Dimitar Berbatov, renowned for his successful soccer career spanning various top-flight leagues, is embarking on a new challenge. After scoring more than 250 goals and clinching 10 trophies during his career, he’s now set his sights on reshaping the football landscape in his native Bulgaria.
Berbatov’s motivation doesn’t stem from personal gain or power but rather from a desire to share his wealth of knowledge and experience acquired from playing at the highest level in Europe. He has teamed up with former football players like Stiliyan Petrov and Martin Petrov, collectively determined to bring about change in Bulgarian soccer.
However, their path to transformation is fraught with obstacles, primarily due to controversies surrounding the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) and its current president, Borislav Mihaylov. In 2019, Mihaylov resigned as BFU president after England players reported experiencing racist abuse during a match against Bulgaria in Sofia. The union cited “an environment damaging to Bulgarian football” as the reason for his resignation. Before the game, Mihaylov had controversially dismissed England’s concerns about potential racist abuse.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov also called for Mihaylov’s resignation following the match, asserting that Bulgaria should not be associated with racism and xenophobia. Mihaylov, however, denied that Borissov’s remarks prompted his resignation, claiming it was unrelated.
This incident in 2019 wasn’t the only racism scandal linked to the BFU’s leadership. Earlier in the year, the BFU’s technical director, Georgi Ivanov, made controversial comments about non-Bulgarian players of “other skin color” not playing for the national team during his tenure.
Despite these issues, Mihaylov was re-elected as BFU president for a fifth term in 2021. Berbatov, who also ran for the position, contested the election results, arguing that Mihaylov’s victory was unfair. The speaker of congress had initially announced that 242 votes were required to win, yet Mihaylov secured only 241 votes but was still declared the winner. Berbatov promptly challenged this ruling and initiated a lawsuit, which is still awaiting a verdict.
Berbatov emphasizes the importance of fair play and transparency, stating, “When it was done the right way, you have nothing to say. But when it’s done the wrong way, you need to signal everyone to see what is going on.”
The congress ultimately upheld the decision that 241 votes were sufficient for victory, a decision that Berbatov’s court case seeks to overturn.
In response, the BFU maintains that Mihaylov’s victory is legitimate and recognized by FIFA and UEFA officials. They argue that Berbatov’s claims are baseless since there are no scheduled presidential elections.
Despite Mihaylov’s long tenure as BFU president, discontent has been brewing among Bulgarian soccer fans. Protests erupted during Bulgaria’s European Championship qualifying match against Hungary in Sofia, targeting the BFU’s executive board due to a string of poor results by the men’s national team. Some protesters carried signs and wore t-shirts criticizing Mihaylov’s leadership.
The game itself was surrounded by controversy as it was relocated multiple times, with the final decision being to play it behind closed doors due to security concerns and the risk of public disorder.
Berbatov points out that the national team’s lack of success reflects broader issues within Bulgarian soccer. He says, “It’s obvious that the system is not working because, since 2005 until the present day, we have failed to qualify for any major tournament as a nation.”
Bulgaria’s last major international tournament appearance was at Euro 2004, and the nation hasn’t participated in the World Cup since 1998.
As one of Bulgaria’s most famous soccer exports, Berbatov is deeply committed to improving the sport in his home country. He envisions a future where Bulgarian soccer thrives with better infrastructure, facilities, and opportunities for young talent.
While waiting for the court’s decision regarding the 2021 congress, Berbatov is also pushing for soccer’s governing bodies to investigate the circumstances surrounding Mihaylov’s election. He believes that FIFA and UEFA should actively prevent incidents like this from happening within their federations.
In response to these concerns, UEFA stated that it had not found anything suspicious in its examination of the election process in BFU and that it would monitor the ongoing legal case.
Despite the challenges, Berbatov remains resolute, believing that positive change is attainable. He states, “We will succeed; there is no doubting that. Hopefully, FIFA and UEFA will wake up and try to investigate.”
Berbatov’s determination to reform Bulgarian soccer reflects a broader desire for a brighter future for the sport in his homeland.