In a nation of soccer players and fans, the athletes from Bulgaria's first American football team stand out
Issue 23, August 2008 Special USA Issue 2
by Ani Ivanova; photography by Daniel Lekov, Team Sofia archive On a grassy field in Sofia, lit up by artificial green lights, two dozen men in full regalia ‒ helmets and shoulder and knee pads ‒ place two blocking bags about three metres, or 10 feet, apart. "The first two pairs, step up," an American voice says. Four of the guys get into the enclosed space. A quarterback hands the ball to a running back who tries ‒ and succeeds ‒ in evading a tackle from a linebacker by spinning and running. "Good, who's next?" the voice hollers above copious clapping and cheering. Two more pairs step up. This time, the running back pushes his way past a tackle and a one-on-one ensues until they hear: "OK, that's enough, guys."
No, this isn't an American film being shot in Sofia, nor is it a visiting American college football team. It's Team Sofia, Bulgaria's first professional American football team doing a competitive drill during one of their three weekly practices. The voice belongs to the defensive coach, American Thomas Sadowski, who peppers his English language instructions with bravo and dobre. Some yards away, Nikolay Angelov, the team's physical trainer, as well as coach and quarterback, is teaching a dozen young boys body positioning after putting them through vigorous sprints.
Dynamic, exciting, tough, high adrenaline, complex, teaches you responsibility, team work, challenging both body and mind, strategic, a way of thinking and acting ‒ these are reasons fired off by the Team Sofia players when asked why they love their game. After adjusting their helmets, gulping down some water and trading a joke or two, they head back to the field. Athletic and attractive in their uniforms, the two dozen players from the senior team are running drills with gusto, despite the drizzle.
Until a year ago, no one would have thought that American football, a relative newcomer to Bulgaria, could gain such an ardent following here. In the mid-1990s, when interest in the game first flowered in this country ‒ mostly due to midnight games shown on cable TV ‒ an amateur team was formed. It didn't last long though, not for lack of enthusiasm, but for lack of sponsorship. In 1997, a deep financial crisis devastated Bulgaria ‒ and American football, regardless of where it is played around the globe, is a game where the equipment is as important as it is expensive.
A decade later, things took a different turn. In April 2007 billboards around the city announcing the formation of a team drew hundreds of young men to the first training sessions on a field in Studentski grad, or Student's Town, on 3 May. The day made history as the official launch of Team Sofia. In the following months, the practices moved to Akademika Stadium and the would-be footballers were paired down to 30 young men. Only those with an abundance of physical stamina and athletic prowess continued to train.
The person behind both the billboards and the idea of a pro team was a Bulgarian, Christo Gurkovsky, who had returned to his homeland to open a business after spending a good deal of his life in France. After playing American football there for 13 years in the first and second divisions and on the French national team, Christo had a sufficient amount of sporting spirit to believe in his project and plan carefully to achieve it. The Team Sofia founder and head coach was fully aware of the challenges he faced promoting not only a new sport, but also the culture of struggle, stamina and self-sacrifice that goes with it. "American football is not just a game, but a mind-set and a lifestyle. It requires a good deal of physical strength and toughness, but also responsibility and team work." The focus on the latter led to the choice of the generic name ‒ Team Sofia.
According to Gurkovsky, Team Sofia is a social and human experiment that has no equivalent in Bulgaria. "Those who undergo the tough selection process and become players are leaders on and off the field, they learn that they have to sacrifice themselves for the team. What we build is not just strong athletes but responsible individuals, the kind of people our society needs." Gurkovsky certainly knows how to motivate his young men. Within a year under his guidance, Team Sofia grew from a gathering of athletic individuals into a fully fledged team with professional equipment, coaching and values.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers