One Man’s Descent Into Betting On Belarusian Soccer During A Pandemic

With nothing left to bet on an April Sunday, it can be confusing and dull but profitable to watch and wager on soccer from Belarus.
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OK, 24 days without placing a sports bet and laying eyes on a live sporting event was long enough. A man predisposed toward that sort of thing can only last so long.

I awoke Sunday morning determined to be back in action. This %)*$# pandemic might stop in their tracks everyone not driving a delivery truck, but as Scarlett O’Hara said so well (just paraphrasing here), “As God is my witness, it’s not going to lick me, and I’ll never be without a sports wager again!”

Scarlett, like me, knew nothing about Belarusian soccer, but I’m sure if she were real in April 2020, then just like me she would have made a point about perseverance by betting on it. (Wait, no, Rhett Butler was the gambling man in that family — it would have been me and Rhett together rooting on Vitebsk, and frankly, Scarlett, we don’t give a damn if you don’t like it.)

Last bet ever couldn’t have been Morikawa

My last sports bet had been a small profit on Collin Morikawa tying for the best round in a PGA Players Championship six-shooter on that tournament’s opening day. One’s gambling life shouldn’t have to end by randomly relying on the solid iron play of a 23-year-old with a business degree from Berkeley.

If April 5, 2020, were like any normal Sunday, I would have spent the morning scanning MLB pitching matchups for a favorable moneyline option. I would have been searching the leaderboard of the PGA’s Valero Texas Open for someone lurking a few shots back and offering himself up as a solid, long-odds pick on the final day.

And like millions of other basketball fans, I would have been studying online sportsbooks for their promotions and odds boosts making it still more attractive to have action on Monday night’s NCAA basketball tournament championship.

All such opportunities were canceled as of March 12, when the U.S. sports calendar was ripped off the wall indefinitely due to the growing COVID-19 health threat.

Soccer and table tennis and, well, nothing

But life continues almost like normal in a few brave (stupid?) parts of the world, as FanDuel’s online sports site showed Sunday morning. Here’s the lineup of events taking place that day for which it was still offering odds (I awoke too late for Taiwanese basketball, dang it):

  • 3 Belarusian Premier League soccer games
  • 8 Moscow LIGA table tennis matches
  • 3 Setka Cup table tennis matches in Ukraine
  • 2 Nicaraguan soccer contests

Table tennis? I’m sorry, but that’s what you do with your high school buddy lucky enough to have a ping-pong table in his basement. That’s not meant for gambling, unless it’s on whether your game will be interrupted because his mom has to do laundry.

And Belarusian soccer had an advantage over the Nicaraguan version because a little symbol from FanDuel indicated it could be watched live on the website. Eureka! We’ve found our sport to get back in play.

But first, a few questions: Where is Belarus? What is Belarus? How do I decide what team to bet on? Will anyone ever score? And most importantly, will I doze off from boredom before they do?

Belarus, where soccer is worth dying for

Among the many European nations with soccer leagues that drive the masses wild, Belarus is getting its 15 minutes or 15 days of fame because it is the only one playing. Its 16-team league just completed three full weekends of a 30-game season scheduled to last into the fall.

The Eastern European nation of 9.5 million people, a satellite of the former Soviet Union until 1991, probably wasn’t on your Eurail Pass post-college vacation trip if you took one of those. It appears more likely to be the setting for one of those Hostel-style movies depicting horrors for young Americans abroad. (We pause now for our many Belarusian readers to take to social media with apoplectic chagrin — have at it.)

Based on everything we could read about it online in the course of a couple hours while keeping one eye on its soccer, Belarus is a former Soviet republic run today in a manner that would have made any autocratic Soviet leader proud.

Alexander Lukashenko has been the president since 1994, sometimes termed “the last dictator in Europe” after having had the nation’s constitution altered in 2004 to strip it of term limits.

The country has strict limits on freedom of the press and political dissent, and there is no independent judiciary.

And Lukashenko-the-strong-man is a strong proponent of Belarus carrying on as normal despite the coronavirus threat. It exists in his nation (351 known infections and four deaths as of Friday, according to Johns Hopkins University) but not as severely as in most of Europe.

Lukashenko was either famously or infamously quoted at a recent ice hockey game saying, “It’s better to die standing on your feet than to live on your knees … The panic can hurt us more than the virus itself.”

Not a soccer fan, but times are desperate

And so Belarusian soccer continues pretty much as it has since 1992, except getting a lot more global attention now and profiting from new deals with broadcasters in other soccer-loving countries starved to show anything.

It has been dubbed “the last league on Earth,” though an international soccer players union called the continuation “incomprehensible” and even fan clubs of some of its teams called for boycotts.

None of that mattered to me as I practiced safe social distancing from 4,600 miles away, focused on a 9 a.m. game between Vitebsk and Smolevichi-STI as the one to watch and bet.

But how to decide how to use $20?

Like any red-blooded American male over 50, I’ve never liked watching soccer. Run up, run back. Run up, walk back. Take a shot once every six minutes. Fall down with a wince every nine or so. Trot the other way some more.

Watched maybe three games in my life, all World Cup finals. Saw someone score perhaps seven times — whoo whoo. (Not like that 4-2 French win over Croatia in 2018 — that was insane!)

The best Belarusian soccer betting tip ever

Trying not to be too cavalier about it — we’re talking $20, remember, and that’s real U.S. dollars, not Belarusian rubles — I studied games played so far this year in the Belarusian league. In three minutes, I came up with a startling fact that only the highest-charging tout services would have been aware of: The visiting teams have been winning more.

That’s right, of games played to that point, home teams had won eight, away teams 11, and there had been two ties. If there was ever a home field advantage in the Belarusian Premier League, it’s as defunct as a live poker room in the coronavirus era.

So I was immediately drawn to visiting Smolevichi-STI, the underdog that had gone 0-1-1 in its first two games, while Vitebsk was 1-1.

My FanDuel odds options were

  • Home team: +165
  • Tie: +180
  • Away: +195

And I pressed the button to place my bet, only to realize my first (but not last) double-cross misunderstanding of the day.

I had assumed Vitebsk was the home team because it was listed underneath Smolevichi-STI in the FanDuel game listing. But when I pressed the “away” team betting button, Vitebsk showed up. For whatever reason, the home-away listings are upside down from what we’re accustomed to for any U.S. contest. I had to quickly shift allegiance to Vitebsk after spending a minute thinking I was a Smolevichi-STI fan.

Man, this Belarusian soccer is confusing!

Hey, which team is which here?

Confusion? You ain’t heard nothing yet.

The game starts promptly at 9 a.m. my time, 3 p.m. there, and on my FanDuel live feed I see players in red and players in green doing a lot of the usual loping, with no one in the stands watching or cheering. (There goes your home field advantage, Smolevichi-STI, sorry.)

And I have no idea whether to root for red or green.

A little box in the upper lefthand corner counts the time and gives the score:

CMA-0 BIU-0

OK, now that’s a problem. The broadcast feed from Belarus is using the Slavic Cyrillic alphabet. I don’t know how to translate that to Vitebsk and Smolevichi — it’s all Greek to me.

And there’s no announcer. I don’t just mean no English-speaking announcer — no announcer period. A microphone somewhere picks up occasional sniffling, chuckling, or murmuring in what I believe to be Russian, along with the whistle of the wind, but no one is describing/analyzing play for anyone anywhere. (Joe Buck, I promise never to take you for granted again, just like toilet paper and the ability to nurse a Coors Light on a bar stool while watching a game.)

So I’m left to my own devices to figure out who I’m rooting for. I make an astute deduction based on my high soccer acumen after watching those three World Cup finals: All of the action for the first 20 minutes is taking place due to the feet of the red team down near the beleaguered, balding, green team goalie, so the red team must be the favored home Smolevichi.

Go green!

Someone scored? How’d that happen?

A non-gambler might think only a sick person would be up early glued to a 6-by-3.5-inch screen on his laptop to follow progress of a bet on a sport he doesn’t like with players he’s never heard of in a country he’d know nothing about if not for the magic of Wikipedia.

OK, so what’s your point?

Granted, in a perfect world, I’d at least be watching this in a good old casino sportsbook on a giant monitor, high-fiving with new friends nearby when (if?) our beloved Vitebsk scores and yelling with derision at every Smolevichi player who flops in agony when one of our guys might have just fractionally, barely ticked his leg.

But this is a far from perfect world, and just as I’m pondering that, at the 25:02 mark, the red team scores. What?! On a free kick, red No. 12 kicks it over a wall of defenders and off the fingers of the leaping, still-balding goalkeeper, into the upper right corner of the goal.

I hate you, No. 12, whoever you are, in your bright red shorts with the black Nike swoosh. I know you must not really be any good, because you’re not pictured on the Belarusian Premier League website among the 45 players with their own Wiki pages. In fact, no one on either side here is among the elite 45.

But then, a miracle happens. On the live betting options — oh yeah, you’d better believe there are in-game betting options — I see that away team/Vitebsk is now a heavy favorite to win the game (-350, vs. +1200 for Smolevichi).

Vitebsk was/is red and is up 1-0. I was rooting for the wrong team the whole time. You da man, swooshy No. 12!

Like I said, Belarusian soccer is so confusing … and wonderful!

Some vital education about Vitebsk

There’s no scoring the rest of the half. I resist the urge at halftime to try to hedge my bet by going with the long odds on a Smolevichi comeback. (How are they going to manage that, with no player with his own Wiki page?)

So under a new Google tab, I begin reading Vitebsk stuff to gain a better understanding of my now-favorite Belarusian city, which I wasn’t even sure was a city. Might just be a club. Who knows in Belarus?

Turns out it’s a city of more than 360,000, fourth largest in the country. Much of its original architecture was destroyed in World War II fighting after the Nazis occupied it. They had massacred thousands of Jews in the Vitebsk Ghetto, disposing of bodies in the nearby river. Artist Marc Chagall, born and raised around Vitebsk in the late 1800s, was, fortunately, long gone by then.

OK, that’s enough about Vitebsk for one day.

The agony of extra time and losing a TV feed

Now back to the second half action. That action now all belonged to the green team, as Vitebsk went into the soccer version of the NFL’s prevent defense.

But my goalie — not balding — was up to the task. At 75:07, he leaped high to catch Smolevichi’s best scoring chance yet.

Ninety minutes of play ended with my $20 looking good for nearly doubling, but then came that weird, often-mysterious soccer extra time thing. A game official on the sidelines, at least, had the courtesy to hold up a neon sign with a “3” to indicate three more minutes would be played.

And just as it counted 2:20 of that with nothing happening, the little TV screen disappeared. What? Wait, is this the Belarusian version of the “Heidi” game? Will some Smolevichi player do some upside-down scissors-kick score in the final 40 seconds to cost me money and end up as the ESPN No. 1 play of the day, if there were plays of the day?

I just then notice my FanDuel account has had $39.10 added to it. Must have been some tape delay thing where the game was already over, so the live feed shut off. Hey, no problem — that’s 40 fewer seconds of soccer I had to watch in my life. Another gripping 1-0 Belarusian Premier League contest is complete!

And that’s the story of one man’s descent into betting on Eastern European soccer during a modern plague. Until this Saturday, at least, when Vitebsk takes on Slutsk.

Just one question: Who’s home and who’s away?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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