They don’t chant, they don’t move, and they mostly wear the wrong colours. They’re not even real. The defending Belarusian league champions, Dynamo Brest, have started boosting their home crowds with mannequins in football shirts and adorned with the faces of virtual fans who bought tickets online.
Belarus is the last country in Europe still hosting professional sport in front of spectators amid the coronavirus pandemic, but attendances are shrinking as supporters decide the stadium is too risky.
Fan boycotts have been announced at 10 of the 16 clubs in the top division. That includes Dynamo Brest and the Champions League regulars Bate Borisov. With the real spectators staying away, the mannequins have arrived.
For Wednesday’s Belarusian Cup semi-final against Shakhtyor Soligorsk, at least 30 of the mannequins were placed on seats in the stands, each topped with a cut-out photo.
They wore a motley array of old shirts ranging from a purple 2016-17 Real Madrid away jersey to early 1990s Aston Villa in claret and blue. Other shirts were stretched over nearby seats.
With few games to watch elsewhere, some foreign fans have started watching games from Belarus instead. Dynamo Brest’s general secretary, Vladimir Machulsky, wants them to feel at home.
“It’s our creative idea. In this way, a virtual spectator who is following the match broadcast on television can see himself in the stands,” Machulsky said. “We’re not trying to imitate a full stand. We understand the fans who have refused to come to the games. We decided to take a creative approach to the situation.”
The virtual tickets seem to be a profitable sideline for Dynamo Brest. They are on sale for a league game on Sunday for 67 Belarusian rubles (£21.00), more than five times the cost of the most expensive normal ticket sold online. Some cost as little as 1.75 rubles (55p). The club said 12 virtual tickets were sold for Wednesday’s first leg in the cup, which Dynamo Brest won 2-0. Buyers came from six countries, including the United States and Canada.
Keeping sporting arenas open has been part of the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko’s, unconventional approach to the coronavirus. He has said there is no need to close workplaces and public events, and even played in an amateur hockey game in front of fans on 28 March.
Despite those assurances, attendances in the Belarusian football league have plummeted. Dynamo Brest hosted a game with a crowd of more then 5,000 last month but less than 1,000 attended Wednesday’s match.