Ever since the Premier League shut down, Paul Williams, a 38-year-old Manchester City fan, has tried everything to get his Saturday soccer fix — repeats of championship games on the BBC, dozens of goal compilations on YouTube and video games like FIFA and Football Manager. But all of it lacked the magic and unpredictability of the Premier League. Until, that is, he discovered FC Slutsk and the Belarusian Premier League (BPL).
Because while most sports leagues have suspended or delayed their seasons since the coronavirus outbreak, Belarus’ longtime strongman Alexander Lukashenko has completely dismissed the pandemic, citing the small number of cases in the country and suggesting that Belarusians can thwart it by drinking vodka, going to the sauna and, of course, rooting for their favorite teams. (He refers to the virus as the “psychosis.”) That means the BPL is now the only professional soccer being played in Europe. As such, it — and FC Slutsk in particular — has quickly outpaced Nicaraguan soccer, Tajik basketball and Russian table tennis as the biggest live sports draw in the world. (The allure/humor of the word “slut” being in FC Slutsk’s name can’t be denied either.)
In fact, over the last week alone, a new FC Slutsk Facebook page for Australian fans has amassed more than 2,000 members; while on Twitter, hundreds of soccer fans who dominate the platform’s trending topics each Saturday have rallied around the team.
“It started out as just some fun, when my mate sent me a link to a Slutsk game,” explains Williams. “It was fun to watch live soccer again, and it was interesting to watch how it was played in different countries and to see other fans. When you’re just used to watching English teams and only see foreign teams in the World Cup, everything seems very new.”
At the same time, Williams adds, it was Soccer Twitter’s enthusiasm for these Belarusian teams that further enhanced the experience. “I was learning about all these amazing players that we’d never heard of before — guys like Dramane Salou, Igor Bobko and Artyom Serdyuk. I probably haven’t even pronounced their names properly, but some of them were just as good as the top players on the Tottenham Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester United.” (There’s also Slutsk’s biggest rival, Dynamo Brest, a battle that some English fans refer to as the “Sluts versus the Breasts.”)
Though much of this fandom is ironic, the surge in interest in the BPL has been a haven for betting sites, many of whom either shuttered or vastly reduced their capacity in the wake of the pandemic. (You can bet on BPL winners and losers, but also make future predictions on what Belarusian players might find themselves in the international transfer market after the global lockdowns are lifted.) This, of course, hasn’t been without controversy, with some analysts arguing that allowing people to bet on games not only puts Belarusian players and fans at risk of contracting the coronavirus, but encourages gambling addicts to make bets on players and games they don’t know anything about as well.
“I feel conflicted about covering those leagues still in play,” says Sam Diss, head of content at the soccer magazine Mundial. “While we miss soccer, which means we’ll watch absolutely anything, the BPL shouldn’t be playing, should they?”
There’s another ironic twist here, too — i.e., soccer isn’t that big in Belarus, a fairly low priority compared to hockey or martial arts. It’s likely then that Lukashenko is merely using it to assert himself on the global stage, and to ensure that his supporters, many of whom live in poor, rural areas, are allowed to live life as they would normally.
It’s a stance, though, that’s put him at odds with the BPL teams themselves. Last week, Neman Grodno, another BPL team, issued an official statement accusing the government of lying about official COVID-19 death and infection numbers, while also encouraging fans not to attend matches in stadiums.
Back in the U.K., Williams sees the BPL as a light in dark times — something he can look forward to and lose himself in (the health risks notwithstanding). To that end, he and his friends are hyped up for FC Slutsk’s next game against FC Isloch, a team he’d only researched a few days ago, but for whom he already burns with a deep hatred.
“Up the Sluts!” he shouts — a popular chant invented by FC Slutsk’s English fans. “Up the Sluts!”