<
>

Belarus chief defends decision to continue amid coronavirus pandemic

play
Why is football still being played in Belarus? (1:24)

Gab Marcotti explains why the Belarusian league, including the Minsk derby, were still playing this weekend. (1:24)

Belarus have continued playing football during the coronavirus pandemic to offer people an escape from their daily routine, the country's sports and tourism minister, Sergey Kovalchuk, has told ESPN.

The Vysheyshaya Liha in Belarus is one of the last leagues to continue, with most other leagues across the world postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus crisis. At the weekend, an average of under 500 fans passed through the gates of the stadiums, but over 1,000 supporters attended Dinamo Brest's 3-1 win against Isloch Minsk.

- Stream new episodes of ESPN FC Monday through Friday on ESPN+
- Stream every episode of 30 for 30: Soccer Stories on ESPN+
- Petrosyan: Belarus using vodka, football to fight coronavirus

The match had previously made headlines after the hosts invited fans from around the world to buy virtual tickets online and fill the stands with mannequins sporting cut-out portraits with money raised being donated toward fighting the pandemic.

As of April 14, there were 2,919 confirmed COVID-19 infections and 29 deaths in Belarus, according to the Johns Hopkins University, and while numbers continue to increase Belarussian politicians do not feel the need to stop the league.

"We review, analyse and judge the situation not daily, but hourly," Kovalchuk told ESPN. "Let's be honest: Today, nobody in this world has the answer to the question what to do in this situation.

"Should stadiums and grounds be closed or should competitions continue? Is the only right decision to suspend all domestic competitions? Or were those decisions premature and dictated by the lack of information or panic?

"We thought that football and hockey [the national ice hockey league season finished as planned on April 4] could be another measure to free people from depression and lead to distraction and discussions which you have to admit would be very important for everyone during those difficult times.

"Time will tell whether we made the right decision."

Belarus has strongly been criticised for their actions during the coronavirus outbreak, but Kovalchuk said that there is nothing more important than the health of every individual at the moment.

Some Belarus fan groups have called for boycotts of the league matches and turnout at the matches has dropped significantly in comparison to previous seasons.

But Kovalchuk said that, even with only few fans in the stadiums, the extra coverage in other countries will help the players play to their maximum.

"It's not that easy for the players to play in front of empty stand, but they understand why it's necessary," he said. "They are aware that number of fans following every single shot on television or the internet is very high. This motivates the players even more and they will try and 'jump over the heads'."

German sports economist Dominik Schreyer, meanwhile, has told ESPN that the decreasing attendance numbers showed that "fans on the ground adapt their behaviour even without restrictions."

Schreyer, an assistant professor of sports economics at the Dusseldorf-based WHU, said: "We already know from the terrorism research that temporarily scared spectators will return to the stadiums once the perceived danger wanes. We'll see when and if it happens in Belarus."