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Fans stay away from Bulgarian derby
Fear of fan violence is the latest in a series of woes for Bulgarian football.
Last Modified: 28 Oct 2008 10:09 GMT

Levski Sofia fans fire up the flares [GALLO/GETTY]
Devoted Levski Sofia fan Georgi Zhelyazkov used to love going to the derby match with city rivals CSKA, the biggest fixture in the Bulgarian domestic football league.

Not any more.

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 football, expect a crowd of around 15,000 at the 44,000-capacity Vasil Levski national stadium.

"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 ridiculous to go there with my kids nowadays.

"It's so dangerous there."

Fan violence

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

"Now, the picture is completely different.

"They (fans) hate each other. They go to the match to fight with the opposing fans, not to see what's happening on the pitch."

"There are several reasons for the low attendances," Professional Football League president Valentin Mihov said.

"It's the crowd violence in recent years, of course, but also the absence of big figures in the two teams.

"Action on the pitch is a bit predictable now, we don't have talented individuals and people are getting bored with the lack of inspiration," former CSKA president Mihov said.

The fans of Levski Sofia provoke opposition fans [GALLO/GETTY]
Turbulent times

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 stayed away, preferring to watch it on television.

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.

Poor facilities

"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).

"No doubt, we have to make stadiums better places," he said.

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

"We have to co-operate with the institutions, 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." he said.

Levski have failed to make an impression in the Champions League [GALLO/GETTY]
Dominant teams

"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 to people when they ask 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.

"The players lack self confidence, they play with fear when they clash with big
European teams."

More popular

Bulgarian fans can watch more than a dozen top matches from foreign leagues,  England, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia and even Brazil, every weekend for a cable television subscription fee of around $15.91 per month.

Mihov said that the Bulgarian giants needed to remember that fans could look elsewhere to be entertained by games.

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

Source:
Agencies
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