Meet the club adopted by Ipswich fans and playing on in Belarus - where the president wants to beat coronavirus using saunas and vodka
PUBLISHED: 14:54 07 April 2020 | UPDATED: 14:54 07 April 2020
An unlikely bond has developed between Ipswich Town and a club currently playing in the top tier in Belarus.
It’s Sunday afternoon on what was supposed to be another busy weekend of football action.
Manchester City were due to face Premier League champions elect Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich were slated to go head-to-head at the top of the Bundesliga and Portsmouth and Salford were set to contest the final of the EFL Trophy in a Wembley showpiece.
However, all of Europe’s major leagues are suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, as are the leading competitions in South America, the United States, most of Asia, Oceania and in Africa.
But, off the beaten track, you will find there is still football to follow during the coronavirus crisis.
League football is still being played in Burundi, Nicaragua and Tajikistan, while some friendly matches took place in Sweden, Finland and the Ukraine, but it’s Belarus which is getting the most attention.
This is a country where, controversially, the threat of the virus is being played down and life has continued to go on resembling something close to normal despite a rising number of cases.
That includes the Belarusian Premier League, which is now the highest-profile active competition on the planet.
League officials have told of vastly increased television audiences and an injection of cash, too, thanks to their broadcast rights being hastily sold to more than 10 European countries in desperate search of live football to watch.
A full round of fixtures was played this weekend, with all 16 teams in action and one of them did so with the backing of an ever-growing group of Ipswich Town fans.
FC Vitebsk are a modest club based in the country’s fourth-largest city, playing in an 8,000-seater stadium. They have won their domestic cup once, lost in last season’s final and competed in the Europa League at the start of this season.
They’re not quite in Belarusian football’s backwaters – they’re the seventh most successful side in the Premier League’s 25-year history despite never winning the title – but they’re certainly overshadowed by the likes of BATE Borisov and Dynamo Minsk who dominate domestically.
In all likelihood, you’ve never heard of FC Vitebsk, manager Sergey Yasinsky or any of their players. Their squad is made up largely of players from Belarus, with a couple of Russians and two players from Ukraine, while there is added flair in the form of Brazilian trio Wanderson, Julio Cesar and Diego Carioca.
Ipswich fans, like millions of others around the world, have been starved of action since the start of March due to the ongoing pandemic and, after the Berlarusian club set out in search of new fans, many of their new social media recruits are from Ipswich.
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What started as a tweet from @itfcnath, the same fan who originally sparked the Blues’ heart-warming relationship with young Kenyan footballer ‘Ahmed’ last summer, snowballed into several waves of Ipswich fans following Vitebsk. Ipswich Town’s official twitter account even got involved as the Belarusians reached out to their ‘Tractor Boy’ friends, which now number around one hundred.
Ipswich fans have been learning about their new club and its players and have even begun adapting Town chants to cheer on their new side. The messages of support worked, too, with Vitebsk recording a 1-0 victory over FK Smolevichy on Sunday afternoon, with Town fans following every kick online.
For those in England the link to live football has provided a bright moment at a time when so much has changed, while those at Vitebsk see their new friendship with the Blues as a real positive influence at an extremely difficult time, with many in Belarus said to be scared by a perceived denial of the huge impact coronavirus will have on their nation.
The city of Vitebsk itself has seen red graffiti used, thought to be by informed healthcare workers, to make the number of the city’s dead public knowledge, given those figures are not being released by government.
President Alexander Lukashenko made headlines last weekend while much of Europe was locked down, by taking part in a charity ice hockey match and insisting his country would beat coronavirus by spending time in ice rinks and saunas while also encouraging people to drink vodka to help repel it.
Lukashenko, who has been described as being Europe’s ‘last dictator’ has taken an approach so at odds to the response seen throughout the world that he has been described as ‘reckless, scary and bordering on comical’ by commentators both inside and outside of the country.
The fact the countrys’ football league is ongoing has been condemned by FIFPro, the world players’ union, but this is just one example of how life in Belarus is different to the rest of Europe and much of the world.
One footballer, FC Minsk forward Ognjen Rolovic, told the Daily Mail this week: “It is insane that we are the only ones who are playing.
“They are acting here like it is not a big deal, that we should not be afraid. There is a strange mentality that if you are scared of the situation then you are not a man.”
There’s another view, though.
“I want to play because now we are one of the few competitions, which people can watch and take pleasure in this difficult situation in the world,” Slutsk striker Artem Serdyuk said.
“I feel safe because of all the measures taken by our club. We have antiseptic and masks, we try to be at home all day, except training and matches. I think our safety is in our hands.”
How long the league continues to play on for remains to be seen.
There appears to have been an attitude shift in recent days, with some clubs now encouraging fans to stay away from games and the country’s FA indicating a willingness to change their stance should the situation in their country worsen.
If that’s the case then Ipswich Town’s links to Belarusian football may be brief, but the bond of friendship must surely be positive at a time when the world is facing up to the biggest struggle of a generation.