Football may not be the most important thing in these turbulent times, but the suspension of all major competitions has undoubtedly left a void in the lives of fans across the globe. With few other sporting events taking place, football supporters have even been denied the ‘sporting methadone’ that comes with watching cricket or a rugby match. But some fans are taking drastic measures to quench their thirst for the beautiful game, by watching the Premier League…in Belarus – one of only four divisions around the world still playing matches.
The footballing outposts of Burundi, Nicaragua and Tajikistan offer alternative live action for those able to find online coverage of their respective competitions. When it comes to standard of football and time difference from the UK, Belarus stands out as the most appealing option for soccer-starved supporters looking for their fix.
If you want to get involved in the burgeoning Belarusian football scene but don’t know where to start, Football Whispers have got you covered. Here's everything you need to know about one of eastern Europe’s least-watched leagues, until now…
Who are the teams to look out for?
Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, football in Belarus has largely been dominated to two teams – the traditional powerhouse of Dinamo Minsk and the relative newcomers BATE Borisov. Minsk have won seven Premier League titles, but six of those came in the first seven years of the competition’s existence.
In contrast, BATE were only formed in 1996 but have lifted the trophy a staggering 15 times since then, including 13 back-to-back titles from 2006 to 2018. They’ve also reached the Champions League group stages five times in the past 11 years, with the financial windfalls from Europe’s premier competition helping maintain their domestic dominance.
BATE’s incredible run of titles was eventually broken by Dinamo Brest, who secured their first league championship last season – a fitting reward for the club with the best attendances over the past three campaigns. Their average home crowd of 8,839 was more than 6,000 higher than the divisional average in 2019.
It’s difficult to read too much into a 2020 season that’s only three games old, but the current leaders are FC Energetik-BGU Minsk with the maximum nine points available. ‘The Students' are a side representing the Belarusian State University and have never won a major honour, so it would be somewhat surprising if they maintained their position at the top of the table.
Who are the league’s star players?
Veteran midfielder Ihar Stasevich has been the Belarusian Premier League’s Player of the Year for five of the last six seasons. Now 34, the BATE Borisov star is probably best known to British football fans for scoring for Belarus against Northern Ireland in Euro 2020 qualifying. But he’s a dominant player domestically too, registering 22 league goals and assists in 2019.
A more well-known figure in European football is forward Artem Milevskiy, who is now lining up for Dinamo Brest after more than a decade with Dynamo Kiev. Now 35, the 50-cap Ukrainian striker is still one of the league’s most dangerous players and is top for Expected Goals and Assists (xG + xA) with 3.32 this season.
Top scorer in 2019 and Belarusian hot prospect Ilya Shkurin departed for Russian giants CSKA Moscow in the off-season, but 14-goal midfielder Stanislav Dragun remains with BATE Borisov. In an attempt to regain the league title, BATE have also acquired 31-year-old winger Pavel Nekhaychik (12 goals last season) from reigning champions Dinamo Brest, as well as strengthening their backline with two Belgian Jupiler Pro League defenders – Jakov Filipović and Bojan Nastić from Lokeren and Genk respectively.
There is some good news for Brest though, they have managed to retain their star striker Denis Laptev. The forward has a record of 92 goals in 235 professional appearances but strangely has never scored for Belarus despite earning 24 caps.
Which team should I support?
It always helps to get behind one of the competing sides when developing an interest in an unfamiliar competition. But what are the distinguishing features of Belarusian football’s top-tier teams?
If you’re looking for an attacking, possession-based side then Shakhtyor Soligorsk could be a good choice. The Miners are the nearly men of Belarus, having finished second or third for ten years in a row. They did win the league once in 2005, but it’s their approach to the game that’s particularly appealing. Last season they were inside the division’s top three teams for goals (56), Expected Goals (53.63), touches in the box per 90 (19.12), possession (57 per cent) and even shots per 90 (14.41). Could they be a dark horse for the title in 2020?
FC Isloch Minsk Raion are another attacking team and were champions in 2015. FC Energetik-BGU Minsk were the most youthful side in the division last season with an average age of 23. If a more defensive outfit piques your interest, FC Gorodeya conceded just 29 goals last season – the fifth-best record in the league.
Why should I watch it?
There’s very little other sport taking place around the world and everyone is in lockdown, so it’s hard to think of a better way of sating your appetite for football over the coming weeks.
With a time difference of only two hours from the UK and certain bookmakers making the games available to stream on their websites, now is as good a time as any to give Belarusian football a go. Sit back, grab a beer and enjoy… Za Zdarovje!