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Bulgaria's racism row: The aftermath

Bulgarian football journalist Metodi Shumanov explains a chaotic couple of days in Sofia, in the aftermath of racist abuse suffered by England players in their European Qualifier against Bulgaria on Monday.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say these have been the most turbulent 48 hours that Bulgarian football has ever experienced.

The 6-0 defeat to England will enter the history books for two very different reasons – first, this was Bulgaria’s heaviest ever home defeat and second, the game was twice stopped for racist incidents the whole world is still talking about.

As for the impact of it all, it is yet to be fully felt. On Tuesday, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov asked for the president of the Bulgarian FA Borislav Mihaylov to resign, which he did a few hours later, only for the FA’s first vice-president Yordan Letchkov to state on Wednesday that he wouldn’t accept Mihaylov’s resignation at this Friday’s meeting of the Executive Committee.

What happened on Monday night in Sofia couldn’t divide opinions more. A lot of people feel it’s totally unfair to Bulgaria to be portrayed as a racist country based on the actions of a minority.

This was also the opinion of PM Borissov, who denied the existence of racism within the Bulgarian society yesterday, pointing out there were two Brazilian-born players on the Bulgarian team for the England game and making a historic reference to the World War II period when Bulgaria saved its Jewish citizens.

Meanwhile, as far as Bulgaria internationals are concerned, they could not have been more contrasting in their post-match comments. Goalkeeper Plamen Iliev told the waiting journalists he hadn’t heard any chants during the game – which could be the case, of course, but then he said the “public behaved well” and “the England internationals overreacted a bit”.

Strangely or not, his comments made headlines much more in the UK rather than in Bulgaria, where they went largely unnoticed.

In contrast to Iliev, captain Ivelin Popov took a firm stand in the light of everything that happened. At the end of the first half, the striker spent the entire break talking to the fans in the stands, trying to calm things down.

Popov said he was “feeling really bad and ashamed”, with his efforts drawing praise from local and international media outlets as well as the England players.

Twenty-four hours after the game, meanwhile, Bulgaria coach Balakov released an official Facebook statement in which he condemned “all forms of racism” and offered his sincere apologies to the English footballers and to anyone who felt offended.

Balakov’s reputation has suffered a lot over the last week – the team hasn’t won any of his first six games in charge and his immediate post-match comments were something he was criticised for by international media.

The topic about racism and whether it is part of the football culture only or a wider problem in Bulgarian society has become the most discussed issue in the country for the last 48 hours. The way things unfolded on Monday night made many people think the attack was pre-planned and organised rather than being a spontaneous incident.

For years, some hardcore club fans have been at war with the FA and the racist chants were most probably used as a weapon in this war. Whatever the truth, there will be a price to pay for. And it remains to be seen how heavy it will be.

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