After Bulgaria's European qualifier against England was marred by serious racism, calls for tougher action are getting louder. But what can sanctions achieve when the problem is so deeply entrenched in the fan culture?
Monkey noises, Nazi salutes, fascist symbols, open defiance of UEFA punishments and sheer denial from coaches, functionaries and journalists alike – Monday night in Sofia was far worse for Bulgarian football than the 6-0 defeat to England.
The condemnation and demands for action came quickly from all over Europe. "The fines aren't enough; there have to be serious steps now and that should include tournament expulsions,” said Kick It Out, the UK-based anti-racism in football organization.
Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) also called for Bulgaria to be kicked out of Euro 2020 qualifying, saying: "UEFA should make an example of them, the legal armory is there.”
UEFA themselves responded on Tuesday to suggestions that they are not doing enough to tackle racism. "UEFA's sanctions are among the toughest in sport for clubs and associations whose supporters are racist at our matches,” wrote President Aleksandr Ceferin, before calling on "the football family – everyone from administrators to players, coaches and fans – to work with governments and NGOs to wage war on the racists and to marginalize their abhorrent views to the fringes of society."
On Tuesday morning, there was finally a reaction from Sofia as Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov called upon the head of the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU), Mihaylov, to resign. Hours later he got his wish.
Denial and exagerration claims
Mihaylov had made headlines ahead of the game after complaining to UEFA about England's plans to leave the pitch in the event of racist abuse, plans which Mihaylov said "unjustly branded local spectators as people inclined to discriminatory behavior.”
He added that "the Bulgarian public has in no way committed any recent infringements that deserve to be stereotyped as racist or hostile,” conveniently ignoring the fact that 5,000 of the 46,340 seats at the Vasil Levski stadium in Sofia had been blocked off for the England game as an explicit punishment for racism.
The denial continued at full-time with Bulgarian coach Krasimir Balakov claiming in the post-match press conference that he "didn't hear anything,” while one Bulgarian journalist repeatedly shouted out that the reports of racism were "exaggerated.” His logic, when confronted by one English journalist, was that he didn't know what monkey noises were because he "had not been to the jungle.”
Racism has deep roots
From a western European point of view, the level of denial and sheer ignorance regarding racism is difficult to comprehend, although England manager Gareth Southgate once again rightly pointed out that English football is far from clean itself. But the problem is even more deeply rooted in Bulgarian society and politics and, by extension, in its fan culture.
"Bulgaria isn't particularly diverse and people, especially the older generation, don't have a lot of experience of interaction with other ethnicities,” explains Pavel Klymenko, FARE's Eastern Europe development officer. "Also, having been part of the former Soviet Bloc, people were taught that racism was something which happened in the United States, with lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan.”
In October 2018, a study by the Pew Research Centre revealed that many Bulgarians believed that "their culture is superior to that of the rest” and such attitudes are reflected in the nation's politics, with politicians themselves not shy of using discriminatory language. Indeed, the three populist and extreme right parties, IMRO, Ataka and NFSB, which have been in coalition with the center-right GERB since 2017, have been described by leaders of ethnic and religious minorities as "pro-Nazi.”
Those parties wield huge influence in Bulgarian football culture where almost all the major clubs' ultra groups are openly fascist. In 2013, Levski Sofia supporters openly celebrated Adolf Hitler's birthday while the specific indiscretion which led to the closure of 5,000 seats for the England game on Monday was the displaying of flags belonging to the Bulgarian National Union (BNU) and the Bulgarian National Resistance (BNR), two extreme-right organizations which Klymenko says are "more like skinhead movements than political parties."
Far right foothold
"The level of infiltration of fringe, far-right political groups into the Bulgarian fan scene is astonishing,” he told DW. "The recent rise of the far right across Europe has emboldened racists in society including in football, so the connections are well established and developing.”
The "Lauta Army" - right-wing hooligans linked to Bulgarian side Lokomotiv Plovdiv - at the game against England
Those connections stretch beyond Bulgaria and the Balkans, and beyond football. Lokomotiv Plovdiv's "Lauta Army” ultras operate a boxing club while Levski Sofia's ultras, who could be seen leaving the stadium en masse before half-time on Monday, maintain a friendship with far-right Lazio ultras in Rome. Meanwhile, CSKA Sofia group "Animals,” who were also at the game in a different block, have links to the right-wing German MMA and hooligan scene in Erfurt and Leipzig, including individuals who were involved in the hooligan attack on the alternative Leipzig district of Connewitz in 2016.
Against such a background, it's not hard to see why those Bulgarian fans were not exactly put off by a couple of closed blocks in the stadium, a few "respect” banners and a PA announcement. The stickers and graffiti featuring swastikas, SS death's heads, Celtic crosses and other extreme-right insignia in the stadium's environs made it abundantly clear who was in charge here.
"They are racists and fascists and they openly demonstrate that,” says Klymenko, who nevertheless remains convinced that sanctions do work – they just have to be meaningful enough.
"If you kicked Bulgaria out of the competition, there would be a massive shake-up in Bulgarian football,” he said. "It would also be an example for other countries in Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe, to sit down and think.”
Petar Cholakov contributed to this article.