‘Resignation!’, The Story of an Ugly Night as Football Fans demand Borislav Mihaylov’s Resignation

jdeposicion
7 min readNov 19, 2023

November 16th, 2023. Bulgaria hosts Hungary for the 2024 Euro Qualifiers. The match itself is of little importance; Bulgaria is last, without a single victory, while Hungary is the leader of the group. What made the match relevant is not what happened during the match or after, but what preceded the match.

To understand the context, it is necessary to go back in time, a month prior to the match. Bulgarian fans share, on social media, a poster announcing a protest against the president of the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU), Borislav Mihaylov. Fans wanted to protest during the match, requesting Mihaylov’s immediate resignation, who has been in power for the last 18 years (since 2005).

But Mihaylov would not resign, oh no. Impossible, it was never his fault that Bulgaria’s last major tournament participation was in 2004. Instead, the Bulgaria-Hungary match would be played behind closed doors, without the fans. UEFA eventually justified the move, claiming the match was deemed ‘high-risk’. The Bulgarian Federation continued to alienate football from its fans, and attempted to move the game instead in the Hristo Botev stadium (Plovdiv, Central Bulgaria). This is not a high-tech stadium, and the stadium could not host games due to ongoing works. Plovdiv refused to host the game, due to the conditions of the stadium. The BFU reacted with an intent to move the game to the stadium of Kardzhali (Southern Bulgaria), in an even smaller stadium. But the venue did not fit UEFA’s requirements, and the BFU eventually moved the game back to Sofia, in Levski Sofia’s stadium.

Does this tomfoolery sound suspicious? It only gets worse, as it was announced that 1600 policemen would surround Levski’s stadium for the game and the protests, as fans decided to start protesting before the game in the streets of Sofia leading to Levski’s stadium. Police and angry fans rarely make up a great mix, and the night of 16th of November 2023 was no exception. Like all protests, it started calmly. *Georgi, a Bulgarian student residing in the US, came all the way to Sofia from the States for the protest. As Georgi marched down the street with a group of protestors, he could notice more and more policemen. Soon enough, the group was controlled, what they were wearing, bottles were confiscated, even simple water bottles. Georgi recalls that policemen also tried to confiscate his keys, which he opposed. If this sounds bad, this was only the beginning, the beginning of the end. Things were about to get ugly.

(183) Бой, ранени и арестувани при протеста срещу президента на БФС Борислав Михайлов — YouTube

Seeing the fans marching, the police went rogue, with harsher methods. Water bombs, sprays and shooting in the air was on the program, trying to divided the crowd. But the crowd did not move, and continued, as fans continued insulting the BFU, requesting Mihaylov’s resignation. More and more trucks came, spraying water bombs and sprays in all directions. According to Georgi, the continuous spraying and later, block the streets is the moment vandalism started. Fire entered the scene, with different objects being burned, from trash cans to (police) cars. According to local sources, ultras continued spreading the fire on civilians cars, much like any protest that turns into chaos. Soon enough, it became street fighting. Georgi, like many other, was in a situation of life and death; there was no protection, the police was armed and the civilians remained unarmed. That’s when *Georgi decided to hide in a storе, for 30 minutes. This was not about the protest anymore, this was about survival; civilians would hide in any place, hoping to not be found, while they would see with their eyes how other civilians would get their heads kicked down to the floor, bleeding, and for the unfortunate, this was their last minutes alive.

Police forces enter a bar following a ‘suspect’

How did Bulgarian Football come to all of this? It is important to note that Mihaylov has already had troubles before. Often drunk during press conferences, it is obvious to the footballing world in Bulgaria that he has no interest in football, an angel turned into a devil. Dimitar Berbatov, Bulgaria’s most beloved figure, and remembered across the world for the wonders he did at Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United, has been an outspoken critic of Mihaylov. So much so that he has been a candidate and Mihaylov’s main opponent since the last elections, in 2021.

But to understand this rivalry, one needs to go back to 2019. In that year, Boyko Borissov is still Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, and following Bulgaria’s results besides other allegation inside the ranks of the BFU (Bulgarian Football Union), the government steps in and pressures Mihaylov to resign. It all seems done as Mihaylov ends up resigning. But when one thought the snake’s tail had been cut off, the evil magician had yet another trick in his pockets: Elections manipulation. In 2021, elections were finally organized, in a massive clash, Mihaylov against Berbatov. ‘Berba’, to this day, remains the most popular candidate. It seemed as it was obvious who was going to win, until it wasn’t. To Berbatov’s dismay, Mihaylov ‘won’ the elections, with a twist. The long-time dictator missed a vote legally to have the required number of votes. Mihaylov was elected, but Berbatov’s campaign took a new turn: A lawsuit.

The Bulgarian superstar came on national TV, arguing that he’s ready to lose, but ‘this was an unfair fight’. Since then, Berbatov sued the federation and Mihaylov due to the result deemed illegal and unfair due to that missing vote, and while this lawsuit started years ago…it still is an ongoing lawsuit. In light of the recent performances — Bulgaria is last of its EURO qualifiers group, in a group composed of Hungary, Serbia, Montenegro and Lithania. Bulgaria’s campaign is winless, despite some games where the opponent had a red card, and to make matters worse, Bulgaria’s last victory in any competition dates back a year ago, against Cyprus.

In Berbatov’s words ‘Bulgaria remains stuck in 94 and we are in 2023’. The critiques of the candidate couldn’t be truer, when Bulgarian football, in locals leagues just like in the national team, lacks basic equipment, and it includes modern medicine, injury prevention, basic diets…

To make matters worse, Bulgaria’s multiple academies have been killed by traditionalism in the past decades. Academies in Sliven (Eastern Bulgarian) just like other academies of big clubs (Sofia’s clubs, Ludogorets) have been deserted by first-team coach. In the 2000’s onwards, as football evolved, Bulgarian clubs tended to hire traditional coaches with no innovation in light of the increasingly counter-attacking and positional play approaches. Clubs realized that it was easier to buy established players from other leagues, have them perform at the club, and soon enough, sell the players to other leagues for profit. That was the sickening mentality that grew year after years in Bulgaria. As for Mihaylov, during all these years, he was never at fault. He realized he could hire new national team coaches (most of them with no regard for ambition in competitions), and would later sack them once they were too unpopular. It became increasingly popular to hate on…the players themselves, with coaches and BFU members claiming that the new generation lacked quality, therefore ‘explaining’ the downfall. How could a nation advance when this was the shitshow shown by the higher authorities?

Mihaylov’s ‘victory’ against Berbatov

But on this Sunday, November 19th 2023, there might be good news. ‘Sportal’, Bulgaria’s main football media, claims that Mihaylov and his team are ready to resign and would announce it next week. A new congress will take place to decide who will succeed, with the current board essentially gone.

It’s likely that this comes after renewed political pressure from Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, Nikolay Denkov. In power since June 2023, Denkov came out after the events, announcing that he has send a letter to FIFA, requesting that the football federation should intervene in BFU’s affairs. Furthermore, an investigation has been launched against the BFU, looking into corruption and election manipulation.

Berbatov has once again come out, expressing the need of complete restructuring of the BFU’s ranks, from top to bottom. Probably, that’s the key to understanding current events. If Mihaylov is Bulgaria’s most hated man as of now, the anger was mainly a result of BFU’s incompetence in the past two decades; to remove Mihaylov is a necessary step, but it’s just the tail; the snake is much, much greater, and Berbatov has been very vocal about the idea of a complete revolution in Bulgarian football. It’s important that even if Mihaylov resign in the next hours or days, that the BFU may find better leadership, hopefully with Berbatov. Elections manipulation in 2021 is another sign of the poison that is found in the federation’s ranks, and this poison needs to be completely eradicated, and that includes changing how many clubs and especially academies are currently operating.

Bulgaria does not lack talent. But a talent in Bulgaria is bound to stagnate and later evaporate. This is the case of many talents, including Kiril Despodov, a Ludogorets player for long who just left for Greece. In Bulgaria, the talents that have stayed always have stagnated because the clubs just can not handle them, can not give them the tactical training as well as medical care for them to develop, forcing them to leave. And that probably is the most important: That Bulgaria may find a new style for itself, that it modernizes its structure within the academies and the first team’s ranks, and that it once again finds a new ambition where it places academies as a starting point of the club’s and country’s methodology.

*Georgi is a fictional name given to a witness of the protests, and his name has been changed to keep his identity anonymous.

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jdeposicion

Football through a different lense, all things football.