Aliaksandr Ivulin: ‘It’s not very safe to be a footballer in Belarus now’

There will be no supporters in the stands of Stadion Karadorde, in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, when Belarus begin their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign with a “home” match against Switzerland on Saturday. Nor, in many eyes, will there be much excuse for the fact their meeting is taking place at all. Belarus are the competition’s pariahs: virtually friendless bar this weekend’s hosts and condemned to play all of their games on foreign soil for the foreseeable future, they will play on despite the deep sense of unease around their participation.

Last March Uefa banned Belarus from playing on their own territory on account of the country’s supporting role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But they have not been barred from competing, unlike the state to which Belarus is essentially a vassal, and few think the governing body has gone far enough. The case for a ban becomes even stronger when Belarus’s dismal human rights record, which has had a direct and crippling effect on its football scene, is thrown in.

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“Sport reflects the situation in any country,” says Aliaksandr Ivulin, a journalist and former player for the Minsk-based club FC Krumkachy. Ivulin knows this better than most. On 17 February he was released from jail, 13 months into a two-year sentence for his supposed role in protests against Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime. He was incarcerated in a penal colony on the most spurious of charges, never knowing exactly when he would be freed and watching in horror as another journalist, Katsyaryna Andreeva, saw her punishment extended by eight years.

Ivulin makes the state’s abuse and appropriation of football crystal clear. “It’s not very safe to be a footballer in Belarus now, especially if you have expressed political views or continue to do so,” he says. Some of the events he lists, running carefully through his own story and its context, are appalling in their infliction of needless misery. The demonstrations against Lukashenko’s repressive government in 2020, which were greeted with police brutality on a significant scale, form much of the backdrop. But little has changed in the two and a half years since.

Belarusian opposition supporters protest against presidential election results in Minsk
Belarusian opposition supporters protest against presidential election results in Minsk.
Photograph: Tut.by/Reuters

Krumkachy’s problems began when two of their players, Sergey Kozeka and Pavel Rassolko, were arrested for being at a peaceful protest in August 2020. They were beaten up, Kozeka so badly that he needed an operation on his spine. A few days later Krumkachy, a rare private enterprise in a league of largely state-supported clubs, faced Dinamo Minsk in a cup quarter-final: their players wore T-shirts in support of their detained teammates and members of the public who had suffered at the authorities’ hands, while they stood still at kick-off and joined fans in a minute’s applause. It was a brave act of defiance, and more would follow.

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Most of Ivulin’s football career had been spent at amateur level while he worked as a reporter for the independent Tribuna sports news site, also running a YouTube channel named ChestnOK that featured frequent interviews with sportspeople who were critical of the authorities. When Ivulin signed his first professional deal with Krumkachy in 2021, quickly scoring his first goal in a friendly, the confluence of his two jobs brought grim repercussions. “I was on my way to meet a friend, listening to music; the next thing I know I’m down on the ground, face in the tarmac, being arrested,” he says of his initial detention.

This was on 2 June and would be his last taste of freedom for 18 months. Ivulin was initially sentenced for 30 days on a trumped-up charge of participating in protests; in any case he had been covering them as part of his media work. “Logically there was nothing I had done to get arrested,” he says. “But we all know logic doesn’t prevail in Belarus; if the system wants to find something, it will.” A flag associated with the protest, found in his home, was also used against him. His detention was extended several times and he was shuttled between facilities: finally, in January last year, he was found guilty of organising “activities blatantly aimed at disrupting social order” and handed his sentence.

Krumkachy, then a second-tier club, had rallied round him from the start. “Some of the things that happened to them were brutal,” Ivulin says. Supporters would attend games wearing his squad number, 25, and be arrested; one was jailed for 15 days as a political prisoner, held in squalid conditions in a cell that crammed in as many as 18 inmates. Ivulin says that, in one case, a girl who brought balloons with the numbers “two” and “five” to a match was briefly held by police. Krumkachy lost much of their financing, withdrawn by cowed sponsors, and have since dropped down the leagues. The ripples spread elsewhere: when the Rukh Brest coach Kiryl Alshevsky said the words “Strength to Sasha Ivulin” in a post-match press conference, he quickly found himself out of a job.

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In the penal colony Ivulin was forced to wear the yellow tag of a political detainee. He does not want to give many details about his ordeal for fear of endangering existing inmates’ safety but says those in his category – he estimates up to 20% – were subjected to extra layers of attention. “My main goal was to remain human in jail,” he continues. “To survive there you have to prepare yourself, find common ground and be kind to each other, as difficult as it might be. When you represent hope for so many people, you can’t lose.”

A report by the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, an NGO that supports sportspeople who face pressure for speaking out against Lukashenko, stated in 2021 that football is interfered with and used as propaganda by the government. The use of blacklists sidelining players with political views that are deemed unacceptable is, according to Ivulin and others in the country’s media, an open secret.

“If your name is on there, it’s impossible to work in Belarusian sport,” Ivulin says. “So players have a choice: shut their mouths and pretend to agree with the regime, or leave the country. Some have gone to play in places like Israel and Kazakhstan through security concerns.”

He mentions the case of Stas Drahun, the long-serving Bate Borisov captain, who was among several players surprisingly culled by the sometime Champions League participants this winter. The suggestion is serious: that the national team has been filled with stooges as a result.

“The places of top players who aren’t being called up because of their political stances become vacant,” he says. “Then others are called up who see it as a chance for themselves and make a personal compromise: they pretend things are good, keep their mouths shut and get their chance. They are used as propaganda tools and it’s a price they are wiling to pay. The level is going from bad to worse, and no good will come of it.”

Recent results bolster that argument: from 10 winnable fixtures in the past year Belarus have beaten only India, Bahrain and Syria. The question, given the alleged government manipulation of football and the country’s continued assistance of Russia, is why are they permitted to play any more.

Uefa was recently lobbied by more than 100 European Union lawmakers to bar them from Euro 2024 on account of the state’s human rights record, which has had effects far beyond football. The Labour peer George Foulkes wrote to Uefa’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, last month asking that they be banned, while the German interior minister, Nancy Faeser, made a similar request in September. Uefa says it is monitoring the situation and “further decisions may be taken as necessary”. That remains its stance, but pressure is building and the topic is likely to be discussed at their next ExCo meeting on 4 April.

Saturday’s tie will be played although there may be logistical trouble ahead: Belarus are due to play Kosovo in June and that match is unlikely to take place in Serbia owing to the political situation involving those two countries. A new host will need to be found but, beyond the Serbs, Belarus find themselves short of allies.

“The Belarusian football federation discredited itself many years ago,” Ivulin says. “It does not represent Belarusian sport, only the existing regime.”

Police officers detain a woman during an opposition rally
Police officers detain a woman during an opposition rally. Photograph: AP

Ivulin is now free and aiming to continue his journalism outside the country, where it would be too dangerous to return. Vasil Khamutousky, a national team player capped 26 times in the 2000s, was sentenced to home confinement in September after returning to Belarus from abroad. He had joined numerous athletes in signing a letter demanding free and fair elections.

“What we are seeing with football in Belarus is wrong, but it isn’t sanctioned sufficiently,” Ivulin says. This weekend’s husk of a qualifier bears full, shameful testament.