our soccer right now,” Melnikov said. “That means we have to show the best that we've got.”
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