Bulgarian soccer goes through turbulent times

Devoted Levski Sofia fan Georgi Zhelyazkov used to love going to the derby with city rivals CSKA, the biggest fixture in the Bulgarian domestic league.

Devoted Levski Sofia fan Georgi Zhelyazkov used to love going to the derby with city rivals CSKA, the biggest fixture in the Bulgarian domestic league.

Not any more. "It's like a war now," said Zhelyazkov. "I'm a lifelong Levski supporter and I've been at the stadium for more than three decades but it seems dangerous to go there with my kids nowadays. Zhelyazkov, a 44-year-old IT specialist, is not alone. Thousands of fellow fans are expected to stay away from the match dubbed the "Eternal Derby" on Saturday.

Officials, who say violence is just one of a host of problems facing Bulgarian soccer, expect a crowd of around 15000 at the 44000-capacity Vasil Levski national stadium.

"I remember sitting next to CSKA fans during games in the past and having heated discussions but it was fun after all," Zhelyazkov said.

"Now, the picture is completely different. The fans hate each other. They go to the match to fight not to see what's happening on the pitch.

"There are several reasons for the low attendances," Professional Football League and former CSKA president Valentin Mihov told Reuters. "It's the crowd violence in recent years, of course, but also the absence of big figures in the two teams.

"Now action on the pitch is a bit predictable, we don't have talented individuals and the fans are getting bored with the lack of inspiration," Mihov said.

The derby was long known for its special atmosphere but since Communist rule was overthrown in the Balkan country in 1989, violence has marred the game and in recent years many fans have preferred to watch it on TV.

Bulgarian soccer is going through turbulent times off the pitch as well as on it.

The domestic league has been dogged by refereeing scandals and match-fixing allegations while champions CSKA were excluded from the Champions League because of debts to the state and other creditors.

Leading teams, including Levski, were eliminated from European competitions in the early stages and the national team have been lacklustre in World Cup qualifiers.

Soccer officials have been accused of poor organisation and having little regard for fans.

"The facilities are still poor, so it's not surprising to see attendance shrink to low levels," said Mihov. "It's sad to see the condition of Bulgarska armiya (CSKA stadium)," he said.

"It's obvious that we have to take several decisive steps but we need the backing of the state.

"We have to work with the fans to try to re-educate them. I know it takes time but this is the only way to bring people back to the stadium.

"It's a pity to see a half-empty stadium when Levski play CSKA," Mihov added. "This game belongs to the fans.

"All I say when asked me about my expectations before the match is: I want to see a packed stadium." The "big two" have been the dominant teams at home for decades, with CSKA winning 31 league titles while Levski finished top 25 times, though they have been far from impressive in Europe in recent seasons.

While top nations such as England, Spain and Italy have the chance to win up to four spots in the lucrative Champions League, Bulgaria are confined to one place in the qualifying stages.

Levski became the first Bulgarian side competing in the Champions League group phase in 2006 but failed to collect a single point.

"I think they (Levski and CSKA) don't have the winning mentality any more," said Zhelyazkov. "They lack self confidence when they clash with big European teams."

Bulgarian fans can watch more than a dozen top matches from foreign leagues - England, Spain, Italy, The Netherlands, Portugal, Russia and even Brazil - every weekend for a cable television subscription fee of around 25 levs ($15,91) per month.

Mihov said that the Bulgarian giants needed to remember that fans could look elsewhere for entertainment.

"They have toknow what people want to see and work harder to make their product more attractive," he said.

- Reuters