Bulgarian Footballers to Play Behind Closed Doors to Dodge Fan Rage

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The Bulgarian national football team will play its upcoming Euro 2024 qualifying match against Hungary without fans in the stadium after angry protests against the head of the Bulgarian Football Union.

The Bulgarian national football team will play Hungary in a Euro 2024 qualifying match at the National Stadium in Sofia on Friday behind closed doors, the Bulgarian Football Union confirmed on Tuesday, citing security concerns.

Critics of the poor state of domestic football and the governance of longtime Bulgarian Football Union president Borislav Mihaylov see the measure as a desperate move to dodge ongoing fan protests.

In the past week, the Bulgarian Football Union tried to move the match to Plovdiv, but the municipality declined to host it. The Football Union then tried to shift it to the small town of Kardzhali, where the stadium did not fit UEFA requirements, so the game had to be moved back to Sofia.

The Football Union’s actions were criticised by former Manchester United striker and all-time Bulgarian national team goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov, who has been trying since 2021 to take over the union and implement reforms.

“We’re all witnessing a new low – football has been stolen and hidden away from the fans who now can’t go and show their support,” Berbatov said on Monday.

In an interview with Bulgarian National Television, Berbatov warned that Mihaylov and his staff “can’t hide from the protesting crowd”.

Berbatov former teammate, ex-Celtic and Aston Villa FC midfielder Stiliyan Petrov, who backs Berbatov’s initiative, told bTV on Sunday that “years of incompetent governance” by the union are a major factor in the current controversy.

Minister of Sport Dimitar Iliev also voiced criticism.

“Someone must give some explanation of why we’ve ended up in such a situation. We’ll demand that those who are at fault are held responsible. Nobody can stop the people from protesting,” Iliev said on Tuesday.

The current players in the national squad have shied away from making any kind of statement.

Mihaylov is a former goalkeeper who was part of Bulgaria’s celebrated 1994 World Cup team, which clinched fourth place.

After being vice-president of the Bulgarian Football Union in the early 2000s, he was elected president in 2005 and became increasingly associated with Bulgaria’s declining fortunes in football.

In 2019, he resigned over the lack of an immediate response to racist chants from the stands in Sofia during a match against England, which Bulgaria lost 0-4.

But in April 2021, only a day after Berbatov announced his intention to run for president at the next congress, Mihaylov withdrew his resignation and returned to his position.

BIRN analysis in 2021 detailed  Mihaylov’s questionable reputation and examined Berbatov’s ambitions, with sports journalist Petar Georgiev commenting that “Bulgarian football has been suffering from systemic mismanagement and short-term thinking without any real plan for the future”.

In May 2022, an emergency congress at which Berbatov was expected to muster a majority of support from club owners was planned but eventually cancelled by the Football Union because of ongoing lawsuits arising from an election in 2021, in which Berbatov and Mihaylov ran against each other. The cancellation was later defined by the Sofia City Court as unlawful but a new one has not been scheduled.

Bulgaria haven’t played in a high-profile tournament since Euro 2004, when Berbatov and Petrov were part of the team. In the national team’s most recent games, they lost to Albania and Lithuania.

Source : Balkaninsight