Maradona, military tanks & mannequins - The weird & wonderful world of Belarusian champions Dinamo Brest
Dwindling turnouts at Stadyen Brestski during the global pandemic forced Dinamo Brest to think fast to get bums on seats.
The country’s Vysshaya Liga is one of only five top tier football leagues worldwide and the only in Europe to not postpone matches despite the coronavirus crisis; the others being Nicaragua, Taiwan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.Also on rt.com 'Ingenious insanity': Fans pay to have heads stuck on eerie mannequins as football in Belarus defies coronavirus lockdown (VIDEO)
Despite the determination of the country’s football federation to continue business as usual, Belarusian football saw a new record low attendance of 2,383 for the most recent round of games.
Brest are the current champions of Belarus, having won their first title since their creation in 1960 last year, are determined to fight back.
For 67 Belarusian rubles a pop ($27/£21), Brest offered fans a ‘virtual attendance’ option at games, which comprised a match programme, discount in the club store, and their faces stuck on life-size dolls in football shirts placed in the stands.
As crazy as it sounded, it soon not only caught on, but caught the eye of other clubs further afield.
In Germany, Borussia Moenchengladbach followed suit and filled their empty Borussia-Park with cut-out portraits of supporters. Taiwanese baseball team Rakuten Monkeys used robots in the stands as their season continued behind closed doors.
Nestled into the south western portion of Belarus on the border with Poland, Brest is way out from the more central usual Belarusian football hotbeds Minsk and Barysaw. Therefore, attracting attention is seen as a must.
And they do it well. Far from shy of a PR stunt, Brest is also known for parading Argentine football icon Diego Maradona in an open-top military tank around the club’s ground when the 1986 World Cup-winner arrived to begin a brief stint as chairman in 2018.
RT Sport spoke to the club about playing during a pandemic, Maradona, mannequins, and the virtual fan trend.
Tell us a little bit about your ‘virtual fans’. Who came up with the idea to place mannequins in the stands instead of fans?
Dinamo Minsk General Director Vladimir Machulskiy: The virtual fans have attended Dinamo Brest home games twice already - on April 8 and 12. We're talking about dozens of fans from all over the world: Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, the US, Great Britain, Ireland , China, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Holland, Lithuania, the UAE and Qatar who participated.
As for the actual idea for virtual fans we have talented people in our team that came up with the idea, so that football fans had an opportunity to be entertained, and enjoy the game during quarantine.
A lot of clubs have now taken similar measures to cope with the fall in the number of fans at games. Are you aware you’ve started a new trend?
Yes, we’re aware of it. We monitor sporting events in the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. We of course see that our idea about the virtual fans struck a chord with many. We think that it is a great way to support the players and again allow those fans sitting in isolation to feel like a part of the match.
Do you think that it can become a financially sustainable way to support the team without actually turning up to the stadium?
Virtual fans are always a viable and sustainable option. We are developing and perfecting the idea.
You now have a lot of fans appearing from English-speaking countries for example Australia and Great Britain. How do you like the new support? Did you ever think that your support would spread so far that people from thousands of miles away would follow you?
We’re really pleased to see new foreign fans. We are pleased to welcome them as virtual fans, and also welcome their support. Of course, their attention to Belarusian football in this most difficult time makes perfect sense.
We would like their interest in Dinamo to continue to grow abroad in the future. We will do everything possible so that the interest from new fans doesn’t fade away. And it will be even better to see them in Brest at the stadium!
It goes without saying that we always knew that Dinamo had fans from abroad. We’re actively working in this direction. If you have a look at to our football site, the you will see, that we have English, Chinese, Arabic and Polish language versions. We have a foreign fanbase and we continue to develop this side.
What do fans need to know about FK Dinamo Brest?
We are the current Belarusian champions. We broke the 13-year rule of BATE Borisov in the Belarusian league, and our special ambassador is Diego Maradona.
What is your relationship with Maradona? How did it all come about that he became chairman of Dinamo in 2018, and you paraded him around the stadium in a tank.
It wasn’t a tank, it was a ‘Hunta Overcomer’ all terrain vehicle. Basically talks took place with the Emirati club Fujairah FC at which Diego worked back then, about a friendly match taking place in Brest.
Later Diego, left his post as head coach of Al Fujairah and received an offer from our board to become Dinamo Brest chairman. After talks in the Emirates, we came to an agreement and flew to Brest for a press conference in his new role.
Your new fans have an affinity for Artem Milevskiy, who has become something of a cult hero for them. Does he know about this? If, so what is his reaction?
Artem is quite a big name not just for our club but for the whole of Belarusian and Ukrainian football (born in Belarus, Milevskiy won 50 caps for Ukraine while playing for Dynamo Kiev, and is enjoying his second stint at Brest - ed.), therefore he’s used to the attention.
Alexander Hleb recently - tongue-in-cheek - expressed hope that the continuation of football in Belarus could attract the likes of Ronaldo and Messi.
European leagues have already outlined their dates for continuing their respective leagues, so it will hardly be a possibility. But if someone from the world’s top stars suddenly wants to come and wear our colors, then we would accept them with pleasure.Also on rt.com 'It's scary!' Dinamo Brest player Artem Milevskiy says match should be postponed amid Covid-19 risk in Belarus
Is it likely that the Vysshaya Liga will continue without a break because of the pandemic? Do you think it’s right?
Our federation announced that it is working together with the health ministry and if the situation gets worse they will take corresponding measures.
Do you or the players feel any kind of fear that you’re playing football in the midst of a global pandemic? What is the club’s opinion toward the virus?
We are carrying out the decision of the Belarusian football federation. As regards our attitude, then any player prefers to play and not just train.Also on rt.com ‘I’m not afraid of coronavirus, but I'm anxious for my family’: Belarus footballer speaks to RT on playing during Covid-19 crisis