Despite international concerns that Turkmen authorities are underplaying the threat of the COVID-19.
Turkmenistan is rebooting its football season on Sunday, with fans flocking back to stadiums in one of the few countries yet to declare a case of coronavirus.
The reclusive 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 the World Health Organisation for preventing the spread of the illness.
A month later, and despite international concerns that Turkmen authorities are underplaying the threat of the virus, football is returning, with supporters only too happy to follow the action from the stands.
“Joy boosts our immunity,” joked Ashir Yusupov, a 34-year-old entrepreneur.
He said he would be watching reigning champions Altyn Asyr take on early table-toppers Kopetdag in the capital Ashgabat on Sunday.
Yusupov said he had no fear of crowded places, despite being aware of bans on sports events in other countries.
“We have no coronavirus, so why not restart our league?” he asked.
Resisting suspension professional leagues
Three ex-Soviet states have bucked the global trend for suspending professional leagues: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Belarus.
Global interest in the Belarusian league has surged on the back of its decision, while the Tajikistan’s Super Cup 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, even as its authoritarian government, like that of Turkmenistan, continues to insist there are no cases in the country.
Ashgabat-based Altyn Asyr, whose name translates as “Golden Age”, won the Turkmen title last year.
Victory against Kopetdag would take it top of the table, with other teams set to play on Monday.
Vepa, a 20-year-old student, said he “never misses a game” and will go to the match on Sunday despite not supporting either team.
His club is Ahal, who represent the region outside Ashgabat from where the family of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and much of the political elite hail.
Vepa said he was not sure Ahal can mount a serious title challenge but he has high hopes for new signing Elman Tagayev, a 30-year-old midfielder who has returned from a stint with a club in neighbouring Uzbekistan.
“His game is dynamic and beautiful,” said Vepa, who did not give his second name.
‘Impregnable fortress of the motherland’
Even during Soviet times Turkmenistan was no footballing powerhouse, and the sport is not among those promoted by sports-mad 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 government is taking the pandemic.
Since then, Berdymukhamedov has ordered officials to ramp up efforts to detect any cases and prevent the virus spreading.
The president is known as the nation’s Arkadag, or “Protector.” State media has stressed the importance of his leadership in 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 are watching over (our) health,” Shagulyyeva wrote.