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Racism at the heart of Bulgarian football is becoming a litmus test for the rule of law ǀ View

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The racist abuse at the Bulgaria v England Euro 2020 qualifier this October shocked global civil society and caused a wave of critical commentaries and editorials. Even Bulgarian football star Hristo Stoichkov, who received the Ballon d’Or in 1994, was ‘reduced to tears’ and asked for harsh punishments to put an end to racism at the stadium. British PM Boris Johnson called on UEFA to impose severe sanctions while Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov publicly condemned xenophobia.

Bulgarian authorities claim to have arrested at least 12 people in relation to the incident. On 29 October 2019, the UEFA Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body announced its sanctions against the Bulgarian Football Union, which include playing two matches behind closed doors, displaying a banner with the wording ‘NO TO RACISM’ at these games, and a fine.

However, experts have emphasised the importance of education in combatting prejudices because, as Ged Grebby, founder of anti-racism charity Show Racism the Red Card, says, “all the sanctions in the world and all the bans in the world won’t change attitudes.” While the latter is true, isn’t there a bigger issue which remains invisible outside of Bulgaria’s borders? Those familiar with the Bulgarian context can affirm that Bulgarian hooliganism has idiosyncrasies, which highlight the deplorable state of the country’s rule of law.

Paid hooliganism

In light of the racist abuse at the Bulgaria vEngland match, Tihomir Bezlov, senior analyst at the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) who has studied football hooliganism, argues that Bulgarian hooligans “do nothing for free.” He also says their racist views are “fragmentary” and their main motivation to act a certain way is traditionally “commercial.” Indeed, the latest research by the CSD shows that in Bulgaria, football clubs and their fans are exploited for political influence and that fan clubs serve as “nuclei of groups for street pressure.”

Bulgarian civil society is aware that hooligans, and even sports teams, are often employed to cause public chaos or to hijack protests of the opposition. For instance, at a protest in September 2019 against Ivan Geshev, the only candidate nominated as Bulgaria’s General Prosecutor in murky circumstances, heavily tattooed, muscular men dressed in black were specially driven in buses to the event in an attempt to scare the protestors by cursing at them and by threatening them with disembowelment. Later, Radio Free Europe Bulgaria established that many of these men were players of a famous Bulgarian rugby team, which benefits from the support of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s GERB party.

A quick look at the WikiLeaks cables shows that the US Embassy in Bulgaria has been concerned about the links between leading Bulgarian football teams and organised crime for a long time. Historically, Bulgarian football clubs have been owned by members of Bulgaria’s underworld. Today, it is known that ownership of the leading clubs should be given the blessing of the government, precisely because of the opportunities to use the fan clubs for political ends. Moreover, according to the CSD, the symbiosis between organised criminals and some fan groups benefits from beneath the umbrella of the authorities due to the political involvement of these groups.

Eyes wide shut

Todor Batkov, former owner of one of the leading Bulgarian football teams Levski, declared publicly that he recognised some of the hooligans at the Bulgaria v England match because they had caused problems during Europa League games in the past. If that is the case, multiple questions arise vis-à-vis the role of Bulgaria’s police. Do certain hooligans benefit from police protection? If these people are well-known to owners of football teams, they must be known to the authorities, too? Why were they allowed to attend the game? Why weren’t they arrested immediately after the racist incident?

The same police inertia has been observed in other instances in which there were provocations by either hooligans or sports teams. At the protest against Ivan Geshev referred to earlier, the police did not take measures to prevent confrontation and to ensure the safety of those who protested peacefully. A more curious phenomenon was reported by civil activists who organised a subsequent protest against Geshev on the day of his election this year on 24 October. When they headed towards the building of the Supreme Judicial Council where their protest was supposed to take place, they were surprised to find checkpoints guarded by police and gendarmerie, which only allowed supporters of Geshev close to the building.

It turned out that PIK, a Bulgarian tabloid known for tarnishing campaigns against government opponents, organised a counter-protest in support of Geshev. Some attendees of the counter-protest were dressed in a similar way to the hooligans at the Bulgaria v England game – a few of them were hiding their faces, most of them refused to talk to the mainstream media about what they were protesting for. There are currently allegations that some of these people were students at sports schools who got paid to support Geshev that day.

When xenophobia is convenient and the government plays innocent

Bulgaria is currently governed by a coalition between Borissov’s GERB and three Far-Right parties. As a result, the government has become tolerant to xenophobia; racist crimes are left unpunished and racist talk is common among politicians and public officials. At the same time, those following the decline of Bulgaria’s rule of law are aware that the country is an autocracy, albeit with a democratic veneer, because of its EU membership and the warm ties between Borissov and the leadership of the European People’s Party.

Football experts and political analysts suspect that the racist abuse at the Bulgaria v England game may have been planned in advance to discredit the current leadership of the Bulgarian Football Union and to impose a new one. It is noteworthy that Borissov put pressure on the president of this union to resign. However, Article 9 of the FIFA Statutes requires that national football associations be independent and free from influence of third parties. The same requirement is found in Article 7 of the UEFA Statutes. Borissov’s public stance, which seems to violate these obligations, and the fact that the offices of the union were raided by the Bulgarian Directorate Combating Organised Crime on the day following the Bulgaria v England game, raise more questions instead of comforting critics that Bulgaria is finally confronting racism and hooliganism.

Whatever the truth about the racist incident, it is certain that Bulgarian football hooliganism is just the visible part of a more complex issue: corruption and xenophobia have embraced each other. Bulgarian football will pay a high price because its reputation has been shattered while the government is playing innocent regarding longstanding problems to which it has contributed and which it does not intend to resolve at depth. This awful episode of racism at the stadium taught us that football, apart from being a fascinating sport, can also be a litmus test for the rule of law.

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