How a Band of Australians Made Belarus Soccer an Internet Smash

It has been a strange chain of events, the small group of soccer fans admits. One minute, the fans were searching for live sports to watch on television during the pandemic. The next, they found themselves building a passionate, worldwide following for a small-town Eastern European soccer team and, briefly, even trying to save it from financial ruin.

It all started as a one-day lark in March, when Shane Robinson, 28, of Adelaide, Australia, began a conversation with friends about how they could fill the void when their local soccer team, Adelaide United, and the Australian soccer league — like most of the world’s other leagues — shut down as the coronavirus spread.

With options like England’s Premier League and Italy’s Serie A similarly unavailable as a substitute, one of Robinson’s friends discovered that there were still some professional games being played. They just happened to be in Belarus.

With a watch party out of the question because of social distancing restrictions, Robinson and about 25 friends searched for a Belarusian Premier League game that they could all watch remotely. One member of the group discovered that through a betting website, they could livestream the season opener between S.F.C. Slutsk (pronounced Slootsk) and Slavia Mozyr.

So on a weekend in late March, they logged in. And they couldn’t believe what they found.

“It was ridiculous,” Robinson said of the March 22 game, a 3-1 Slutsk victory in which five penalties were awarded. “It was nothing like I’d ever seen before. Right away, we were thinking: Surely this can’t happen every week. But it’s not been far off.”

Furloughed from his job, Robinson spent the Monday after Slutsk’s victory creating a Facebook group that he envisioned as a means of encouraging fellow Australians to watch the team’s matches during the A-League’s hiatus. Hoping that the group, F.K. Slutsk Worldwide — a mistranslation of the club’s official name — would attract around 100 members, Robinson soon discovered that by sending the page to various A-League supporters groups, he had tapped into a sports-starved reserve of allies.

“By Friday,” he said, “we had more than 1,000 people.”

By the time Slutsk played its second game, against Dynamo Brest, hundreds of Australians were tuning in online to watch. English-speaking Slutsk fans in Belarus quickly discovered the group, too, and it was this perfect opportunity — internet connections, Zoom chats, livestreams and a desperate need for any sporting interaction — that has given a strapped Belarusian team with only a 2,000-seat stadium and serious financial problems a nascent worldwide following.

From its roots in Australia, and then New Zealand and Indonesia, the Facebook group soon attracted members from across Europe, North America, South America and Africa. An English fan modified his St. George’s flag with the phrase “Slutsk Til We Die,” and in Burkina Faso, 30-year-old Abraham Golghota rejoiced at finally finding an outlet to discuss the relative talents of three Burkinabe players on Slutsk’s roster.

“The Slutsk page just popped up on my page, and it was a name that stuck out,” said John Malone, 40, a Scot who has since watched four or five live games while he waits out the Scottish league’s suspension. “It’s a good laugh, talking to other football fans from around the world.”

Soon, Robinson, the page’s founder, had opened a dialogue with the club itself.

“After the second round it became clear that something needs to be done with this wave of popularity,” said Vitali Bunos, the Slutsk chairman. “Otherwise, we could simply lose these people.”

The club set up a small task force and appointed a soccer writer, Yahor Khavanski, to act as a go-between for the team and the new supporters group. And representatives also began opening up to Robinson and others about the club’s dire financial prospects.

“Someone basically said that they are short of money and that they are not even sure that the club will make it through the season,” Robinson said. “So we’ve started thinking of a couple of ways to help.”

Initially, the supporters group and the club discussed selling merchandise to the new fans, but Covid-19 risks made it implausible. When the club then set up a crowdfunding page, supporters found that technological glitches and issues with currency exchanges hampered donations.

Eventually, Robinson settled on a GoFundMe page, which he hoped might raise around $25,000 to purchase sign boards around the team’s stadium.

To date, the supporters group has raised only a small portion of what it had intended. More promisingly, Robinson said, he hoped the global attention the club was receiving might attract a sponsor willing to assist the team with its needs. (Recently, a betting company purchased a season’s worth of signage boards at the stadium after one of its communications executives came across the Facebook group.)

Ahead of a home game last month, Robinson and his fellow global Slutsk fans — the Facebook community they have created now has more than 6,500 followers — were informed that they would not need to purchase sponsorship boards to have a presence at the team’s stadium after all. “They basically said, ‘Make sure you try and watch the game tomorrow; we’ve got a surprise for you,’” Robinson said.

When they logged in — the league, taking advantage of its increased digital popularity, has since moved some of its games to YouTube — Robinson and the group saw an Australian flag hung up on a fence, as well as a banner reading, “S.F.C. Slutsk Worldwide.”

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