Soccer-Fans turn to Belarus to fill void as virus puts sport on hold

Reuters Videos

SHOWS: MINSK, BELARUS (MARCH 28, 2020) (REUTERS - ACCESS ALL)

1. SOCCER GAME SEEN BEHIND FENСE

2. VARIOUS OF SOCCER FANS ON STANDS CHEERING AND CHANTING, SEEN BEHIND FENCE

3. VARIOUS OF SOCCER PLAYERS TRAINING ON PITCH

4. TEAM LOGOS DISPLAYED ON SCREEN

5. (SOUNDBITE) (Russian) DINAMO MINSK FC PRESS-SECRETARY, ALEKSANDR STROK, SAYING:

"We can see it on social media, especially on Twitter and Facebook, where we see a significant growth of the English-speaking audience. We can feel it in comments and posts, we see that there are more people who are following our club. Although it's an uneasy time in the world, it still feels nice."

4. PEOPLE ENTERING STADIUM, SIGN READS (Russian): 'MINSK FC STADIUM'

5. FANS AND STAFF WEARING SANITARY MASKS

6. SIGN READING (Belarussian):'FOOTBALL CLUB MINSK'

7. VARIOUS OF FANS BEING TESTED WITH THERMAL CAMERAS

8. CHECKS IN PROGRESS, SIGN READING (Russian): 'HANDS DISINFECTION, TEMPERATURE CHECKS'

9. VARIOUS OF CHECKS IN PROGRESS

10. (SOUNDBITE) (Russian) DINAMO MINSK FC PRESS-SECRETARY, ALEKSANDR STROK, SAYING:

"We hope that it will improve the level of the game because the players may become more responsible, because when they have a larger audience, they would want to show a better quality of football. And maybe it will help them to join a stronger league in the future."

11. VARIOUS OF TRAINING IN PROGRESS

NEAR MINSK, BELARUS (MARCH 27, 2020) (REUTERS - ACCESS ALL)

12. (SOUNDBITE) (Russian) BELARUS SOCCER FEDERATION PRESS SECRETARY, ALEXANDER ALEINIK, SAYING:

"Our championship is one of a few which continues. And sports' television channels need something to show. So one way or another, there is a growing interest in it."

MOSCOW, RUSSIA (MARCH 27, 2020) (REUTERS - ACCESS ALL)

13. VARIOUS OF MAN WATCHING SOCCER GAME IN BAR

14. VARIOUS OF BARMAN WATCHING GAME

15. SOCCER GAME SEEN ON SCREEN

16. (SOUNDBITE) (Russian) MANAGING DIRECTOR OF SMITH'S PUB IN MOSCOW, NIKOLAI GORSHKOV, SAYING:

"It (Belarusian football) is valuable, maybe more as a symbol now, the symbol of football being alive despite everything. I think it is the symbol. And besides, isn't it very cute. (LAUGHS)"

17. VARIOUS OF GAME SHOWN ON TV SCREEN

MINSK, BELARUS (MARCH 28, 2020) (REUTERS - ACCESS ALL)

18. VARIOUS OF PLAYERS TRAINING ON PITCH

19. (SOUNDBITE) (Russian) DINAMO MINSK FC SUPPORTER, YURI, SAYING:

"Everyone loves football and watches it all over the world. People miss football, they are bored without it and they will watch it. Many will follow Belarusian football, getting to know it. And I believe, in the future, it will develop thanks to that."

20. VARIOUS OF FANS WATCHING FROM STANDS

21. (SOUNDBITE) (Russian) DINAMO MINSK FC SUPPORTER, YURI, SAYING:

"First of all, I think they (teams) can scout a couple of players and they will easily go to play in Europe afterwards. And if they play beautiful football, some people will start watching it regularly. They will not only watch just English or Italian leagues, but also the Belarusian one from time to time."

22. VARIOUS OF FANS WATCHING

23. (SOUNDBITE) (Russian) DINAMO MINSK FC SUPPORTER, ARTYOM, SAYING:

"We have no infrastructure, no stadiums, no fans at the stadiums. And what would people see on the screen? Empty stands, no spirit at all. So I personally think this will not give any momentum to Belarusian football. Although it could happen - we could get hype now, but we won't."

24. VARIOUS OF FANS WATCHING GAME

STORY: With professional soccer at a virtual standstill around the globe, fans in need of their weekly fix are turning to the Belarusian Premier League to fill the void as it carries on with matches despite the coronavirus outbreak.

The league, one of Europe's least glamorous competitions whose teams rarely reach the group stage of UEFA's elite Champions League, is drawing foreign fans' attention and a string of new broadcast deals.

While most of its teams, perhaps with the exception of BATE Borisov and Dinamo Minsk, are unknown to the majority of soccer fans, the league is making the most of stoppages to the world's top competitions.

It has said it has no intention of postponing matches or cancelling the season it began earlier this month.

The decision to carry on and allow fans into stadiums has helped the Belarus Football Federation get broadcasting deals with sports networks in 10 countries, including Russia, Israel and India, where fans have been left with nothing to watch.

"This is an unprecedented situation," said Alexander Aleinik, a federation spokesman.

One of the networks broadcasting Belarusian matches is Ukraine's Sport-1. Although it began broadcasting the league late last year - prior to the coronavirus outbreak - because many Ukrainians play in Belarus, viewers have been surprised by Belarusian league's quality.

Thanks to the Belarusian league's growing viewing figures, Dinamo Minsk's popularity has spiked on social media, especially among English speakers. Alexander Strok, a club spokesman, said he hopes the international attention will motivate players to step up their game.

"We hope it will improve the level of the game because the players may get more responsible," he said.

Yuri, a Dinamo Minsk supporter, believes the current interest in the Belarusian league could eventually open doors for their players to move to bigger teams in Europe. Yet when European soccer resumes, he hopes fans will still flip the channel to watch the Belarusian league.

Belarus has so far reported 94 coronavirus cases but has taken few measures to curb the outbreak.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has held power in the former Soviet nation of 9.5 million people since 1994, has downplayed the need for social distancing.

(Production: Vladimir Kostin, Maria Vasilyeva)

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