MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus is the only country in Europe still playing soccer amid the coronavirus pandemic but a growing number of fans are boycotting league matches, anxious about catching the disease.
In the western city of Grodno, local team FC Neman Grodno drew with FC Belshina Bobruisk on Friday in front of almost empty stands. Just 253 people attended, compared to last year when Neman’s games drew crowds of around 1,500 people.
The league has proved an unlikely draw for fans overseas who are starved of matches in their own countries. In choosing to stay open, it took its cue from President Alexander Lukashenko, who has resisted imposing strict lockdown measures.
“Of course, it is the main problem,” said Belshina coach Eduard Gradoboyev, when asked about the lack of fans.
“Because football is for spectators. And when you come to a absolutely half-empty stadium, especially such a good one like here in Grodno, it is a bit uncomfortable.”
Even Neman Grodno’s own fans urged people to keep away.
“Let’s stay home, reduce the risks associated with the spread of coronavirus, protect ourselves and our loved ones,” they said in a statement.
Before the match started, the Neman players applauded the empty stands in support for spectators staying away.
The Belarus football federation initially explained its decision to continue because only a small number of coronavirus cases had been recorded in the eastern European country, but more recently they have declined comment.
The latest figures show Belarus has 2,226 cases, with 23 deaths.
The clubs say they must comply with the federation’s decision.
“The federation decided to play - so we play,” Neman’s coach Igor Kovalevich said, adding the club was taking appropriate safety measures like using hand sanitizers and making sure that fans do not sit close to each other.
Supporters like Vladimir, who came to the stadium, had few concerns.
“Am I worried or not worried? I guess most likely not,” he said. “Because first of all there are not many people coming to watch football, there are no crowds. And all measures are taken at the stadium.”
But others are not so sanguine. Nikolay Zolotov is a Belarusian who plays for Russian club Ural Yekaterinburg.
In an interview with tribuna.com, he compared the situation to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union, where the authorities concealed the scale of the disaster to the general public for a long time.
“No one really knows how many people are sick, where they are sick, how they are treated,” he was quoted as saying. “I thought: has nothing really changed in 34 years?”
Zolotov lives in Vitebsk, which ranks second, after Minsk, in the number of coronavirus cases.
Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1994, has called fears about coronavirus a “psychosis”, prescribed drinking vodka and going to saunas to battle the disease, and said he was more worried about the economy.
At a meeting with officials on April 7, he said he could easily introduce quarantine measures within 24 hours.
“But what will we eat?,” he added.
Editing by Matthias Williams and Ed Osmond