Football and politics in Bulgaria have long been intertwined - to the detriment of both
God is a Bulgarian. Yes, that's right: God is a Bulgarian. At least this was what everyone thought on 17 November 1993, moments after the end of the match between Bulgaria and France at Parc des Prences Stadium in Paris.
The game was a qualifying match for the 1994 World Cup in the United States. With a single minute left on the clock, the score was tied one to one, which meant that France would advance. In the last seconds of the game, however, forward Emil Kostadinov scored a goal, reversing the outcome. A Bulgarian television commentator, seized by delirium and weeping with joy, coined the now emblematic phrase "God is a Bulgarian!"
From that moment on, football in Bulgaria was no longer just a sport – it became a national religion.
Under Communism football occupied a prominent place in the hearts of Bulgarians. The reasons for this were as much athletic as political. The Communists attempted to establish total control over citizens' lives – which inevitably resulted in building up social pressure. So somebody came up with the idea of letting off steam through… watching football. To a certain extent the game made up for the lack of personal choices in life – at least you could choose which team to support and express your sympathies with wild shouting at the stadium without worrying about the Communist Party's omniscient eye.
That of course was nothing short of wishful thinking: The Communist Party continued to control even this aspect of citizens' lives – but on the sly.
Most football clubs were associated with various state institutions. The record-holding champions CSKA in Sofia were part of the Bulgarian Armed Forces' athletic wing. Levski, their main rival, was tied to the police, while the several Lokomotiv-named teams around the country were affiliated with the Bulgarian State Railways company. The case was much the same for teams outside Sofia, which led to the absurd situation in which footballers were employed– according to their official documents – as soldiers, military policemen, railway workers and miners.
Although they never said so publicly, fans weren't always happy about their favourite team's connection to the government. Propaganda furthered the idea – convenient for the regime – that football teams, fans and the people's government were all part of one big whole.
This became especially apparent in 1971, when Levski's star players Georgi "Gundi" Asparuhov and Nikola "Kitty Cat" Kotkov died in a car accident. Although kept hush in the media, their funerals attracted thousands of fans.
Scared by the footballers' posthumous fame, the government decided to use the two strikers' popularity to its advantage. It began a powerful campaign to turn the two athletes into idols, and the state media proclaimed their deaths a national tragedy. Most of the attention was focused on Asparuhov, whom the propaganda machine painted as a genius footballer and the embodiment of the Communist ideal – a good husband, father and citizen, always ready to serve society.
When the Bulgarian national football team made it into the 1994 World Cup, however, unprecedented hysteria overwhelmed the nation. This was understandable, as economic reforms were bogged down, unemployment was growing, incomes were falling, and the mafia was beginning to occupy an ever more prominent place in society. Bulgarians were bitterly divided into two camps – supporters of the former Communist Party and backers of the new democratic coalitions.
Only the success of the national football team's could unite Bulgarians. The media skilfully exploited this idea, spreading the belief that while Bulgaria might be a political midget, it was an international football titan nonetheless. Once again players from the national team became national heroes, and Kostadinov was nicknamed "St Emil, the Rooster Executioner" in honour of his defeat of le coq gaulois. In the 1994 World Cup the Bulgarians came in fourth, beating the winners in the previous two championships, Argentina and Germany. Hristo Stoytchkov, whose mouth is as filthy as his left leg is magical, was awarded the 1994 Golden Boot for the top goal scorer. In Bulgaria, this elevated him to demigod status, and the entire team were nicknamed the Golden Boys, and were welcomed back home with tears of joy.
The political establishment soon figured out a way to take advantage of the incredible social energy football generated in Bulgarians. After their "American summer," members of the national team became honoured citizens of their hometowns, received government awards and became highly sought-after guests at political cocktail parties and other events. Football gradually entered the sphere of state politics, and at every important match the official box at the national Vasil Levski Stadium was crammed to bursting with MPs, ministers and high-ranking judges.
However, footballers were far from innocent media stars exploited by politicians for personal gain. Their fame as national heroes made them feel invincible and above the law – and scandals soon followed.
Bulgarians were shocked to learn that their idol Stoytchkov had "forgotten" to pay taxes and that he had put a police siren on the roof of his car without any legal basis, merely to escape sitting in traffic. The striker Lyuboslav Penev turned out to be in cahoots with shady businessmen. The name of Yordan Lechkov, famous for his amazing goal scored by a header against the Germans in 1994, was mixed up with an alleged cocaine scandal.
At first the Golden Boys fame proved resilient and the footballers remained the darlings of the media and average Bulgarians, despite their "petty" transgressions. Gradually, however, their golden glow began to tarnish – nowadays it's hard to find a Bulgarian who has an entirely positive take on the stars from the "American summer."
Politicians weren't the only ones who discovered a way to benefit from football. Bulgaria's new businessmen, who had reasons for wanting to hide the sources of their first – and subsequent – millions, saw football teams as an excellent way to legalise their incomes. All of a sudden owning a football club was the hip thing to do – and this inevitably had consequences for the game's quality. More and more matches seemed fixed in advance, the most striking examples being the games between CSKA and Litex during 1999. The two teams played twice for a relatively short period – one game was during the Bulgarian Championships and the other was the final match in the Bulgarian Cup. To become champions, Litex needed a victory in the first game, while CSKA needed to win the Cup to qualify for European club tournaments.
In the weeks before the matches the media claimed that they were fixed and that the "rivals" had agreed to split the victories between them. And that was exactly what happened. Players and coaches from both teams swore that the games hadn't been fixed – but in both matches the losing team's reluctance to go on the offensive was painfully obvious.
In some cases the main perpetrators make no attempt to hide the fact that they've helped fix games. In an interview, Bulgarian football legend Bozhidar "The Gibbon" Iskrenov admitted that a 1992 game between Levski and Botev Plovdiv had been fixed. In the 1980s the Gibbon played for Levski, but at the time of the match in question he was on the Botev team. The game ended in a 2:2 tie, after Iskrenov made a foul which gave Levski a chance to equalise through a penalty kick.
An even more shocking example was the match between Spartak Varna and Belasitsa Petrich in the fall of 2006. Only seconds before the end of the game, Spartak's Todor Radomirov scored a goal, bringing the final score to 3:3. However, instead of congratulating him, his team-mates roughed him up in the locker room as punishment for spoiling their agreement to lose 2:3.
There's plenty of proof of such behind-the-scenes deal-making, but the leadership of the Bulgarian Football Association, or BFS, hasn't taken any real measures against fixed games. Little wonder, since the BFS itself has gradually turned into a nest of corruption, and has essentially stopped carrying out its duties as a supervising body. The former head of the association Ivan "The Big Brother" Slavkov – a sports journalist and Communist playboy who shot to power after marrying Lyudmila Zhivkova, daughter of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov – went as far as to publicly boast that it was he who decided which team would become champion.
In 2005, The Big Brother was forced to resign as chairman of the BFS and of the Bulgarian Olympic Committee after investigative journalists from the BBC filmed him in readiness to accept bribes to support London's bid for hosting the 2012 Olympics.
After Slavkov's fall from grace, the Golden Boys quickly took his place. Former goalie Borislav Mihaylov became association president and Emil Kostadinov, Yordan Lechkov and Nasko Sirakov joined the board of directors. These changes were merely cosmetic, and accusations of fixed games and conflicts of interests continued.
The situation became particularly tense during the summer of 2008, when the BFS suspended the national champion CSKA's professional licence. The team lost its right to play in the qualifiers for the Champions League, and Levski took its place in the subsequent administrative shuffle. Since Mihaylov and Sirakov had previously played for Levski and other prominent Levski fans also held high positions in the association, CSKA claimed that the decision was the result of corruption. Of course, there are many sides to every story. At the same time, the Union of European Football Associations, or UEFA, was threatening to kick CSKA out for its murky financial situation and long-standing debts.
Before the CSKA scandal had blown over, the BFS found itself in the clutches of a new crisis. At the end of September Vice President Ivan Lekov was arrested and accused of corruption and game fixing.
The low quality of Bulgarian football is inversely proportional to the high number of BFS scandals. Fans are less and less inspired to watch games live, deeming it not worth their while to pay for a ticket to see a fixed match.
The link between football and politics, however, has not been severed in the interest of society – it has merely taken on a different form. Yordan Lechkov is the man who epitomises the close connection between football and politics. In 2003 he won the mayoral elections in his hometown of Sliven, and four years later was re-elected. His political opponents accuse him of corruption and of governing in an authoritarian style. Lechkov laughs off any such criticism.
For their part, politicians don't hesitate to put on a jersey and kick a ball around to gather some public support. President Georgi Parvanov and Sofia Mayor Boyko Borisov most frequently pull such stunts. Both regularly organise charitable games with diplomats and journalists, scoring goals and proudly strutting before the cameras. Most media outlets eagerly cover these "significant" events.
Football has also made its way into political jargon. When the Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria party, or GERB, won five seats in the European Parliament in the 2007 elections, the party's informal leader, Boyko Borisov, quipped, "with a five to null victory, all comments are unnecessary." In another interview, he called himself "the Right's best striker" and swore to score goals against the Left "with both legs and his head." The Socialists initially refrained from indulging in football rhetoric, instead sticking to the old party cliché – "all Bulgarians are on the same team."
By the end of 2008, however, their resolve broke down and they picked up on Borisov's style: "In Bulgarian politics we the Bulgarian Socialist Party are the team with tradition and history. We are not a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon sponsored in a fixed game in a championship that has long been bought and sold."
It seems that no one is paying attention to voters, who long ago expressed their opinion of both local football and the political establishment. They have long since showed them the red card, and for years now prefer to watch Champions League matches on television.
THE MAJOR BULGARIAN FOOTBALL TEAMS AND THEIR FORMER AND CURRENT PRESIDENTS
Iliya Pavlov 1994–1999
Before a sniper assassinated him on 7 March 2003, Bulgarian "businessman" Iliya Pavlov had made it to the Polish magazine Wprost's list of the 10 richest men in Central and Eastern Europe, having a net worth of $1.5 billion. The former wrestler amassed this fortune via his Multigroup business empire, which controlled hundreds of companies in sectors ranging from metallurgy to energy to tourism. Pavlov died as a US citizen, despite the fact that two consecutive US ambassadors to Bulgaria objected to his application for citizenship, according to British investigative journalist Misha Glenny. While at the helm of CSKA, Pavlov constantly clashed with fans and team veterans. After losing control of CSKA, he bought Cherno More Varna, which he headed until his death.
The richest Bulgarian at the moment ranks a humble 61st in Wprost's list of the wealthiest Central and Eastern European businessmen. He is still far from the poorhouse, however – his personal wealth is estimated at around 1 million euros. Bozhkov has his fingers in many pies, including tourism, gambling, insurance, real estate and transportation, and has recently expressed interest in massive infrastructure projects. While he was president of CSKA, the team won the Bulgarian Championships twice, in 2003 and 2005. However, fans have never embraced him with open arms, since they consider him a secret supporter of Levski, CSKA's bitterest rival. In 2006 CSKA lost the championship after a series of questionable games, and fans were quick to accuse Bozhkov of selling the title to Levski. In 2006 Bozhkov sold the team to Indian businessman Pramod Mittal.
In 2006 Indian billionaire Pramod Mittal bought both CSKA and the Kremikovtsi metalworks and made Tomov, former deputy chairman of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP, the managing director of the factory and team president. Tomov hasn't been popular with fans, who accuse him of ruining everything he touches. Despite this lack of faith, during the 2007–2008 season CSKA was undefeated and became champion with a record 16-goal lead over Levski. The glory proved short-lived, as during the summer of 2008 the BFS revoked the CSKA's licence due to unpaid debts, and the team lost its right to compete in European club tournaments. Fans were furious. Tomov was later accused of embezzling large sums from Kremikovtsi and redirecting them to CSKA. The case still drags on. If he is found guilty, Tomov faces up to 25 years in prison.
Michael Cherney 1999-2003
The Russian billionaire bought Levski in 1999. As soon as he arrived in Bulgaria, the tycoon became a major figure in politics, business and sports. He invested in telecommunications, banks and media, but his biggest strength was political lobbying, which guaranteed his company MobilTel a long-standing monopoly. According to former Russian counterintelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in London in 2006, Cherney worked for the Russian secret services laundering dirty money. According to Litvinenko, Cherney used Levski as a smokescreen for his shady activities. In 2000 Cherney was expelled from Bulgaria as a "national security risk."
Cherney finally gave up on his attempt to return to Bulgaria and transferred his assets to his lawyer, Todor Batkov. Batkov has solid political connections – in 2008 President Georgi Parvanov awarded him the Stara Planina Order, the government's highest honour, on occasion of Batkov's 50th birthday. However, the barrister will go down in Bulgarian sports history mainly for his colourful interviews. After a match between Levski and Schalke 04 of Germany during the UEFA Cup, Batkov said this about the referee, Mike Riley: "This British poof broke the game." UEFA investigated the incident, but never meted out any reprimand.
owner since 1996
A former wrestler with two university degrees, Ganchev owns dozens of companies in Bulgaria and abroad that rake in an annual turnover of more than 800 million leva. His business interests range from petrol delivery, food and juice production, sugar and chemicals to metal. When Ganchev took the reins of the Lovech football team and renamed it "Litex," after one of his most successful firms, the team was in Second Division. Two years later they were the Bulgarian national champions. They defended their title successfully in 2001, and in 2004 won the Bulgarian Cup. Litex has the best transfer strategy in Bulgaria – its players go to the UK, Germany, Spain and France, while the foreign players who Litex buys are then resold at a profit to Levski and CSKA. Due to his other business commitments, Ganchev has retired from active management of Litex, but remains the majority owner.
Angel Bonchev executive manager 2000-2008
After Ganchev's withdrawal from Litex's operational management, the club's president became Angel Bonchev. He was kidnapped in May 2008 and was found after two months in captivity. While delivering his ransom, his wife was kidnapped too. She was freed three weeks later after Bonchev donated 157,000 euros to a charity.
A national and Balkan wrestling champion, in 1986 Iliev was sentenced to 11 years in prison for participating in a gang rape. In 1991 he was released early, only to be arrested again a year later under suspicion of car theft and possession of fake documents. In 1995 he was charged with theft and battery – his most recent arrest was in 2000, for hooliganism. Georgi is the brother and heir of Vasil Iliev, a high-profile Bulgarian "businessman" killed in 1995. His semi-legal business dealings were organised around VIS/VAI Holdings, which dabbled in tourism, food production, stores, nightclubs, the production and sale of liquor, and the cigarette trade. The 2003–2004 season was a landmark for Lokomotiv Plovdiv – for the first time in its history the team became Bulgarian champions, going on to win the Bulgarian Cup. Rumour has it that even before the season began, Iliev had bet 3 million euros in Asia that his team would become champions – and then made sure they won the title with a combination of bribes and threats. Fans idolised the team's president and were heartbroken by Iliev's murder in 2005.
Aleksandar Tasev 2006-2007
Famous as a cherry merchant, the Lokomotiv Plovdiv president also had investments in construction, furniture production and the fuel trade, as well as being the owner of a shoe factory and a winery. Tasev was murdered in 2007, making him the club's third president to die a violent death in less than three years. In 2005 Nikolay Popov was also killed – although at the time of his murder he was no longer president of the club.
Ivan Slavkov 2004-2008
The Spartak president is a businessman with a taste for politics: he sits on the Varna city council from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, or DPS. In the autumn of 2008 he was arrested under suspicion of organising and leading a criminal group involved in prostitution, people trafficking, money laundering and drug dealing. During raids of his offices, police discovered small arms, machine guns, grenades and ammo. He is currently in custody.
Nikolay Gigov since 1994 chief sponsor, since 1999 majority shareholder
The arms dealer is considered one of Bulgaria's richest men. Gigov has good political connections, primarily with the Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP. As a young man Gigov played football for Slaviya Sofia. In 1992–1993 he was a sponsor of Lokomotiv Plovdiv and in 1994 he vied for the CSKA presidency. After losing the election to Iliya Pavlov, Gigov set his sights on Lokomotiv Sofia, where he remains to this day. He has invested hefty sums into the team and enjoys the respect of the club's fans.
Hristo Kovachki since 2007
With a personal fortune of more than one billion leva, Hristo Kovachki is considered the second wealthiest Bulgarian after Vasil Bozhkov. Kovachki owns power plants, mines, heating companies, consulting firms, a retail chain and a noteworthy stake in Municipal Bank and Municipal Insurance Company. Since 2007 he has sponsored Minyor Pernik, which has again entered First Division after a few years' absence. At the end of 2008 a tax audit was initiated of Kovachki's companies, and he was arrested on suspicion of tax fraud and money laundering.
Mladen "Madzho" Mihalev until the late 1990s
This former wrestler was a schoolmate of Iliya Pavlov and Georgi Iliev. His name is most often connected with the criminal group SIK. After the murders of Dimitri "The Russian" Minev, Stoil "The Calf" Slavov and Milcho "Uncle Mile" Bonev, the only surviving SIK members were Mihalev and the "Margini" brothers, Nikolay and Krasimir Marinovi, who are now on trial for conspiracy to murder. Fearing for his life, currently Mihalev lives outside Bulgaria. He took control of Slaviya during SIK's heyday and in the 1995–1996 season Slaviya won the Bulgarian Championships, although their victory was tarnished with accusations of fixed games and physical abuse of referees and players.
Ventsi Stefanov since 1995
When Mihalev gave up leadership over the team, it fell into the hands of Ventsi Stefanov, known as the "SIK banker." Stefanov has a smart transfer policy and takes good care of the team's home tangible assets. In November 2005 his 23-year-old son was kidnapped. Stefanov allegedly paid ransom, but the young man remains missing. His father claims he was killed.
Dimitar Sabev owner since 2006
The wealth of one of the biggest fish in Bulgaria's petrol business has been estimated at more than 700,000 leva. As a shareholder in Petrol Holding, Sabev controls one of the country's biggest fuel distributors. He's also a business partner of the Latvian billionaire Denis Dzhersov, who was expelled from Bulgaria in 2000 as a national security risk. Dzhersov appealed his expulsion and in 2004 was allowed to return to the country. Some believe Sabev to be Dzhersov's figurehead in Bulgaria.
Kostadin "Kotse Matsa" Hadzhiivanov since 1997
The businessman, who since 2003 has been active in local politics, became president of Belasitsa at the age of 30. Hadzhiivanov owns woodworking shops, but the media alleges that he also deals in tobacco products. Belasitsa Petrich wavers between First and Second Divisions, and its president has been accused of having a special fondness for Levski, whose former athletic director Nasko Sirakov also happens to be Hadzhiivanov's kum, or best man. In 2005 two men severely beat Hadzhiivanov in front of his offices in Sofia because he owed them 100,000 leva. In September 2008 he was arrested in Greece on a European arrest warrant. The charges stem from a 1995 incident in which authorities in Germany seized a contraband load of 450,000 packs of cigarettes on their way to the UK. In December, Hadzhiivanov pleaded guilty before a court in Germany, and was given a 2-year suspended sentence and a 120,000 euros fine.