Bulgarian Soccer Chief Resigns After Fans’ Racist Abuse of England

In the hours after Bulgarian soccer fans made monkey chants, raised arms in Nazi salutes and verbally abused black players on England’s national soccer team on Monday, outrage spread from the field to soccer officials and fans around the world.

The English team condemned the fans’ actions and resolved to keep playing. The president of European soccer’s governing body called the behavior unacceptable, fueled by rising nationalism. And on Tuesday, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov of Bulgaria forced the head of the country’s soccer federation to step down.

But for him and many other Bulgarians, the vitriol hurled by the fans could not have come as too great a surprise: Hate speech has grown more mainstream in Central Europe with the rise of nationalist parties in recent years. Three of those parties have joined the governing coalition in Bulgaria, with the prime minister mostly tolerating their worst behavior.

On Monday night, that kind of conduct was televised across the Continent at the European Championship 2020 qualifier match in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. There, as in many countries in Europe, the most extreme political groups tend to be tied — if not officially, then often ideologically — with the most extreme soccer fans.

In a letter to UEFA’s general secretary last week, Mr. Mihaylov called the England manager’s claims that his players could face abuse from spectators “offensive” and “derogatory.”

But it did not take long for the chants to begin raining down from the stands. By the 28th minute, play was stopped to try and get the situation under control. An announcement was made in the stadium that the match could be called off unless the behavior stopped, in line with UEFA’s three-step anti-racism protocol.

But in the 43rd minute, play had to be stopped again. This time, with their team losing 3-0, dozens of Bulgarian supporters who had been involved in the monkey chanting left the stadium.

The chairman of England’s Football Association, Greg Clarke, was in the stadium at the time, and called the racist chanting he had heard “appalling.” It had left many England players and staff members visibly upset, he said.

England’s team captain, Harry Kane, posted on Twitter that he was proud of the “togetherness” that the team had shown in “disgraceful circumstances.”

“Racism has no place in society or football. It needs stamping out for good,” he added. Several England players expressed support for action against racism in soccer.

The episode Monday also renewed concern about the effect hate speech is having on society and politics more broadly. In Bulgaria, as in other Central European nations, groups attacking migrants also frequently target the Roma or other minority groups. And as the number of migrants looking to enter Europe has fallen, the attacks on other groups has picked up.

Some of the most extreme voices in Bulgaria can now be found within the government. In order to stay in power in 2017, Mr. Borisov needed to form a coalition with the three ultranationalist parties, called the United Patriots, even though some of its members have a history of calling for violence against migrants, denigrating women and using vile language.

In 2014, Valeri Simeonov, a prominent lawmaker in the far-right Patriotic Front, one of the United Patriots parties, declared that “parts of the Roma ethnicity” in Bulgaria have become “arrogant, ferocious anthropoids,” and compared Roma women to dogs.

He would go on to become the country’s deputy premier and the chairman of Bulgaria’s National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues.

He stepped down in 2018, blaming a “media campaign” for making his work impossible.

He was not alone in making racist and offensive comments. Bulgarian reporters unearthed Facebook posts by Deputy Interior Minister Stefan Balabanov, later deleted, in which he called Roma and refugees “scum” and “apes.” Two more lawmakers were discovered in pictures giving Nazi salutes in 2017.

All of this has largely been tolerated by Mr. Borisov, who needs the support of the far right to hold his governing coalition together.

But with the sporting world focused on his country on Tuesday, he condemned the conduct of some of the soccer fans in a Facebook post, saying it was “unacceptable” that Bulgaria should be associated with racism, claiming that the country was one of the most tolerant nations in the world.

A short statement posted on the Bulgarian Football Union’s website Tuesday said Mr. Mihaylov had quit in light of recent tensions that had been “detrimental” to the organization and to Bulgarian soccer.


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