On Saturday, Barrow AFC fans Adam Brown, Christopher Altree, James Reid and Ste Story should have been making the 634 mile round trip to Yeovil to celebrate promotion back to the Football League for the first time in 48 years, but now, due to the coronavirus outbreak they are all sat at home cheering on numerous different teams from the Belarusian Premier League having found love in a new land far away.
This particular group of Bluebirds from the North West are missing watching their side play week in week out, distraught thinking about when they will return to Holker Street. They have been occupying themselves by creating UK versioned fan accounts of teams from the Vysheyshaya League. They have accounts for FC Gorodeya, FC Smolevichi, FC Torpedo-Belaz Zhodino and FC Belshina Bobruisk.
Speaking about how the idea came about, Ste said: “It was my idea to start supporting the Belarus teams. I’d seen the first-round results and was aware of the fact they were still playing. We are all massive fans and are missing live football and banter that goes with it, so I wrote in the Barrow fans group chat asking who fancied picking teams for a bit of friendly rivalry to watch the Belarus league. I used a random number generator to assign my mates different teams. At that point not really many UK people had caught on to it, so there were very little English-speaking social media accounts. Chris was the first one to set up the Gorodeya account, and we followed suit. It’s been pretty good to be honest, most of us at least watch our own team every week, and there’s quite a bit of friendly rivalry when our adopted teams are playing each other. It’s given us live football to watch and a game to look forward to at the end of the week which has been brilliant.”
Returning back to their beloved Bluebirds, Ian Evatt’s men are currently four points clear at the top of the Vanarama National League table, within touching distance with promotion. Their future will rely on a vote, with all clubs participating in the league being asked for vote on the outcome of the season by May 7th.
This isn’t the first time that Barrow’s future has relied on a vote, however in 1972 that famous Ronnie Radford goal for Hereford United against Newcastle United in the FA Cup, which was considered as one of the most famous strikes of the ball in English football history, resulted in the Bluebirds losing their place in the Football League, despite finishing third bottom in what was then known as the Fourth Division.
I asked Adam about how big this decision could really be for the future of his club. He Said: “It would be great if teams backed us, if a vote was made to promote us, especially when there’s the Bury shaped void in the EFL. There is still a massive grey area at the moment with what is going on and it’s very worrying for all clubs including Barrow as we have the uncertainty of what league we will be in and that comes with so many problems especially the financial side. The EFL is a massive money pit for a small team like Barrow with TV rights and the fact we can pull in bigger sponsorship deals through that. Barrow like most lower league clubs don’t have a blank cheque book or the money the ‘big teams’ have and if we don’t go up we clearly have to look at money management, if we are short of cash we would have to look at selling some of our biggest assets such as John Rooney and manager Ian Evatt who have been pivotal to our success this year. This could result in being nowhere near the title or even playoffs next year which would a massive blow, especially with the success of this season. I personally have seen this season as our one opportunity to go up with everything seeming to click into place. It would be poetic justice in a way if we were to return the Football League via a vote with the fact we were voted out of the league 48 years ago.”
While the coronavirus pandemic has affected football in most other country around the world, the Belarusian Premier League is the only top-flight league that is continuing to play at the moment in Europe and football fanatics from all around the world have been tuning into it every weekend to get their weekly dose of football. The president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko believes that drinking vodka and steaming yourself in a sauna will keep the coronavirus at bay.
The lads have obviously been enjoying themselves while watching the football, but what do they think of the standard compared to the Vanarama National League?
Christopher said: “I’ve only watched Gorodeya games in full, but I have watched some goals from other matches as well though. The standard is different so it’s hard to directly compare. I do believe my side Barrow would do well in that league though. The size of some of the grounds in Belarusian Premier League wouldn’t look out place in National league system though and apart from a couple of sides, most would be around Conference National level or possibly lower. The refereeing is poor and I have seen some awful decisions and penalties given. There have only been five games so far so I wouldn’t say there’s been a standout team yet, however, Belshina are probably the poorest I’ve seen.”
The league started only 27 years ago, when Belarus gained independence from the Soviet Union. It is made up of 16 teams and like the majority of other leagues all teams play home and away. There may be some recognisable names such as FC Bate Borisov, the only team from Belarus to ever qualify for the group stages of the UEFA Champions League and Dinamo Minsk who have qualified for the group stages of the Europa League in 2014-15 and 2015-16. The attendances are low, with only a couple hundred attending each match.
In the early days of Vysheyshaya, Minsk were the most dominant team, winning six of seven titles, but have only won one since 1997. Then came along BATE, who won an unbelievable 13 titles in a row between 2006-2018, allowing them the opportunity to play in the world’s biggest competition against some of the world’s best teams.
However, their long reign as champions ended last season as Dynamo Brest collected their first ever title, winning the league by five points, only losing one game all season.
So far this campaign the “bigger” teams have had a poor start to the season with FC Slutsk, FC Vitebsk, and Torpedo Belaz all joint top on 10 points.
Probing as to why the Vysheyshaya is such a hit worldwide, James highlighted how much of an impact football has on people’s lives, as he said: “Football is important to a variety of people and continues to be the beautiful game for the folk who breathe and live the sport. On a weekend / match day it is a release from the normality of work and everyday pressure be that at home or on a professional level. A lot of football fans “live for the weekend” due to this release. It’s 90 minutes of taking your mind off from what is usually occupying the mind. It’s a huge social aspect where one common interest forges relationships, bonds, gatherings, and conversation. Obviously, the interest in the Belarusian Vysheyshaya Liga has increased so many football fanatics can continue to get their “footy fix” whilst the rest of the European leagues are currently suspended due to the global pandemic. Barrow is an institution where you will have an emotional rollercoaster and never part as the loyalty will always be there regardless of the struggle, metaphorically speaking you are married to the football club you support week in and week out. During these testing times for all, Belarusian football has captured the imagination of several football fans of different clubs throughout the world and despite the little quality of the football on offer, for the very simple reason it is still football. Football is a drug, but a good one.”
During this time of crisis, the popularity of the Vysheyshaya league hasn’t gone unnoticed. Its shows the importance of football in people’s lives and shows further proof that indeed this is a beautiful game that we all have an unbreakable marriage with!