How a Spurs fan found joy and competitiveness in Belarus
Fair and Belarus aren’t two words that sit together very well. Sandwiched between Russia and Poland this unremarkable strip of central European plain is best known in recent years for being ruled by Europe’s last dictator. Dig deeper and you find a region ravaged by the worst of the Second World War with a cultural identity pushed to the peripheries by Russian influence. I will add here that to Russian speakers written Belarusian does look, and there’s no nice way of saying this, a bit ‘yokel’ – the spelling being almost entirely phonetic, making it look as if someone who doesn’t know Russian has just transcribed what they’ve heard.
However, during the Covid lockdown its football league was thrust into the global spotlight as one of the few to carry on. In fact, at no point have games even been held behind closed doors; although many fans have taken it upon themselves to avoid games – even including some of the ultra groups. With this being a summer league the supreme decision maker didn’t waver and the league kicked off as planned in mid-March.
The league itself, on first glance, looks like a perfect example of Champions League money ruining a smaller domestic championship. The first game pitted BATE Borisov, recently regular group stage minnows, against some domestic small fry in Energetik-BGU – the team nominally representing Minsk University. The setting was somewhat less than low-key – with the inadequate 4G pitch dropped into an aptly post-Communist urban dystopia.
BATE, who beat Arsenal on Valentine’s Day in 2019, were by far the better team and despite BGU’s keeper looking as if he’d only had vague instructions on how to play the game over a bad phone line, somehow the hosts ran out 3-1 winners – helped in no small part by the Uzbek striker Jasurbek Yakhshiboev (a Jamie Vardy-esque whippet of an attacker) and the creativity of the Liberian David Tweh. To help understand quite how big a shock this is, both of these players were picked off by relatively bigger clubs during the summer transfer window (Shakhtyor Soligorsk – potential opponents for Spurs in the Europa League qualifiers – and Dinamo Brest respectively).
As a Rusophile facing the prospect of no football of months and with a seismic “anyone can beat anyone on their day” shock to begin the campaign everything fell into place for me. The only thing left was to pick a team of my own. As a Spurs fan who still isn’t really used to finishing in the top six I tried to find a dull mid-table team to fill the void left by my beloved 90s Spurs. BATE were far too big, Dinamo Minsk were fallen giants (they were the only Belarusian team to win the Soviet Supreme League – at a time when it was one of the best leagues in Europe) but had a whiff of fascism. The two Brest teams were rejected for being too successful (Dinamo won the league in 2019) or too new (Rukh) while Slutsk were attracting English-speaking fans, well, you can guess why.
Most of the other teams in the league were relatively newcomers, seemingly destined to disappear back down the leagues as quickly as they had risen. One name did stand out – that of Belshina Bobruisk who were frequently at the end of the “parade of clubs” as you loaded a new game on Championship Manager 97-98, but their halcyon days of European competition were far behind them and this was their first season in the top flight for three years.
Finally I found Neman Grodno, located near the Polish border. Inoffensively mid-table with one championship play-off (lost, of course) in nearly 30 years of post-independence football. Oh, and one Belarusian cup final (won). Perfectly Spursy. Also we have the best kit in the league, yellow with green hoops, slightly off perpendicular, a manager who looks like a gangster and a technically gifted but inconsistent playmaker – the Armenian Gegham Kadymyan.
To begin with the matches weren’t easily available although there were always streams if you could find them. But soon the Belarusian Football Federation decided to stream the games on their YouTube channel. This may have been influenced by other leagues coming back but having watched the Tajik and Guatemalan leagues they didn’t have too much to worry about. They did take a leaf out of the Spanish league’s book with all the games being shown consecutively and kick-offs tinkered with at the last minute but given the general standard of football administration it was nothing too glaringly incompetent.
The level hovers around League 1 standard, with BATE probably in the Championship and Smolevichi (rooted to the bottom) somewhat out of their depth.
My team, Neman, began slowly, unable to find the net but so found a Leicester-like formula to grind out 1-0 wins, propelling us into a title fight. Other highlights include a couple of games being played in downpours that make the ones in Bilbao look like light drizzle. However, abandoning games doesn’t seem to be the way things are done in this part of the world, much to the obvious annoyance of the local goalkeepers’ union. During the strictest part of lockdown it was nice just to have a semblance of normality. Trying to explain the away goals rule to my boy (again) during the cup semi-finals being one example that stands out.
So, what have I learnt from watching one of Europe’s minor league? Well, for one, you can appreciate just how great European football is for some of these teams. For BATE it’s their one chance to fill their stadium and really be tested. For the rest it’s a genuine shot at some sort of glamour away from the half-open Soviet-era multi-sports arenas that many of the teams use.
I’ve also been struck by the number of African players in the league. It’s worth noting that this is even more striking in the women’s championship. I was expecting a large cohort of players from the ex-Soviet republics but the fact that so many players – mainly West African – are willing to chance their arm in a country like Belarus is quite a damning indictment of the standard of domestic football in that part of the world at the moment.
Another key feature is accessibility. I’ll admit my interest waned when the Premier League was being played every day but with the European competitions being unavailable to me (I have Sky but not BT) I’ve found myself more interested in the three-way title scrap rather than which mega club comes out on top in empty stadiums.
But the key factor is that for a football league to be entertaining and absorbing the main criteria is, of course, equality. As American sports prove with their draft system the best way to sell the league is to have as little as possible between the teams. As I write this, with 20 of 30 rounds completed, nothing in the league is even close to being resolved – even the relative might of BATE and Dinamo Minsk has counted for nothing as they sit 2nd and 8th respectively. Long may it continue.
This article first appeared in Issue Six of The Squall, a monthly magazine we produced for six months in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. You can read all six issues, for a recommended donation of £3 each, here.
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