Both the Belarusian league and the local FK Sluck gained unusual popularity
When it comes to the Belarusian league, or Belarusian football in general, most ordinary fans will remember Alexander Hleb's long-standing European football team or BATE Borisov's multiple participation in the Champions League, led by the domestic victory over Bayern Munich in the 2012/13 season. Dinamo Minsk, Viktoria Plzeň's opponent in the basic group of the European League 2015/16, is probably also known for Czech fans. Connoisseurs may remember the Dnieper Mogilev - especially Baník fans may still have no idea how they could have fallen out with him in the third preliminary round of the 2010/11 European League football after an opponent arrived in Ostrava after 18 hours in a regular bus.
Today, however, thousands of football fans around the world know teams and players known only to hardcore punters until March this year. This is simply due to the declaration of a pandemic and the gradual interruption of the vast majority of world leagues. During April, only the highest competitions in the states remained in operation, the representatives of which either completely banned the use of the word "coronavirus" (Turkmenistan) or declared that it was only the flu (Nicaragua and Belarus). As the quality of the competition in Turkmenistan and Nicaragua is more reminiscent of our division (for the hardy; streams can be found on YouTube), all attention soon shifted to Belarus.
He is helped by the fact that the local president Alexander Lukashenko is a passionate athlete despite his advanced age. His pieces on the ice are almost as legendary as Vladimir Putin's five goals in a duel against the NHL stars. It was Lukashenko who appeared on skates several times during the hockey game in April to promote the sport as a cure for the virus. His report became famous that what reliably banishes the coronavirus is regular visits to the sauna, exercise, 50g of vodka three times a week and work in the field. In other words, Belarus has embarked on a path of ignoring the threat and not restricting social freedom. In this situation, therefore, the state structures clearly recommended the Belarusian Football Federation to start a new season of the Belarusian Supreme Competition (Vysshishaya Liha) according to the original plan. In Belarus, the spring-autumn system is played, so the first round was played carefree on March 19.
Since its inception, the Belarusian league has become the world's main competition for bookmakers, with dozens of opportunities being announced. Bettors also adapted - they started watching streams and honestly gather information, but even that did not prevent an immediate harvest of (betting) surprises. Few could have expected the defeat of BATE at the Minsk Energetika-BGU (BGU - Belarusian State University, hence the nickname "students"), the draw of the master (if someone likes clichés, then ex-Ličkova) Dynamo Brest with a newcomer Smolevichi-STI or five whistled penalties in the duel FK Sluck - Slavia Mazyr.
However, the main response was in the sports media around the world, which at the time of coronavirus had little to write about. From the BBC to our Sport Diary, there was criticism and shaking of the head. Why do the "fools" continue to play football during the pandemic, and even in front of the spectators? Last year's league winner Marcel Lička or the only Slovak in the competition, Július Szök, the interest in football in Belarus grew comfortably, initially only dozens, but later hundreds of fans, mostly from Anglo-Saxon countries, who began to follow social networks of Belarusian clubs and establish foreign language versions. The hunger for live football broadcasts that bring positive emotions has been and continues to be great, especially among spectators who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic (judging by social media posts, this is a large part of the new fans of the Belarusian league).
The Belarusian Union managed to react surprisingly quickly and, thanks to a sensational increase in interest in its league product, sold television rights to the highest competition abroad for the first time in history. Today, the Belarusian League runs on sports channels in more than 15 countries around the world. For those who live in countries without broadcasting rights, it is possible to watch every match live and completely free of charge on the official official YouTube channel from the second round onwards. Within a few moments, goals, the best moments and 6-7-minute cuts in good image quality are published for all those interested. By Eastern European standards, this is a truly above-standard spectator service, behind which our highest competition lags significantly behind. In the interest of better live broadcast comfort, it is also possible to watch English commentary on the broadcasts in the form of online radio (CWSports), where matches are accompanied by a voice enthusiast who normally concentrates on English divisional football.
This easy availability of live broadcasts has enabled the further development of the league's popularity and the creation of an international fan community connected to social networks, and in particular Twitter. The unique thing about this situation is that at one point, a new fan community was divided into camps for all 16 teams of the Belarusian top competition, whether at the club or personal level. For example, Norwich fans have generally embraced Neman Hrodno as their new yellow-green color combination. Fans of rivals from Ipswich, on the other hand, started to support FC Vitebsk in full blue jerseys. In this case, even the official Twitter Ipswich Town shares posts about the Vitebsk club. There are also many funny bets associated with watching the Belarusian league. At Twitter, for example, at one point, the story of 16 friends began to circulate, who randomly divided the clubs among themselves, saying that whoever finishes the club last must fly to support the team for at least one home match directly to the stadium. One of them, supported by Torpedo Belaz Žodino, also became the founder of one of the most active unofficial accounts. Many such initially completely unofficial accounts now often work with official club staff (or volunteers - not all clubs have English-speaking staff), while the more active clubs also publish information in English and thank them for supporting their new fan base. The sale of scarves, jerseys and other club items is also slowly starting. The most interesting initiative came from Dynamo Brest, when the payment of a ticket for a home match meant the reservation of a seat in the stadium, which was provided with a portrait of the payer in question. Half of the proceeds from the ticket were donated to the fight against coronavirus.
A peculiar phenomenon is the popularity of the football club from Sluck, a historic town about an hour south of Minsk. This until recently interesting club was founded only in 2008 as a corporate advertisement of a local sugar factory. FK Sluck quickly climbed the rankings of Belarusian football and in the 2013/14 season he appeared for the first time in the highest competition. However, his results progress stopped, so his seventh place from 2016/17 remains his highest position so far. However, with the club's initially dizzying results, the support of the fans did not increase proportionally - for home duels in the pre-coronavirus era, the team was unable to fill its stadium - even for Belarusian conditions - with a maximum capacity of 1,896 spectators. To date, FK Sluck has curiously more fans abroad than at home in Belarus.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. It all started in March in Australia, when a group of friends from Adelaide went through the names of the clubs of the Belarusian top competition, and got stuck on FK Sluck. The English transcription of the name of the town of Sluckk (Czech Sluck) is Slutsk, which is the source of a somewhat childish joke (sluts) and the whole origin of the current enormous interest in the local football club. Of course, Sluck no longer bothered anyone in Australia with the Slavic "u", and not the English-speaking "a". Soon, the Facebook group FK Slutsk Worldwide was formed, and what initially looked like unimaginative fun, over time it became a real support. Especially after the new fans found out that "their" club is on the verge of bankruptcy and almost didn't sign up for the new season. The financial situation of the club depends on its founder, sugar magnate Andrei Grudnikov, and he recently liked the Belarusian elites, so today he is awaiting trial in custody. In the difficult situation, the new management of the sugar factory stopped the financing of the club and thus brought it to the brink of bankruptcy. Based on this, the Australians have set up a fundraising site, where over five thousand Australian dollars have been collected so far.
The FK Sluck Facebook community has developed from Australia around the world and has also connected with the club's officials, who have accepted their new fan base. He publishes bilingually on his social media profiles, organizes Q&A with players, hoists the Australian flag and banner at home games, and turned his unofficial anthem from a song by a New York fan, later converted into rock by the brother of ex-Slavic Vitaly Trubila, Yuri. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o91axfV3yiY
With each round played, the club's popularity grows; the aforementioned FB group now has over six thousand members from around the world. In the Russian-speaking world, a video has become a hit, when one of the most famous Russian coaches, Leonid Sluckij, from his quarantine, prescribes tactics for FK Sluck players for the next match with Vitebsk. Last week, the official twitter account of AS Roma was announced by FK Sluck as the team of the week. https://twitter.com/ASRomaEN/status/1255485912047370246?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
With the growing popularity, the team's results are also growing. Since the home defeat with Dynamo Brest in the second round, FK Sluck has not lost and after the seventh round he has led the competition table with a two-point lead. Foreign popularity is certainly not the only cause of unusually great results; in addition, FK Sluck also has a great deal of luck, a very effective attack and apparently won the lottery with the choice of African players during the winter break. In some matches, he was also wished by referees (eg with Slavia Mazyr or Belšina Bobrujsk), who are generally terrifying and prone to card marriages or ordering meaningless penalty kicks. Otherwise, Sluck demonstrates an interesting offensive football for the Belarusian conditions and the quality of the staff. From the matches I have seen myself, I would compare the level of a team to the teams involved in the fight to save in our league.
Sovereignly the most popular player for foreign fans became the local "Lord Bendtner" - Artyom Serdyuk. This thirty-year-old Russian striker, with a resume from lower Russian competitions, really resembles the former Arsenal forward with his play and character; his technical imperfection, his assistance to be missiles, and similar cult issues are celebrated. Serdyuk accepts his newfound popularity with grace, is an active contributor to the FB group and carefully responds to fans with his almost non-existent English.
The second most popular member of the squad is the 38-year-old matador of the Belarusian highest competition, goalkeeper Boris Pankratov. Pankratov represents the old era of goalkeepers with good reflexes and effective interventions on the line, but with a completely non-existent game with their feet. In any case, the most interesting player for me is the "sluice Yaya Toure", Yuri Kozlov. Bald tall box-to-box midfielder, sometimes a little stingy for a step, but for the Belarusian league incredibly technically equipped and willing to do a loop in any situation on the field. A kind of "enfant terrible" of the club is Marat Burajev, a player about 160 cm tall with a Napoleonic complex, excellent dribble and Admir Ljevaković's bad habit of getting a yellow card in about every match. The rest of the team is made up of home players, with a couple of Russians and Ukrainians and four African players (three from Burkina Faso, one from Nigeria).
The story of FK Sluck has a good end for the moment, as the Ukrainian betting agency PariMatch has bought a place on advertising banners around the stadium and the financial situation of the club has thus stabilized. Goalkeeper Pankratov said in an interview that payouts go regularly and the club even recently hired a reinforcement for the wing of the Armenian league in the person of Alan Karoyev. Players also enjoy fame and are grateful for their support; in the last match, they performed a goal-kangaroo jump celebration dedicated to their numerous fan base in Australia. Fans and experts speculate how long the game and result success can take - whether FK Sluck can be Leicester of the Belarusian league. Probably not, especially since BATE has taken good form in the last rounds and will want to return the title to Borisov. Even so, the story of the Slug phenomenon is one of the few positive reports in quarantine times and an important distraction for all new fans. For the Belarusian league, every week the non-running top leagues bring popularity, a financial injection and for young players the opportunity to "sell" to better leagues. If you really miss live football and you like football delicacies like Příbram-Karviná, with a similar spectator backdrop (hard-core fans boycott the Belarusian league due to disagreement with the coronavirus situation) and the quality of football, I highly recommend you to grind in Belarus.