"Bulgar off, you racists", "Nazis target 3 lions", "Race shame in Sofia" This was just a sample of the -banner headlines in the UK press from Tuesday, 15 October, the day after the England-Bulgaria Euro 2020 qualifier in Sofia. The game was not memorable for the quality of football on the pitch - the Bulgarian team suffered a disastrous defeat, even by its own standards, with 6:0 against the English - but for the pictures of a group of ultras making Nazi salutes that circumnavigated the globe afterwards. Additionally, some black English players complained that fans made monkey noises when they had possession.
Ugly as it was, the most surprising thing about the way the racist scandal unfolded was the surprised reactions and overzealous outcry it attracted in the world (and especially in British) media. It is strange the case went viral bearing in mind the past offences of Bulgarian ultras, exacerbated by the ineffectual reaction of domestic football authorities and law enforcement services. Furthermore, international observers focused so much on the scandalous scenes that they forgot the pernicious political backdrop that has long enabled - and even perpetuated - them.
Little actual surprise
The Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) has been sanctioned at least once for racist abuse in the last decade. This happened in 2011 during another European Championship qualifier against England when three black British players complained of fans' abuse. Additionally, two of the largest Bulgarian clubs - Levski Sofia and CSKA - had been criticized regularly because of their ultras' behaviour that included unveiling a "Happy Birthday" poster on a 20 April 2013 game to "celebrate" Adolf Hitler's birthday.
Needless to say, these scandals never led to any crackdown of the hooligans' sections or emboldened law enforcers to take more serious action. Ever since her first mandate as Sofia mayor in 2011, Yordanka Fandakova had claimed she would push for reforms to clamp down on hooliganism during the big capital-based derbies of the Bulgarian championship. Nothing has changed since then - central parts of the city are routinely closed off as no-go zones, especially during Levski-CSKA games.
And even these measures rarely help. A British black man Leon Koffi got severely beaten in October last year, most probably by Levski's ultras, right in front of the Internal Ministry headquarters in Sofia. "While I was losing consciousness I could hear them imitating the sound of monkeys. When I woke up, I didn't know where I was," the 48-year-old, who came to Bulgaria on an expat contract with a business service company, told KQ at the time. A year later, the investigation against the perpetrators of the attack is nowhere, with CCTV footage from the ministry's own cameras failing to identify the hooded gang behind the attack.
Even if the perpetrators were taken into custody, they would merely be indicted for simply inflicting bodily harm, the State Prosecution told KQ at the time, ignoring the possibility of raising charges for the crime of "inflicting bodily harm for racist or xenophobic reasons", which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. A 2015 report by Amnesty International warned that, despite existing legislation, authorities in Bulgaria consistently fail to identify and adequately investigate hate crimes, not do they collect or publish data on such crimes. In December, Council of Europe human rights commissioner Dunja Mijatovic noted that hate speech and hostility against minorities, and especially against Roma, met with little response from the state. "Some very serious instances of hate speech by certain high-level politicians incur no response and go systematically unsanctioned," she said.
More questions than answers
Given Bulgaria's prevailing political environment it's hardly surprising that racist hooligan gangs are tolerated. And most international media outlets omitted to mention that this is by no means a recent phenomenon. As security researcher Tihomir Bezlov from the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD) told Dnevnik.bg after the racist scandal, the tendency towards political instrumentalization and radicalization of football fan clubs had started a while ago, becoming especially prominent during the public protests of 2013-2014. "These gangs do nothing for free," Mr Bezlov underlined.
Gangs of hooded men - including some members of the infamous football fan clubs - came "to the rescue" of the only nominee for Prosecutor General, Ivan Geshev, as recently as late October, when they faced off people protesting his appointment.
Finally, the reaction of the Bulgarian authorities after the incident raises more suspicions than hopes. First of all, out of the 12 people detained after the match, none were indicted for hate speech, but instead got fined for "interrupting public order," a much milder offence. Secondly, after Prime Minister Boyko Borissov asked for the resignation of Borislav Mihaylov as President of the BFU - which the latter initially refused - police surprisingly raided the offices of the union. It would be fair to ask why the organized crime unit of the Internal Ministry suddenly got interested in potential financial manipulations by the BFU just at that moment.
Just as it might be curious to find out why the Bulgarian ultras left the arena voluntarily when the game was suspended for the second time (the English team warned they would walk off the pitch if the game were suspended three times). These questions could yield potentially more revealing answers about the complex interactions between Bulgarian authorities and the hooligans than an analysis of the racism of Bulgarian football fans.
None of this seeks to downplay the prevailing xenophobia of many Bulgarians and the country's football fans. But failing to understand the context surrounding the scandal puts the focus on Bulgarian racism rather than on the political environment that enables it.