Amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, major sports events the world have been delayed or cancelled, necessitating eager sports fans to divert their attention elsewhere. While replays of classic matches or eSports tournaments are interesting in their own right, there is something irreplaceable about live action sport. It was thus quite reasonable when viewers turned their attention to the Belarusian Premier League (BPL), possibly the only professional league still playing matches – and with live support.
The BPL was formed in 1992, and the first season featured clubs from the Higher League (formerly known as the Soviet Top League), the leagues below, as well as clubs from the Belarus SSR First League. Perhaps its best-known club is BATE Borisov, which won 13 consecutive league titles from 2006 to 2018. Dinamo Minsk is the other relatively famous club, with seven league titles and nine second-place finishes to their name. These are the only two Belarusian clubs to ever have reached the Europa League group stage, while BATE Borisov is the only Belarusian club to have played in the Champions League group stage.
Unlike many leagues in Europe, BPL seasons are completed within a single calendar year. This is good news for its (many newfound) followers, since it means the league has just begun, with the first matches having been played in mid-March. With Dynamo Brest winning the 2019 league title, their first ever, it is possible that there could be further disruptions to BATE Borisov’s domination of the league this season.
However, the novelty of the BPL cannot mask its lack of quality. In 2013, BATE Borisov beat Bayern Munich at home, making some headlines, but overall, Belarus remains a weak footballing nation. On the international level, the nation has never qualified for a World Cup or a European Championship, and its most (and arguably only) notable player remains Alexander Hleb, an Arsenal legend who had several spells with BATE Borisov across his long career.
The contrarian arrangements of the BPL are also due in no small part to the Belarusian response to the pandemic. The president, Alexander Lukashenko, who has continued to play ice hockey, even embracing other players on the rink, has downplayed the need for social distancing in a country which has recorded over 4000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. He even claimed that “no one in the country will die from coronavirus”, in direct conflict with official statistics.
Some in the BPL circles may hope that increased international attention, as an unexpected consequence of the pandemic, will improve the level of the league. That is a benevolent wish, but in the grand scheme of things, there are far more important concerns. Ultimately, the ‘other’ BPL is unlikely to do more than distract sports enthusiasts for a season or two.