Twenty years ago, in October 2003, Bulgaria visited Croatia in a match that they lost 1:0. After earlier defeating Croatia and Belgium, the national football team nevertheless secured a spot in the Euro 2004. Today, the national football team occupies last spot in its qualifying group for Euro 2024 and has no chance of qualifying for the championship.
Intolerance towards the failures of Bulgarian football has been growing - today, November 16, a protest in Sofia is being organized against the management of the Bulgarian Football Federation (BFF) in front of Sofia's Vasil Levski National Stadium, where the European qualifier between Bulgaria and Hungary will start at 7 p.m. The center of the Bulgarian capital has been turned into a battlefield, by many fan groupings protesting against the Federation's head - Borislav Mihailov and requesting his resignation.
For 18 years the BFF has been monopolized by Mihailov, former player of the golden 1994 generation, and in that time the quality of the national team and the clubs has plummeted, with the national team failing to qualify for a single major championship.
Ten days before today's qualifier against Hungary, BFF announced that UEFA was moving the match from Sofia to the Botev stadium in Plovdiv where the match would be played behind closed doors. The European football organization contended that "information received by the Bulgarian authorities related to an increased risk of disruption of public order in and around the stadium". Given the information blackout, people started realising that fear of protest might be the reason behind the BFF's euphemistic announcement.
Sofia, Plovdiv, Kardzhali, Razgrad and then - finally - back to Sofia. These were the cities in which the BFF mulled holding the match, finally reverting to Sofia but deciding again that no fans would be allowed in the stadium.
Bulgarian football is not a crowd pleaser
For years, Bulgarian football could be defined as a sad paradox - on the one hand, Bulgarian football clubs and the national team invariably fail, the clubs reap staggering financial losses, often change ownership and coaches, and attract dwindling audiences. On the other hand, the teams exact huge demands on the state and the federation which are often met by politicians using football as a political tool.
The standard of football continues to fall - league champions Ludogorets failed to qualify for the second strongest European club tournament, the Europa League, and play in the third - the recently formed Conference League. The other Bulgarian teams do not feature at all on the European football map.
All the teams are recipients of money from municipalities, public figures, and businessmen, who plough it in without a clear direction. And almost no one has a structured business model. Bulgarian football does not make money, has no added value and does not attract any fans with its quality - or lack of it.
All this can be seen through the reports and income of the clubs themselves - almost without exception, teams fail to build a business that accrues sufficient revenue from their operational activity.
In 2022, the total revenues of the 16 teams from the first professional football league was just under 140 million levs (a growth of 15% from the previous year). This does not include the data of Botev Plovdiv, Slavia and Krumovgrad, which do not upload their financial reports, although they are obliged to do so to obtain a license. The collectively generated revenues are incomparably small compared to any Western team, but they are also insignificant even in the context of the Bulgarian economy - they are comparable to the turnover of a medium-sized company in the country.
Moreover, Bulgarian football clubs have not even managed to generate the 140 million levs in question from their operational activities, and a huge part of that is injected money from owners, companies and municipalities in the form of sponsorships, mainly from gambling companies. In other words, the teams cannot make money from their activities and rely on external capital, the origin of which during the last 30 years was often distributed according to political sympathies. This is also one of the reasons why teams flounder and fail to operate like normal companies.
In Bulgaria, the amount of TV money is about 6.5 million leva, with 60% being distributed equally to the clubs in the first league and 40% according to the ranking there.
"If the club does well and the team plays well in European tournaments, all the revenue could reach a maximum of 50% of our budget," said Filip Filipov, the executive director of CSKA, one of the country's biggest teams in terms of scale and fan base. But even in CSKA's case the club's maintenance, which amounts to 15-20 million levs per year, cannot be met by the club's activities. The considerable amount comes mainly from the company Sport Investment, with the ownership ending up with footballing icon Hristo Stoichkov and with the companies of businessmen Grisha Ganchev and Valter Papazki.
"The problem with the business model of the Bulgarian clubs is that football players are a fast-moving commodity that is expected to be sold at a profit after 6 months without any clear concept from the owners, who feel obliged because of the infusion of money from their side," says Pavel Kolev, CEO of Lokomotiv Plovdiv, regarding the work in Bulgaria.
The total market capitalization of the footballers who play in Bulgaria, according to the website Transfermarkt, is 337 million levs for more than 400 footballers, which ranks us in 20th place in Europe. On closer inspection, it is easy to conclude that few outbound transfers are made, and although players are clubs' most valuable commodity, it is difficult to market them in Europe. This applies in full to locally produced footballers, who are inferior in value to Serbian, Croatian, Turkish and even Macedonian footballers. According to the site, the most expensive Bulgarian player at the moment is Kiril Despodov, whose price is below 9 million levs (he was recently sold by Ludogorets to the Greek PAOK for a much smaller amount). However, the majority of Bulgarian players over the years have been transferred for far less.
Sadly, due to the poor quality of Bulgarian football academies, local footballers are not being sought at all. Neither do they have a strong lobby to arrange their transfer to stronger leagues. Often, for example, they end up in weak teams in Italy and then play in the lower leagues. Saliently, the last Bulgarian player from the local championship who was sold for a significant amount was Radostin Kishishev who fetched 9 million levs in England 23 years ago. And it is likely that it will remain so for a long time.