It’s 18:25 in western Belarus, and the fans of Krumkachy Football Club have a message. As dark clouds shroud the early summer sun, hundreds of Krumkachy supporters break into song, producing placards with the number “25” printed on them.
“Sasha will be released” is the rallying cry, with drums to accompany the placards. Some turn their backs on the pitch, while cohorts of Krumkachy’s new following cheer in unison. The chants refer to blogger and Krumkachy’s number 25, Alexander Ivulin. Ivulin, who served a 30-day prison sentence last month for allegedly displaying Belarus’ red and white opposition flag from his flat window, now faces four years behind bars for “grossly violating the public order” — a charge the Krumkachy forward denies. His name, cast from Krumkachy’s team sheet, now foots Belarus’ growing list of political prisoners.
It is not the first time that Krumkachy has found itself mired in Belarus’ turbulent 12 months of political unravellings. Since President Alexander Lukashenko was reelected last August in an election described by the UN as “neither free nor fair”, players Sergey Kоzеka and Pavel Rassolko have also been detained. Both were badly beaten by police during the pro-democracy protests that erupted across the country following Lukashenko’s re-election. In the months that followed, games were postponed and became heavily policed to monitor dissidence inside the stadium. The Belarusian Football Federation (BFF) doled out fines to players publicly opposing the violence directed towards their teammates and compatriots. Yet, as club volunteer Dmitriy tells me, Krumkachy won’t be silenced. This is a club “that works in the interest of the people”, he says. “Sport tries to step away from the realm of politics, because it can be pretty dangerous in Belarus, but obviously this can be difficult when two of your players are beaten up at the protests.”
Founded in 2011 by a group of journalists who grew disillusioned by the state’s mismanagement of their local side, Dinamo Minsk, Krumkachy was initially set out as an eight-aside amateur team. But the side soon began to amass a following, and became a fully-fledged professional team in 2014. From the outset, Krumkachy’s principles were clear: a devotion to its fanbase and the Belarusian language, and a separation from the state. Unlike in neighbouring Russia and Ukraine, where top clubs have become dependent on the financial assets of oligarchs, Belarusian football still maintains old Soviet-style customs, where all but a handful of clubs are owned by the state or heavily sponsored by state corporations. Club directors are handpicked based on personal loyalties to the government, and existing outside of these terms is difficult.
“The obvious problem is that you have to pay for everything by yourself,” former club employee Alexei tells me. While that gives the club more freedom, it also means that any unexpected costs can lead to instability. This was the case in 2018, when following a spell in the more costly top tier of Belarusian football, Krumkachy fell upon financial hardship and was denied registration to the Belarusian Premier League. Forced to restart from the bottom division as a separate legal entity named NFK Minsk, it was only last year that Krumkachy, (or “the ravens” in Belarusian), finally got its name back.
It was this episode, coupled with a year of opposing state repression, that spurred Krumkachy to embark on a project that would give its fanbase a greater voice in club affairs. Following investment from former Belarusian and AC Milan striker Vitaliy Kutuzov, and Italian pharmaceuticals magnate Mauricio Mian, the club is currently running a beta version of a bespoke platform called Sportex Club. The website, which offers supporters virtual shares in the club alongside their annual season ticket, gives fans instant access to club content and match streams, as well as voting rights in every club decision.
“For around $5, I can use [Sportex Club] to watch training and prematch videos, as well as choose the kit the players wear, the merchandise I want to see in the shop, and the squad itself.” Alexei says. And while the platform may appear as a speculative venture, or even a gimmick, Alexei assures me is a simply a natural progression of the club’s core values. “The club has talked about sharing options with the fans since 2018, because this was a club made by fans,’ he says.
The premise, of course, has already come face-to-face with certain issues. An alleged disagreement between Mian and long-term manager Oleg Dulub led to the latter’s departure, a decision over which fans were given no authority. There are also concerns that interest may already be wavering. “The idea of choosing a team every week is tiring,” says Alexei. “For me, it is better to have decisions on how the club acts: how they should spend money, or get transport to games.”
All the same, Alexei believes that now is still the right time for Sportex to make its mark. It will allow Krumkachy to utilise waves of new supporters — many of whom fled state-owned clubs after directors, staff and players came out in support of the president — to ensure its long-term financial stability. But more importantly, the project represents a chance for fans to have a democratic sway in an aspect of public life — and while that may be small, it is far from insignificant given the repression that runs across much of Belarusian civil society.
As FC Krumkachy paves the way for a brighter, more democratic future, it is unsurprising that these actions have been met “with great suspicion and hostility by the government,” Jon from BELPOD, a Belarusian football podcast, tells me. There are already concerns that the Belarusian Football Federation may find reasons to refuse Krumkachy entry to the Premier League should they get promoted this season.
Yet as the stadium bubbles with discord, fans are flocking to a project and a team that represents much of the hope that has been crushed in the last 12 months in Belarus. For the state, Krumkachy remains a problem that is only getting bigger.