Pro-football has continued in the dictatorship nations of Nicaragua and Belarus, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. While players speak out about their safety.
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The spread of COVID-19 across the world has rapidly accelerated over the past month, and countries around the world have beefed up their measures to ensure the health and safety of their respective populations. Another rapidly accelerating fallout of the virus has been the cancellation of major events in sports, including the UEFA Champions League, Euro Cup, the 2020 Olympics along with the majority of major professional sports leagues around the globe. There have been two small exceptions to this in the soccer world, as the LigaPrimera in Nicaragua, and the Vysshaya Liga in Belarus are both still operating despite the World Health Organization’s recommendation that all mass gatherings, including major sporting events, be canceled.
In Belarus, the sentiment from players is similar, although it is mostly being done in private, through anonymous polls and message groups. One club, Neman Grodno has even gone as far as urging fans to stay away, telling their supporters via social media “Let’s stay home, reduce the risks associated with the spread of coronavirus, protect ourselves and our loved ones,”
Aleksandr Hleb, a retired Belarussia soccer player, who played for the likes of Barcelona and Arsenal, took to social media to call the lack of response “unbelievable” on Instagram. However, he soon backtracked on his comments and stated “Since the Presidential Administration does not see the real need to quarantine the country, the situation is under control,” Hleb wrote. “If there is a real threat to the health of the players, the health of the audience, I’m sure the matches will stop.”
Meanwhile, other Belarus national soccer players are not so willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt. Nikolay Zolotov, a Belarusian who plays for Russian club Ural Yekaterinburg told Tribuna.com the situation was comparable to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Zolotov was quoted as saying. “No one really knows how many people are sick, where they are sick, how they are treated. [I thought] has nothing really changed in 34 years?”
Beyond just the players, a growing number of Belarus football fans are planning to boycott league matches, as anxiety and fear of infection has grown, even among club supporter groups. Last week’s match between Neman Grodno and Belshina Bobruisk, had only 253 fans in attendance, about six times fewer than the average crowd size for Neman during the 2019 season. Overall, boycotts from fans have been announced in 10 of the 16 clubs in the Belarus top division, including Champions League regulars BATE Borisov.
At first glance, when looking at the overall numbers, it seems that both countries have been spared the massive devastation of the CoronaVirus. Nicaragua is currently reporting just 9 confirmed cases, with 1 death. Meanwhile, Belarus has reported 3728 cases with 36 deaths. Both countries have a confirmed infection rate of less than 1%, which pales in comparison to places like Spain (3.7%), Italy (2.6%) or the United States (1.8%).
It may seem to the average observer, that both countries are reacting to the virus in correlation to the outbreak in their country. However, with a deeper look into the situation in both Nicaragua and Belarus, it is easy to discover, that the notion couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality of the matter, in both countries, is that a powerful dictator has advised these leagues to continue, as shutting them down would be a sign of weakness and loss of control over their oppressed populations.
In Belarus, the country’s president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, previously called ‘the last European dictator’ has resisted recommendations for a nationwide lockdown and has called the fears of the epidemic a “psychosis.” Lukashenko told state media last week “It is yet another psychosis, which will benefit some people and harm others, I am absolutely convinced that panic can hurt us more than the virus itself. That’s what concerns me the most.”
The Belarus dictator that has ruled the country with an iron fist since the early 90s, has pointed to a conspiracy of hysteria, stating that the coronavirus was “part of a plan to turn everything upside down.” The Belarus president has also recommended the use of vodka, saunas and working on a farm as a potential cure for the infectious disease. Lukashenko has also stated that Belarusians may have immunity from ‘Western psychosis.’ A sentiment that was echoed by Vladimir Bazanov, the head of the Belarus Football Federation. When asked by Tribuna why Belarus has chosen to press ahead with its soccer season, Bazanov explained: “What is growing right now is some strange stuffing that affects people psychologically,” he said. “It is a bloated psychological situation.”
Maksim Berazinski, the chief executive of Tribuna.com in Belarus and Ukraine told the New York Times “The attitude toward coronavirus as a whole is still rather frivolous,” Berazinski added “This is partly due to the fact that the official authorities have not yet closed borders, schools, universities, and are trying in every way possible to downplay the significance of the problem. Many people continue to go to soccer and are very actively speaking out against the idea of closing the tournament. For our part, as the media, we insist that the necessary measure now is to suspend the championships. The risk to which we expose people is not justified at the moment.”
Keeping sports stadiums open has been a major part of the Belarusian president’s unwavering approach to downplaying the severity of the coronavirus. At a meeting on April 7th, Lukashenko told state media that he was more worried about the economy, saying that he could introduce mass quarantine measures ‘within 24hrs, but what would we eat?’
In the public eye, the league and its players have been supportive of the President’s decision. Sergey Kislyak, a midfielder for Brest told Reatuers “My mother works at a school, classes continue as before. Everything is fine.” His teammate Artem Milevsky told a Belarus radio station “We are paid to play [and] the authorities are in control.”
However, when you pierce the veil of the political climate in Belarus, you can quickly discover the root of the state-controlled league’s blind support of the authoritarian regime.
After the presidential election in 2010, up to 40,000 Belarus citizens protested against Lukashenko, with up to 700 opposition activists and 7 presidential candidates being arrested in post-election crackdowns. In the midst of the protests, several websites of opposition leaders were blocked or hacked. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and many email services were blocked. The headquarters of an opposition group Chapter97 was stormed by Lukashenko’s security forces and the entire staff was arrested. The EU and western nations denounced the election as fraudulent and a travel ban was imposed on Lukashenko and 156 of his associates. Over the last ten years, protests have broken out in Belarus against Lukashenko for various reasons, including the 2011 Arab spring and the 2012 anniversary of Belarus’s short-lived independence from Russia in 1918.
The most notable protests since the 2010 election occurred in March of 2017 when 40,000 Belarussians took to the streets in protest of a tax levied against the unemployed. The main goal of the protest, stated by opposition leaders, was the cancellation of the tax levy and Alexander Lukashenko’s resignation. After two months of protest and 700 citizens arrested, Lukashenko suspended the decree, yet little change in the country has occurred since then.
In the end, the lack of response from the Belarus authorities is reflective of the state of affairs in the former Soviet state. As other countries around Belarus respond to the global threat of the virus, Lukashenko sees it only as a point of weakness and is claiming to be defending the country from ‘European powers.’ His political stronghold over the nation depends on his authoritarian control. A potential lockdown could spark civil unrest and further protest from a nation that has been under totalitarian power for 26 years. A power that the president is unwilling to relinquish. Thus, the games go on.
Back in Nicaragua, the same state control of the league has teams speaking out about the government’s wrongdoing in influencing the league’s decision to continue playing. Players for Diriangén, the oldest club in Nicaragua, are unhappy games are still being played in a nation where sports clearly represents stability for another strongarmed President.
“Our players do not want to continue playing.” Diriangén general manager, Sergio Salazar told the Guardian. He added, “They are very afraid and we understand them. We want to suspend the tournament but all the clubs have voted and the majority want to continue.” Diriangén is the only club to openly oppose the league’s continuation. Meanwhile, nine other Liga Primera teams share the same touted line, they will play until the ministry of health says it is unsafe to do so.
In a recent report by the Guardian, two other Liga Primera teams were asked about the current situation, and neither team expressed any doubts concerning their health or safety. “There is no concern on my part,” said Dshon Forbes, a forward with Walter Ferretti. “My job is to play and while the institution in charge of health does not suspend these activities everything continues as normal.” Managua winger Pablo Gállego cited identical feelings with the circumstances, claiming to be “super-happy” with his club’s decision. “If I felt my physical integrity was at risk I’m sure I could talk to them but we feel safe and feel appropriate measures are being taken,”
Again, just as the underlying situation in Belarus revealed, there is a deeper root behind the perceived support of the government’s decision to allow the football league to continue. For instance, Walter Ferretti is owned by the violently repressive Nicaraguan police force. Managua’s players are paid by the mayoral office in the country’s capital city. Meanwhile, Diriangén FC are the only top-flight club with no funding from the state. This isn’t to say that the state-owned team’s actions and their player’s opinions are not genuine. Although, you would be being dishonest to claim that there is no clear incentive for the players to opt-out against public dissension. For Diriangén, it is a deeply oppressive environment, in which, most of the teams in the league are almost entirely dependent on the government.
Peeking behind the curtain and uncovering the recent political history of Nicaragua unveils a few discoveries that lend an explanation to the current situation. Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega has been accused by many as being a quasi-dictator, operating behind a draconian regime.
In 2018, the Ortega regime came under pressure when a protest movement took to the streets against the social security reforms; protestors were met with fierce opposition from authorities, but a country-wide general strike followed and the Nicaragua economy came crashing down. The rise of civil unrest in the country would lead to the cancellation of some football matches, as well as matches in the much more popular baseball league.
For President Ortega, football and baseball going on signifies a stronghold by a government that’s in total control. It is also a projected sense of stability, to the eyes of those observing from the outside. To Ortega, having to put a stop to soccer and baseball would suggest that things are once again spiraling out of their control.
A journalist named Camilo Velásquez, who has been covering the story since it started, told the Guardian in a recent article: “Not stopping the league is a result of the government’s urgency to prove a normality that doesn’t exist,” Velásquez adds, “Since 2018 they’ve been desperate to show things are back to normal and part of that includes functioning sports. Coronavirus became a big threat because they are scared of a general strike and shutting everything down would pretty much allow that.” Velásquez says a number of players have messaged him saying that they feel helpless and as if they are being forced to play. As previously mentioned, the Ortega regime has been known for stiff punishment against dissent, reportedly still holding up to 70+ people as political prisoners. Velásquez told the Guardian: “When their income is football and the state is paying their salary, you can understand why they’ll remain quiet.”
At the end of the day, life goes on for Nicaraguans, who slowly await the potential fall out of Ortega’s false reality. While there is a small chance that Nicaragua escapes the wrath of the virus, which has been felt all around the globe – that chance is undoubtedly very slim. Diriangén’s general manager, Sergio Salazar told the Guardian: “The first thing we have to take care of is the health of our people,” – “We continue to think we should not play.”
After all that’s been mentioned, the most memorable part of this story – will be the image of the players from Diriangén FC, dawning surgical masks, as they take the field of play. It is an image that defines the utter absurdity that represents these men still playing soccer. After all, it’s just a game.
In conclusion, pay much attention to the elephant behind the curtain.
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I think it is important that we now, more than ever, keep these various professional sports leagues around the world, held to account.
We as sports fans are always so quick to complain about bad calls, improper disciplinary action, or lack of upholding the rules. There is no difference between what is happening in those instances, than with what is happening with these soccer leagues, continuing to play. It is damaging the integrity of the sport.
The final spade in this house of cards, is the other elephant in the room, sports bettors. Sports bettors are always the first ones to cry foul over cheating scandals, match-fixing, or incompetent officiating. However, for some reason – right now, we fail to see that – what is happening here, is significantly damaging to the integrity of sports betting. Just as Jose Maria Bermudez, the secretary-general of the Nicaraguan Football Federation told Reuters, “People are paying more attention, particularly on betting sites.”
There is no doubt, these matches have likely, at least 10-20 times the handle that they would have, in comparison to previous years. In most cases, many of these sportsbooks have never booked games for either Vysshaya Liga or Liga Primera period, until now. Due to that, the checks and balances, and the system that is set up to detect and prevent things like, point-shaving and match-fixing – all falls apart. What is being created here in a non-organic environment, is a bunch of underpaid players, in some of the most corrupt countries on earth – being (in some cases) forced to play-on for a substandard wage.
If the 1919 Black Sox have taught us anything, it is that in desperate times, it would only be human nature to explore the possibility of gaming the game for your own financial gain. Just as Liga Primera players told Reuters, players need to keep playing to support their families.
One player from Club Sabans said in a half-joking manner, that he looked to use this increased popularity in LigaPrimera, as an opportunity to win a transfer to a bigger league. If that’s what these players are hoping for, they will wind up in desperate times sooner than later. The alternative is more likely.
In the end, we have two nations, who’s dictatorship and regime is holding football over the of their population, as a symbol of strength. As Howard Cossel once said; “The importance that our society attaches to sport is incredible. After all, is football a game or a religion?”
To Oretga and Lukashenko, it may as well be a religion. However, the religion of football is undoubtedly being used here, for the purpose of distraction and oppression. Instead of these games being played in the spirit of sport, they are slowly becoming a modern day bestiarii. Soon, it will be combat – not just for the players, but for the spectators too.
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