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Belarus make controversial history at beach soccer World Cup

February 23, 2024

Belarus' beach soccer team made history at the FIFA beach soccer World Cup in Dubai, but their presence is controversial.

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Action from the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in the UAE
Belarus are exceeding expectations at the beach soccer World Cup, but not everyone is happyImage: Francois Nel/Getty Images

With a hundredth of a second left in extra time, veteran Ihar Bryshtsel scored the goal to send  Belarus into the beach soccer World Cup semifinals for the first time ever. 

“My buzzer-beater was cosmic! I really like [basketball player] Steph Curry. I watched him score a buzzer-beater. I’m thrilled to have scored one myself," Bryshtsel told FIFA afterwards.

Indeed, even before Belarus swept past two-time champions Portugal, many of the players at the tournament believed Belarus had a chance to win it all.

The team's participation in Dubai, which ended with a defeat on penalties to Italy, is not without controversy, though.

Belarus, who have never made it past the group stage before, qualified for the tournament alongside Italy, Portugal and Ukraine. The Ukrainian football association (UAF), called on Beach Soccer Worldwide and FIFA to remove Belarus or at least force them to compete under a neutral banner because of their role in Russia's war in Ukraine.

Rules on athletes competing have been varied across sports, although the IOC will permit individual Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in the Paris Olympics as neutrals — without their national flag or anthem — as long as they haven't actively supported the war or aren't contracted to the military. Earlier this year, tennis star Aryna Sabalenka won the Australian Open for the second straight year competing under a neutral flag.

Clearly, Ukraine's desire for Belarus to compete in Dubai only under neutral colors did not happen. It appears the reason the Ukraine team did not register for the tournament, despite qualifying, is because the Ukrainian Sports Ministry has an official decree banning national teams from participating in events where Russia and Belarus are present. This is the second straight tournament in which Ukraine have not participated as a result of the war — the last tournament in 2021 was hosted in (and won by) Russia.

The UAF did not respond to DW's request for comment.

No ruling on Belarus

Russian football teams have been expelled from all club and international competitions by European governing body UEFA since 2022, although in September 2023, UEFA ended its blanket ban, allowing the country's U-17 sides to compete.

A FIFA spokesperson told DW that no such ruling was ever made on Belarus because only Russia was named by the FIFA Council when making their decision on bans. This left Belarus eligible to compete in Dubai.

Despite pressure in 2023 from over 100 MEPs from the European parliament to expel Belarus from taking part in qualifying for Euro 2024, UEFA only prevented Belarus from playing at home and stripped them of the right to host the women's U-19 Euros in 2025. MEPs did not respond when approached by DW for comment on Belarus' participation in Dubai.

Beach soccer is watched by millions — FIFA say that 63 million viewers watched the last tournament in 2021. Both then and now, fans might have been enthralled by Ihar Bryshtsel's performances and Belarus' run to the final four. But even in the sand and sun of Dubai the politics of war are present.

Edited by: Matt Pearson