For many Bulgarians the 1994 World Cup in the United States, when Bulgaria beat Germany and ended fourth in the world, was the apex of Bulgarian football. Stoytchkov then became, and probably continues to be, the most famous Bulgarian ever, by far outshining all kings, prime ministers, writers and artists since the 19th century.
Those Bulgarians old enough to remember 1994 are now appalled because in 2019 Bulgaria marked its worst ever loss, 0-6. To add insult to injury, the loss happened in Sofia, at the Stalin-era national stadium called Vasil Levski.
What Europe and the world will remember of that warm October evening when Bulgaria lost 0-6 to England, however, is not the outrageous score. Europe and the world will remember what The Guardian billed a miserable occasion… in a miserable stadium against a miserable opposition played out to a miserable backdrop of recrimination and bad blood.
Why? Because sections of the home crowd repeatedly abused with racist insults England's players. There were monkey chants and Nazi salutes by black-clad fans. The Bulgarian police did nothing and Bulgarian journalists could be seen chatting and laughing, greeting the "show" not with shame or remorse but as if it were at best an inconvenience.
Krasimir Balakov, Bulgaria's manager and one of the USA 1994 heroes, later said he had not noticed anything disturbing and the police reported the event had gone through "without an incident."
The referee, however, thought different. Ivan Bebek of Croatia enforced two stoppages in the first half, threatening to abandon the game altogether if the racist outrage did not cease. In the meantime, Marcus Rashford and Ross Barkley had already scored, soon to be followed by Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane.
As Gareth Southgate's side walked off victorious, Bulgarians were left pondering over the various conspiracy theories that were quick to emerge in the wake of the fiasco. Those ranged from a unnamed British tabloid having paid sums of money to Bulgarian fans to create the scandal so the hacks could get something to report on, to a clandestine plot to topple the chief of the Bulgarian Football Union, Borislav "Bobby" Mihaylov, another USA 1994 hero. According to a more extravagant hypothesis, Britain had a vested interest in the scandal because it wanted to clear itself of the bad image it had thanks to its own football hooligans…
Balkan conspiracy theories aside, the Bulgaria-England match prompted lightning-speed responses. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Bulgaria to take action to prevent racist excesses at the stadiums. His Bulgarian counterpart, Boyko Borisov, himself a football fan and an amateur footballer in the Bistritsa Tigers club on the outskirts of Sofia, described the Nazi fans as "oligophrens." He went on to react the way he runs the country in general, by making offers no one can refuse.
Acting through his sports minister, Krasen Kralev, he called on Borislav Mihaylov to resign. As this was a direct violation of UEFA rules that stipulate politics must not interfere in sports, Mihaylov initially refused.
To make the point clearer, the Organised Crime Squad was sent to comb the football association offices to investigate… suspected misconduct by Bulgarian referees.
Mihaylov must have then realised this was an "offer" he'd better take up on, and promptly departed. So did all of the football union executives.
The racist outrage at the Bulgaria-England match was news in Bulgaria for about a week. Different individuals voiced different views both in the press and on social media. Some Bulgarians were indignant. How can England grouch, provided there was plenty of racism there and, furthermore, England had in fact invented racism as such? – some Bulgarians asked. Others reverted to the tried-and-tested method of pitching Nazism against Communism. The West, one social media influencer noted, is abashed when there is a display of a Nazi symbol. Yet, it condones the public display of red stars. Pictures of the last Bulgarian King Boris, standing next to Hitler and not giving the Nazi salute, were quickly juxtaposed with pictures of the English team with their right arms extended upwards, in May 1938. Very few people noted that King Boris, a Nazi ally, did not put out his arm because… he was wearing mufti – and military salutes were supposed to be given only by heads of state wearing appropriate uniforms.
Unfortunately, the Bulgaria-England match is just the tip of the iceberg of Bulgarian racism that very few people in Bulgaria want to acknowledge. If opinion polls are anything to go by, Bulgaria – in addition to being rock bottom in the EU in terms of freedom of speech, median incomes, life expectancy and so on and so forth – leads the way in intolerance and racism. In fact, hardly anyone in the EU can afford to be so openly racist as the Bulgarians.
There is a great deal of hypocrisy as well. Younger Bulgarians, many of whom asserting they are pro-Western, anti-Russian, rightwing, pro-democracy and pro-free press were amongst the most vocal critics of the Nazi outrage at Vasil Levski stadium. Yet, in their declared anti-Communism and rejection of the recent past they tend to substitute one evil with another. Justifying interwar Nazi organisations calling themselves names such as the Bulgarian National Legions and espousing anti-Semitism and racism is just as bad as condoning present-day racist outrages.
"There are yobs and racists in any country," Mihail Ekimdzhiev, a human rights lawyer, commented. "Bulgaria's problem is that such people have been in government for decades, openly propagating their supremacist and racist views. Most media and agencies of the state supposed to fight against racism and xenophobia keep still as if in complicity."
In fact there is hardly any need to look at mainstream attitudes to, say, black people in Bulgaria – because there are so very few of them. One needs to look no further than the country's Gypsies, whom the overwhelming majority of Bulgarians consider to be subhuman, to see racism and intolerance are big time in a small country like Bulgaria. The 0-6 score is by far the lesser issue.