Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s regime has systematically interfered with the functioning of the country’s football federation and used sport as an instrument of “pro-government propaganda”, according to a report.
The report, based on testimonies from senior referees and professional footballers, was produced by the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), an organization that supports players, coaches and other sports professionals facing pressure to speak out Lukashenko, the President.
“This report shows how Lukashenko and his entourage control football and use the sport for propaganda purposes,” said Aliaksandr Apeikin, executive director of BSSF. “Politics and sport are completely linked in Belarus. “
The report, released on Wednesday, said senior Belarusian Football Federation (BFF) officials were closely linked with Belarusian security services and forced its referees and players to show support for the Lukashenko regime during and after the protests. anti-government policies of 2020 that engulfed the country after the president’s controversial re-election.
Apeikin said his organization sent the report to UEFA, the governing body of European football, on Tuesday and believed the report provided sufficient grounds for “UEFA to suspend Belarus from participation in European football”.
FIFA, the world’s football governing body, has at times banned countries and their club teams from participating in international football due to allegations of government interference. However, it would be unprecedented for UEFA to do so.
UEFA declined to comment when approached by the Guardian. The Belarusian Football Federation has been approached for comment.
According to the report, the Belarusian Sports Ministry “threatened to suspend public funding for football clubs whose players had not signed pro-government letters”, which the organization said violated the rights of football players. football and went against UEFA and FIFA rules on political neutrality and government interference.
“They wanted to use us for their own political gains,” said Andrei Chepa, the former chief referee of the BFF, who left the country two months ago for security reasons.
Chepa said referees and players were ordered to wear red and green buttonholes during matches, colors widely associated with support for the Lukashenko regime. Referees who refused to wear these buttonholes have been suspended, Chepa said.
“To me, these colors represented the violence and death that the regime has caused. Many of my colleagues also felt the same. We refused to wear them, ”Chepa said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
He said he was forced to resign from his post in December 2020, after the soccer federation threatened to show footage of him attending anti-government rallies outside the security services.
“It was my dream job. But the federation knew my political views. Either I had to quit quietly or I would be arrested, ”he said.
Chepa has since moved to Ukraine but has struggled to find a job.
Athletes have been among Lukashenko’s most vocal critics. The BSSF was founded in 2020 after more than 250 athletes signed an open letter criticizing election fraud that got Lukashenko his sixth term.
Many footballers lost their jobs and some even ended up in prison for their opposition to the Lukashenko regime.
At the Tokyo Summer Olympics, Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya made headlines around the world after refusing to take a flight from Tokyo. She has since become a vocal opponent of the Lukashenko regime.
“Footballers and other athletes have a lot of influence in the country. Lukashenko considers them important for his legitimacy and hates them when they speak out against him, ”Apeikin said.
The report claimed that senior Belarusian government and football officials did not want football club BATE Borisov to win the 2020 championship and pressured the referees to manipulate the matches.
“The referees were told that BATE is not expected to win the title that year. A referee ‘error’ that would hamper BATE Borisov was welcomed, ”Chepa said. BATE Borisov finished second in the championship in 2020.
While Belarus has been deprived of some major sporting events during its recent political record, UEFA has not sanctioned the football federation since the 2020 crackdown on civil society.
Apeikin “hoped” that the latest report, which the organization sent to UEFA on Tuesday, would force the organization to take action.
“UEFA can no longer look away and ignore what is going on,” he said.