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Balkan difficulties

Blog | By ​Charlotte Thompson | Oct 21, 2019

View of Downtown Sofia with the "Largo" buildings of the former Communist party of Bulgaria dominating the landscape.

During the 80s and the rise of the National Front, I was living in Italy when the only two things that anyone seemed to know about England were Thatcher and hooligans. I found that I described my national identity - with surprising ease – as Scottish, not English.

Arriving in Bulgaria last week after the Euro 2020 football qualifier between England and Bulgaria that momentarily pushed Brexit off the front pages, I found the same sense of national shame.

England won 6-0 but the score was undercut by local fans making Nazi salutes and English players being subjected to racist chanting.

The Bulgarian prime minister, Boyko Borissov, posted on Facebook: ‘It is unacceptable for Bulgaria, which is one of the most tolerant countries in the world – and people of different ethnicities and religions live in peace – to be associated with racism and xenophobia.’

Bulgarian history is certainly cosmopolitan with traders from across the East and West bringing their influences to this crossroads of Islam and Christianity. But domination from Ottomans and Communists doesn’t give a nation a clear identity.

The current generation, educated by the internet, and often working with international IT and outsourcing companies, say the country should ‘take note’ of the international condemnation, while their parents say, because of ‘a mere 50 people in the stadium, we are branded as racist and we are not’.

Plovdiv, somewhat unfortunately in the light of the match, is Europe’s City of Culture 2019. Nowhere could be more of a melting pot with the vast Ottoman mosque next to the Roman stadium where a Secret History of Jewish life walking tour begins, inches from the Armenian and Orthodox churches.

Plovdiv, or Philippopolis, as the Byzantines called it, is Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city. For centuries it was a crossroads of the world’s trade routes and culture; a way station between Venice, Rome, Greece and Turkey. It wasn’t only Patrick Leigh Fermor who fell in love with the place.

The British press, however, are dealing with modern-day Bulgaria and the rise of the far right across Eastern Europe.

Kalina Plomen, who works in the hospitality sector, commented, ‘We don’t acknowledge that we have a problem, which only deepens the problem. The Far right encourage racism, reinforce it and make it acceptable. They have a lack of conscience and values.

‘It has to do with our history. In the post-Soviet era, we have to acknowledge there are differences for the first time. Differences were suppressed by the Soviets. The Romany were ghettoised and their culture devalued. It was the same with the disabled who were thought not to exist because they were never seen. So it takes us young Bulgarians some time getting used to the very idea of diversity.’

As it does it everywhere. There is still racism on the terraces in England, as we have seen in the abuse of Raheem Sterling and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who had a banana thrown at him last year. But we have come a long way. And one of the reasons, in terms of football, is that the law went after individuals and not just clubs.

Obviously only a tiny proportion of Bulgarians could be indicted in this recent crime. Is a nation responsible for the crimes of a few? We ourselves would hate to be tarred with that brush. Yet I sense a certain amount of schadenfreude that it isn’t us being blamed this time – and pride that we have come so far.

One caller to BBC Radio 4 last week, who admitted to hooliganism in his youth, said it was Thatcher who began to make the change by criminalising the individual as well as the team and the governing body.

Today, 33 per cent of premiership footballers come from BAME backgrounds. Bulgaria has none of that. Isolation from the international scene and a lack of faith in politicians has led to an introverted nation.

‘We protest all the time but we don’t actually go the polls. We joined the EU at the same time as Romania but they have outstripped us in terms of economic and social development. They have recreated a middle class. We haven’t,’ added Kalina.

The EU is a touchy subject. Bulgaria joined in 2007 so are watching our antics with close attention, especially as almost 2 million Bulgarians are spread between Italy, Spain, the UK and Germany.

Fania Todorov, the owner of a small hosiery factory in the medieval, central mountain town of Veliko Tărnovo, said, ‘The EU has not been great for small businesses - our company went to the wall when we entered the EU because of the demands and the competition: a small Bulgarian enterprise didn’t stand a chance against the big players in China, Italy etc.’

Kalina, back in Plovdiv, told us with a wry smile, that she understood the Brexiteers, while profoundly disagreeing with them. ‘The UK is paying more than it is getting. Being from Bulgaria and seeing how we are using the money, I can see their point but I believe in union more than division.’

How much are the antics on a football field ever reflective of a nation?