By Angel Krasimirov
SOFIA (Reuters) – Former Bulgaria striker Lubo Penev, one of the Balkan country’s soccer icons, vowed to lead the domestic football union (BFU) out of years of corruption and controversy if he wins the governing body’s presidential election on Feb. 16.
Penev will be up against incumbent Borislav Mihaylov, who has led the organisation since 2005 and is the BFU’s longest serving president.
“Bulgarian football needs a cardinal change,” Penev, who quit his coaching job at Valencia’s second team to focus on the election, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“The situation is catastrophic after the governance in the last 12 years. We missed four World Cups and three European championships.”
Bulgaria reached the semi-finals at the 1994 World Cup but since Euro 2004 they have failed to qualify for a major tournament.
Penev, who netted more than 150 goals while playing for Spanish clubs such as Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Celta Vigo, proposes a set of reforms intended to make the BFU more transparent, professional and accountable.
The 51-year-old, who was once described by ex-England coach Terry Venables as “one of the top three forwards in the world”, said the Bulgarian soccer authorities were to blame for the poor quality of the domestic league, poor refereeing and lack of spectators.
Mihaylov’s tenure has been marred by corruption and cronyism allegations in the organisation. There have been widespread reports of match-fixing in Bulgaria in recent years but little in the way of progress in holding anyone accountable.
The BFU and referees in the Black Sea state are facing a barrage of criticism from clubs and fans for favouring Ludogorets, who have won the title for the past six seasons thanks to the presence of 10 or 11 foreigners in most of their matches.
While the BFU have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, the days when Bulgarian clubs such as CSKA Sofia reached the semi-finals of European competitions three times between 1967 and 1989 now seem to be long gone.
“It seems like we’re pleased to have a dominant club, whose players are mainly foreigners,” said Penev.
“What happened to our big clubs? We need competition to raise the level of the game to make the national team stronger.
“The BFU failed to acknowledge that competitive balance is a big issue. Some club presidents will not like my rules like the number of foreigners, playing in matches but I’ll work hard to help the home-grown talent.”
The attendance has dropped significantly in recent years with several top-flight matches attracting only a few dozen.
“What can be scarier than not having fans at the stadiums and if there are any, they’re holding posters, insulting the BFU or calling for resignations?” Penev said.
“This game is for the fans, our main task is to bring back fans at the stadiums.”
Mihaylov, whose chances of success remain high, seems to have little concern.
“The delegates elect the president, not the media or anyone else,” Mihaylov said.
“You can see why the Bulgarian football has been in decline,” said former Bulgaria coach Penev. “People, who’re running it, just don’t care about the fans, the only important thing for them is how the delegates would vote.”
The BFU’s officials praised the body’s financial results but a number of clubs are struggling. Top division’s Vereya and Pirin Blagoevgrad have even considered quitting the championship as they struggle to pay wages.
Penev believes the BFU must redouble its efforts to establish a more comprehensive youth development programme.
“The kids are our future and we’ll work together with the state institutions,” he said. “Some costs in youth soccer have become outrageous and we’ll stop it!”
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov, editing by Pritha Sarkar)