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Sports make political point for Belarus amid virus outbreak

With most sports around the world shutting down because of the coronavirus pandemic, longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is proudly keeping soccer and hockey arenas open.

The Eastern European nation of nearly 9.5 million even started a whole new soccer season this month as coronavirus cases rose.

The move has the full support of Lukashenko, who took to the ice in an amateur hockey tournament on Saturday with a few hundred spectators in the stands.

In this photo taken on Saturday, March 28, 2020, Shakhter's Sergei Balanovich, foreground, and his teammate Azdren Llullaku celebrate after scoring their side's goal during the Belarus Championship soccer match between Gorodeya and Shakhter in the town of Gorodeya, Belarus. Longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is proudly keeping soccer and hockey arenas open even though most sports around the world have shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP PhotoSergei Grits)

"It's better to die standing that to live on your knees," he said, defending Belarus' refusal to introduce isolation measures and border restrictions like its neighbors, such as Russia.

With foreign sports networks having little to show and few other options for sports betting, Lukashenko says the pandemic is a perfect opportunity to put the country's soccer league on display.

“I look at Russia and some people there are winning a lot on bets, because beforehand they didn't really know our teams,” Lukashenko said. “Someone's losing, someone's winning. It's all useful.”

In this photo taken on Thursday, March 19, 2020, football fans of FC Bate, one of them wearing a face mask, watch the Belarus Championship soccer match between Energetik-BGU and Bate in Minsk, Belarus. Longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is proudly keeping soccer and hockey arenas open even though most sports around the world have shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP PhotoSergei Grits)

Fans entering the stadiums in Belarus are given antiseptic hand gel and some have their temperatures monitored by medics. Few wear masks because they're not considered necessary for open-air events, Belarus soccer federation spokesman Alexander Aleinik said.

Belarus doesn't publish daily figures on the spread of the virus. On Friday, the last day for which statistics are available, the country recorded 94 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with no deaths.

The Belarusian league isn't usually an international attraction. Crowds this season barely average 1,200 and UEFA ranks it the continent's 25th strongest, just below Norway, Israel and Kazakhstan.

In this photo taken on Saturday, March 28, 2020, Gorodeya's Sergei Usenya, bottom left, and Shakhter's Igor Ivanovich, bottom right, fight for the ball during the Belarus Championship soccer match between Gorodeya and Shakhter in the town of Gorodeya, Belarus. Longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is proudly keeping soccer and hockey arenas open even though most sports around the world have shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP PhotoSergei Grits)

But Russian TV has given its games prominent slots on state sports channels and betting firms around Western Europe are streaming them for customers.

British fans on social media have picked teams to follow and thrown themselves into a new fandom, elevating obscure players to hero status and berating coaches for supposedly negative tactics.

There isn't much competition, with betting sites offering little more than Nicaraguan soccer, Tajikistan basketball and Russian table tennis as rivals.

In this photo taken on Friday, March 27, 2020, Belshina's Bobruisk goalkeeper Sergei Turanok gets ready to save the ball during the Belarus Championship soccer match between Torpedo-BelAZ Zhodino and Belshina Bobruisk in the town of Zhodino, Belarus. Longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is proudly keeping soccer and hockey arenas open even though most sports around the world have shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP PhotoSergei Grits)

Sergei Melnikov is one of those hoping to make an impression on the mostly empty global sports stage. He is the director of the Isloch club, which beat Smolevichi 1-0 on Sunday to keep pace with the leaders on points.

“The whole world is watching our soccer right now,” Melnikov said. “That means we have to show the best that we've got.”

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

In this photo taken on Saturday, March 28, 2020, a support team dance during a break in the Belarus Championship soccer match between Gorodeya and Shakhter in the town of Gorodeya, Belarus. Longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is proudly keeping soccer and hockey arenas open even though most sports around the world have shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP PhotoSergei Grits)

In this photo taken on Friday, March 27, 2020, a boy watches players as they enter the field prior to the Belarus Championship soccer match between Torpedo-BelAZ Zhodino and Belshina Bobruisk in the town of Zhodino, Belarus. Longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is proudly keeping soccer and hockey arenas open even though most sports around the world have shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP PhotoSergei Grits)

In this photo taken on Friday, March 27, 2020, fans of Torpedo Zhodino cheer during the Belarus Championship soccer match between Torpedo-BelAZ Zhodino and Belshina Bobruisk in the town of Zhodino, Belarus. Longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is proudly keeping soccer and hockey arenas open even though most sports around the world have shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP PhotoSergei Grits)

In this photo taken on Friday, March 27, 2020, players in action during the Belarus Championship soccer match between Torpedo-BelAZ Zhodino and Belshina Bobruisk in the town of Zhodino, Belarus. Longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is proudly keeping soccer and hockey arenas open even though most sports around the world have shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP PhotoSergei Grits)

In this photo taken on Friday, March 27, 2020, women dressed in Belarusian national clothes carry traditional bread to greet players prior to the Belarus Championship soccer match between Torpedo-BelAZ Zhodino and Belshina Bobruisk in the town of Zhodino, Belarus. Longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is proudly keeping soccer and hockey arenas open even though most sports around the world have shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP PhotoSergei Grits)