|Construction of new sports infrastructure is probably the main drive behind Bulgaria's government renewed ambitions to host major sporting events|
The memory of Bulgaria's ten gold medals in the Seoul 1988 Olympics, when it finished seventh in the overall medal charts, convinces many Bulgarians that the country is still a sporting power with unfulfilled potential.
The reality is not even close. Bulgaria tops EU league tables for childhood and teenage obesity, and while major European football clubs compete for fans in even the remotest corners of the earth, supporters in Bulgaria have literally nowhere to sit because the stadiums are in ruins.
Nonetheless, at the beginning of April, the government decided to nominate Bulgaria to co-host the European football championship in 2028 and the World Cup in 2030. The idea, which is also shared by Serbia, Greece and Romania, sounds far-fetched. First, because the Balkan countries will try to compete against the far more influential Russia (2018), Qatar (2022), and the US, Canada and Mexico (2026) as World Cup hosts. On top of that, the 2030 tournament has a very special significance for FIFA, since it marks the centenary of the first World Cup in Uruguay.
Yet Bulgaria's ambition is limitless. Once again, on the recommendation of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, spurred on by IOC president Thomas Bach, the country is preparing a candidacy for the youth winter Olympics.
The value of these utopian projects, however, is unknown. Are they really designed to develop sports and the economy? Or they are mere political acrobatics and attention grabbers to distract from more pressing problems?
Prime Minister Borissov and his team have repeatedly emphasized the 350 million levs invested in sports infrastructure over recent years. The construction of a number of multi-functional sports arenas has enabled the country to host prestigious events. In September 2018 alone Bulgaria simultaneously organized three world championships - volleyball, rhythmic gymnastics and rowing.
The government made great play of this achievement and spurred hopes for even bigger meat. At a meeting in Sofia with Mr Borissov, Mr Bach recommended that Bulgaria should be a candidate to host the winter Olympics. Mr Borissov replied that it would be better if the country gained some experience with the youth winter Olympics, and promptly directed preparations for a 2024 bid.
In this context, arose the surprise announcement of a joint Balkan candidacy to host the football World Cup in early November. It has been pointed out many times that the initiative is a political move, with the four prime ministers concerned at its core.
"This is global news - the fact that four Balkan states, against the backdrop of all the tensions and conflicts on the peninsula, have found a common language, a common path, common goals, and have embarked on developing the region economically and politically," commented Bulgaria's sports minister Krassen Kralev.
Development - or a field for white elephants?
Mr Kralev, the most ardent government member on the subject, emphasizes two key elements: that the candidacy will reap economic benefits and will compel the country to build stadiums. This, in turn, would help the development of football. By this logic, even if the 2030 FIFA bid fails, the Balkan project could redirect its energy into winning the hosting of a European championship.
The political idea, which seemingly popped out of nowhere, was followed by a gradual, but still nebulous unveiling. At first, Mr Kralev said that each country would have to provide two or three stadiums. Currently, this has become three or four per country, since the 2030 World Cup will have 48 participants. Potential sites for stadiums are being surveyed.
Several months ago, Mr Borissov described the Vasil Levski National Stadium as useless and said it caused congestion in downtown Sofia. Currently, the construction of a new stadium in Sofia is being discussed as well as the modernization of the Vasil Levski stadium. There's also speculation about other big cities - Varna, Burgas and Plovdiv.
At the moment, FIFA's requirements are for stadiums with a minimum capacity of 40,000 seats, while those hosting the quarterfinals need at least 60,000. The stadiums hosting the opening ceremony and the finals must have a capacity of at least 80,000. For now, Bulgaria is contemplating the 40,000 seat option. The sports minister believes that the nice new stadiums will contribute to the development of football. However, these stadiums may just end up as memorials to an unfulfilled dream. Currently, the average attendance in Bulgaria's elite First League stands at about 4,000, and the national team rarely draws more than 5,000 spectators.
And this brings us to the big problem of Bulgarian football, and of the sport as a whole - the lack of a clear strategy. The exceptions are clubs run under a business model that pursue concrete goals.
Bulgaria will probably manage to build the stadiums - even though this discussion comes at a time when the quality of construction of government and municipal projects is dubious, and the shady method of choosing a contractor is under public scrutiny. Simply building the stadiums won't change anything, however. Neither would it be sufficient to win the bid, because airport and road infrastructure, accommodation and sporting facilities for the teams would be needed too.
Several years ago Sofia was a candidate to host the 2020 European football championship. It entered the bid with a project for a new stadium, which was never built anyway. In addition to failing in its bid, Sofia received a harshly critical evaluation from UEFA.
Bulgaria also had made unsuccessful bids to host the Winter Olympics. The present possibility to host the youth winter Olympics seems more feasible since unlike the Olympics, the decision is taken directly by the IOC. The requirements for candidates are also significantly lower.
There is another big "but" here, though. The government is hoping to amend existing laws in order to modernize the skiing infrastructure on Vitosha, the mountain overlooking Sofia, which is expected to shoulder the main burden of any potential event.
"Bulgaria is a favourite as long as we fulfil our obligations because as you know, there's no way to renovate the Vitosha infrastructure. I'm hoping that the environment ministry will finally find its nerve and put the necessary legislative changes in motion," said Kralev. He also announced the budget for the youth games is between 30 and 40 million euro.
Bulgaria is eager to host big sporting events but for the moment this is manifested in political speak, rather than real capabilities and a clear strategy.
The sportiest nation (nearly)
Bulgarians often refer to themselves as a sporting nation and the country's athletes are considered its ambassadors to the world. But these are obsolete clichés.
Yearly Eurostat data reveals disturbing results - Bulgaria's population is one of the least active in sporting terms of EU countries; it also harbours one of the highest levels of youth obesity.
Only about 10% of Bulgarians do regular physical exercise, defined as at least two hours a week. By comparison, in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Germany, the percentage is between 60 and 80. A UN report states that the number of obese Bulgarian children has doubled over the past 15 years.
Mr Kralev announced in 2017 that by 2021 the government will allocate more than 130 million levs for the development of sporting facilities for students.
Meanwhile, millions of euro from EU funds have gone on building stadiums in small towns and villages. They have mushroomed even in places where there are few competitors. Overall, the saga stands as testimony to Bulgaria's ability to appropriate EU funds rather than reach objectives.