The opening weekend of the season was full of excitement, with three heavyweight sides all suffering shock losses.
It was enough to have fans around the world hooked, with countries such as Russia and Ukraine showing matches on TV – the first time in its history that Belarus sold football broadcast rights abroad.
And players in the tiny competition are overjoyed at the attention.
“It is indeed a nice feeling that the whole world is watching,” Isloch midfielder Sandro Tsveiba told ESPN.
“All of us can benefit from it, not just the players but Belarusian football as a whole. I’m happy to be playing while most of my colleagues around the world are killing time sitting at home. But once again, our health and the health of our families and loved ones is still above everything.”
It’s not just foreigners who are tuning in higher numbers.
“The funny thing about it all is that Belarusian fans have started to watch our football,” Yuri Dovnar, one of Belarus’s top journalists, told ESPN.
“Of course, everyone was watching English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga, which you can do for free in Belarus, and didn’t pay much attention to the local game, especially when kick-off times clashed.
“Now it’s all changed and our football surely benefits from it.”
While the popularity has gone off the charts, not much has changed on the park.
As Tsveiba said: “Not much has changed on the pitch, but we no longer shake hands, just fist bump each other. Oh, and we cough and sneeze in the dressing room, just for fun.”
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His casual attitude toward the threat of the coronavirus pandemic isn’t uncommon across the country, which has had just 86 cases and no deaths in a population of around 10 million.
“On the one hand, of course, we are all wary of this, seeing what is happening in the world,” Isloch coach Vitaly Zhukovsky told ESPN.
“But on the other hand, in our country of 10 million people, during all this time there have only been 86 infected and not a single fatal outcome. You have to agree that these figures are pretty impressive and cannot be compared to other countries.”
The country has taken strong measures in response to the outbreak, despite the President’s ridiculous claim that tractors could cure the disease.
“You have to understand how strict everything is here,” Dovnar told ESPN.
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“Last week, my colleague had a call in the office. It was from police. Apparently, his son’s classmate had just returned from abroad and had to get quarantined, so every single person who contacted with the boy in school and those who contacted with those contacted had to go to hospital for a test. ‘I can’t right now, I’m heading to the stadium,’ my colleague replied. ‘Either you come yourself, or you will be delivered here in handcuffs,’ he heard in response.
“I want to believe that this approach is good in this case. Our medical department is indeed among the best, we have the most number of hospital beds per capita in Europe, and the quality of health care is really high.
“So we can only hope that Belarus will not just keep on living its normal life, but also stays as the only European country [to escape without a serious outbreak].”
Belarus isn’t the only country with a football competition still going ahead – there’s also Nicaragua and Burundi. For now, at least.
In August 2019, one of Australia’s brightest young talents stunned the football world by announcing he was leaving the A-League for Los Angeles to pursue a career in hip-hop.
Now, 10 months later, Joe Champness – aka JOWIC – is riding out the coronavirus crisis in Brisbane with family and celebrating the recent release of a music video on one of hip-hop’s most popular platforms.
In this exclusive interview for Fox Sports, he opens up on the growth of his musical career, his enduring love for football, and having ‘no regrets’.
For Champness, football and music have always been twin passions. The Auckland-born 23-year-old arrived in Australia when he was five, and it wasn’t long before he was chasing both dreams.
“I think my earliest memories of performing are in grade six. My primary school I’d be rehearsing and writing music during the lunch times.
“I’d be playing sport but I’d also be writing – and then as soon as we go back into class I would be asking the teacher if I could rap for the class!
“That’s my earliest memory and from then onwards it was just ‘I like writing and making music’, it kind stuck with me.”
In high school, he struck up a friendship with another hip-hop lover – his DJ, ‘Watty’. The pair continue to collaborate closely on music in the US.
“We go all the way back to middle school, skipping class a little bit in the studio working on music. He stuck by me the whole time with the music. It’s just good to be able to do what you love with good people.”
The decision to walk out on the Jets and his already-established football career was a courageous one. But it’s not the first time Champness has jetted across the world to pursue a dream.
In 2017, having signed an academy deal with Newcastle, Joey and another promising Jets teenager were loaned to a Portuguese second-division team, Academica de Coimbra.
A flashy winger, Champness unsurprisingly developed swiftly in the nation of megastar Cristiano Ronaldo – but he was still working on his music ambitions.
“I set up a studio in the wardrobe! The first thing I did when we landed in Portugal, the first thing I did was I found a music store and I bought the necessary equipment. We set up the only good place in the bedroom to record was in the wardrobe. So that’s what I did, I was recording in a tiny wardrobe.
“(It hurt) my cooking because I’d put the food on and then I’d go record in the wardrobe. And then it would burn.
Living with fellow Jets youngster Antonee Burke-Gilroy, Champness says “He can definitely vouch for me burning whatever it was I was cooking because I was too busy recording.”
Back in Australia, Champness quickly rose into the Jets’ senior squad and earned a spot in the Olyroos – Australia’s under-23 squad which recently qualified for the Tokyo Olympics.
He was making a name in Newcastle as an emerging artist too. The club was fully aware, and never tried to dissuade him from his music. If anything, the opposite was true.
After the disappointing loss of the 2018/19 A-League grand final, where Champness came on as a substitute in front of Newcastle’s largest-ever home crowd, JOWIC was lined up to perform ahead of the next home game. Thousands came early to see Joey perform outside the stadium.
CEO Lawrie McKinna was sidestage, having organised the gig. He danced, chanted along with the crowd, hugged Champness at the end of the set. Joey – already a popular player for his direct approach to defenders – signed dozens of shirts, took plenty of selfies.
His teammates, too, were always supportive.
“The boys always wanted me to do a little freestyle, (asking) ‘Joey do a freestyle for us, Joey’s gonna rap’. I didn’t usually do it just like that!
“I just told them to play my music. I said ‘you want to hear me rap, then play my music. I’m trying to chill out.’”
In the end, Champness knew he had to choose. Football or music. An established career and a path to the Socceroos – or a leap of faith into the world of hip-hop.
“I made the decision that I wanted to fully commit to the music … It was just one of those things where I felt strongly about it. I’m not the type of person who’s gonna ignore it or something like that.”
And so, after a trial month in LA, he walked away with the Jets’ blessing and with the support of his teammates.
“They were really good about it, just like the club were really good, really supportive. I’ve got some really encouraging messages from the boys and, and from senior members of the squad as well. It’s all love for sure.”
He recognised that it could cost him his other love – football – but made peace with the sacrifice.
“When I made that decision, it was my mindset was always, like you’re making that decision to be successful in music. I had to accept that potentially I’m not playing another game.”
It was a staggeringly bold decision, especially as Champness had no record deal and few contacts to call on.
“When I went out there, I didn’t really know anyone, you know what I mean? And I was just really blessed to come into contact with people that I connected to on a friendship level and on the business level.
“No matter how things end up going, I’m thankful for those experiences and those kinds of relationships as well … the ones that took me under their wing and showed me the ropes.”
Plenty was said when Champness flew the proverbial coop.
Some expected him to come crawling back to the Jets – he has two years remaining on an agreement to rejoin Newcastle if he does choose to restart his football career – and few believed he would have what it takes in LA.
But Champness didn’t listen.
“Whenever you’re trying to pursue something, there’s always going to be people saying things and that doesn’t bother me one bit, you know. In fact, I definitely take it as motivation and nothing more. I never take anything negative too personally.”
He put his head down and worked. Learned from experienced names in the industry, built a tight team and honed his sound. Champness spent his time in the studio – mostly a large home studio, far from the cramped wardrobe of his Portugal dorm – and he didn’t play shows.
“I gotta say my top three at this time: Biggie (Notorious BIG); Jay Z; and in the modern day – in the last decade – the numbers aren’t really lying about Drake being an influential artist. So those three are probably, from the standpoint of music (my biggest influences).”
On Friday, Champness released a music video for his single ‘My Plan’ – the culmination of his time in LA.
It was released on World Star Hip Hop, an iconic platform for the urban scene which boasts 23.5 million YouTube followers, and is well known for establishing the careers of gifted young artists.
The video racked up 75,000 viewers in 24 hours, and Champness says former Jets teammates have reached out with congratulations and to share the song.
Watch the video at the end of the story.
Coronavirus scuppered his plans to celebrate and promote the release with his LA team, forcing him to head home in recent weeks.
“I had to do the whole two week (quarantine) thing, two weeks at the hotel. It gave me a lot of time to write music, you could say that. Literally just sitting in a hotel room for two weeks.”
Back in Brisbane, he’s enjoying seeing his family – but he’s not letting his foot off the accelerator.
“It’s always good spend time with family, they’re the most important people in my life.
“(But) I can work from anywhere in the world.”
For now, the single is his priority. But he has big plans for the future – and he still bears the trademark confidence Jets fans saw so often when he was on the field.
“Everyone wants to be the best and that’s what I want to be – the best me that I can be. “I’m a very competitive person. And once I set my sights on something, I think it’s very important to be to be ruthless in what you’re doing. Whatever it is, I think it’s best to fully commit.
“The goal is to just see me and my people on top.”
Champness is still in regular contact with his ex-teammates (“Obviously I watch the games and everything like that”) but he’s not thinking about returning to the fold any time soon.
“I love football. It’s always gonna be a part of me, but no regrets. I’ve got no regrets whatsoever.
“You know, I’ve learned a lot, not only as an artist (but) as a person, and the music’s moving forward. I think if people really look at what’s going on, they’re gonna appreciate how far the music’s come in the last while and hopefully see the potential in what could be to come.”