Turkmenistan rebooted its domestic season Sunday, with fans returning to stadiums in one in every of the few countries yet to declare a case of coronavirus.

Around 300 people attended a top-of-the-table clash between last season’s champions Altyn Asyr and league leaders Kopetdag in an exceedingly 20,000-capacity stadium within the capital Ashgabat.

The two teams played out an attritional 1-1 draw with both goals coming within the last half.

Like several other fans interviewed by AFP, none of whom wore masks, Murad, a 60-year-old Kopetdag fan, said he had no fear of the coronavirus pandemic and planned to continue attending games.

“Sport kills all viruses,” he joked. “When your favourite team wins, it lifts your immunity!”

He hoped his team could stay the pace at the highest of the division.

“This club may be a legendary club,” Murad said.

Ringing the changes

The deeply authoritarian Central Asian state followed other countries around the world when it suspended its eight-team league in March just three games into the season.

The national football federation cited recommendations by the health ministry and therefore the World Health Organisation for preventing the spread of the illness.

But a month later, and despite international concerns that Turkmen authorities are underplaying the threat of the virus, football made a return to the gas-rich country.

“Joy boosts our immunity,” joked Ashir Yusupov, a 34-year-old entrepreneur and fans said before the sport.

“We haven’t any coronavirus, so why not restart our league?”

Three ex-Soviet states have bucked the world trend for suspending professional leagues: Belarus, Tajikistan and now, Turkmenistan.

Global interest within the Belarusian league has surged on the rear of its decision, while Tajikistan’s Super final earlier this month attracted a curious multi-lingual online following.

But Belarus, which has confirmed 4,779 coronavirus cases, has been strongly criticised for allowing fans to attend games.

Tajikistan has begun its season with matches held behind closed doors, whilst its authoritarian government, like that of Turkmenistan, continues to insist there are not any cases within the country.

‘Impregnable fortress of the motherland’

Turkmenistan has never been referred to as a footballing powerhouse and therefore the country’s main sports channel chose to indicate handball over Sunday’s game.

Nor is soccer among the sports promoted by sport-mad president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

On World Health Day on April 7, the president was shown on state television riding a horse and a bicycle as state employees engaged in mass exercise sessions across the country.

Such large public events have prompted observers to question how seriously the govt is taking the pandemic.

Since then, Berdymukhamedov has ordered officials to increase efforts to detect any cases and stop the virus from spreading.

The president is thought because the nation’s Arkadag, or “Protector.”

State media have stressed the importance of his leadership within the pandemic.

In a poem published in state newspapers on Friday, the president’s favourite poet Gozel Shagulyyeva praised him as “the impregnable fortress of the motherland.”

“Protector, you’re watching over (our) health,” Shagulyyeva wrote.