Dimitar Berbatov’s successful soccer career took him to top-flight leagues in Germany, England, France, Greece and India, scoring more than 250 goals and winning 10 trophies. But his latest endeavor could be his biggest challenge to date.
Four years after calling time on his playing career, Berbatov has grand ambitions of reshaping the football landscape in his native Bulgaria.
He says that it’s neither status nor power that motivate him, rather a desire to impart his accumulated knowledge and experience from playing at the top of the sport in Europe.
“Bulgarian football is in major crisis,” Berbatov tells CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies from London in a recent interview. “My team – Stiliyan Petrov, Martin Petrov, all former football players – decided that we need to change something back home. And we started to fight for that change.”
But change has so far proved elusive, especially – the former Manchester United player says – while the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) and current president Borislav Mihaylov remain dogged by a series of controversies.
Mihaylov resigned as president of the BFU in 2019 after England players said that they experienced racist abuse while playing against Bulgaria in Sofia; according to the union, Mihaylov’s resignation was a “consequence” of “an environment which is damaging to Bulgarian football.”
Prior to the game between Bulgaria and England, Mihaylov had said that it was “offensive” and “derogatory” for England’s players and manager Gareth Southgate to suggest that they could face racist abuse.
Then Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov called for Mihaylov to resign after the match, saying that it was unacceptable for people from Bulgaria “to be associated with racism and xenophobia.”
Mihaylov denied that Borissov’s remarks were linked to his resignation, according to The Guardian, saying at the time: “There were four or five people making the chants … We did what we had to do regarding the security during the game versus England.
“Bulgaria is not a racist country. And my decision to step down has nothing to do with Prime Minister [Boyko] Borissov asking for my resignation the day after the game. My patience is over.”
What happened in 2019 wasn’t the only racism scandal to tarnish the BFU’s leadership.
Earlier this year, technical director Georgi Ivanov said that non-Bulgarian players of “other skin color” wouldn’t play for the national team during his time in the role. He later defended his comments following backlash, according to Balkan Insight.
Two years after submitting his resignation, Mihaylov stood again and was re-elected as BFU president for a fifth term when Berbatov was also a candidate.
However, Berbatov argues that Mihaylov won power unfairly. Prior to the election in 2021, the speaker of congress announced that a total of 242 votes were needed to win the BFU extraordinary congress, but Mihaylov went on to win just 241 votes and was subsequently certified by congress to be the winner.
Berbatov then immediately told the media following the congress that he would be challenging the ruling and, soon after, launched a lawsuit in a Sofia court from which he is still awaiting a verdict. In the voting, 241 voted for Mihaylov, 230 for Berbatov, eight for a third candidate, and four did not vote.
“I’ve been beaten in my professional career, scored goals, missed goals, lost battles,” Berbatov says. “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 ruled after the voting that 241 votes was enough for victory, a decision that Berbatov’s court case seeks to challenge.
“The Bulgarian law still recognizes the undisputed victory of Mr. Borislav Mihaylov as president in front of high-ranking FIFA and UEFA officials who also formally stated that the congress was of the highest organizational standards and its outcome should be respected in full,” the BFU told CNN Sport in a statement.
It added: “The president and the governing body of the Bulgarian Football Union were rightfully elected and are recognized by all stakeholders as such – and the fact that Mr. Berbatov continues to proclaim himself presidential candidate is absurd considering that there are no presidential elections scheduled.”
Mihaylov, a former goalkeeper who captained Bulgaria to the semifinals of the 1994 World Cup, has been president of the country’s football union since 2005, barring the two-year hiatus after he resigned from the role.
However, there is a growing sense of discontent over Mihaylov’s leadership among soccer fans in Bulgaria, and that came to a head on Thursday when supporters clashed with police during Bulgaria’s European Championship qualifying match against Hungary in Sofia.
The protests were against the BFU’s executive board amid a poor run of results from the men’s national team. Some of those attending the protests held signs and wore t-shirts denouncing Mihaylov’s leadership.
There had already been controversy surrounding Thursday’s game after it was moved from Sofia to Plovdiv then back to the Bulgarian capital with days’ notice. The switch was reportedly due to construction work at Plovdiv’s Hristo Botev Stadium.
The initial change of venue had been requested because of a security risk regarding fan protests; the game was eventually played behind closed doors due to “an elevated risk of public disorder,” UEFA said.
The Hungarian Football Federation voiced frustration at the game being relocated at such short notice and fans being unable to attend, describing the decision as “unprecedented, completely unjustified, and severely unsportsmanlike.”
Its statement added: “It is not even possible to organize a family holiday in this way, let alone an international football match with a huge stake that affects many people and millions are interested in.”
The game ended 2-2 as Bulgaria remains bottom of its European qualifying group having failed to win any of its seven games.
“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,” says Berbatov.
“And that shows you how football back home is ruled. When the national team is the face of the federation and when the national team has no major tournaments to go and play, it’s signaling that football back home is not governed the right way.”
Bulgaria last qualified for a major international tournament at Euro 2004, when a squad featuring Berbatov lost all three of its games. The nation hasn’t appeared at the World Cup since 1998.
Berbatov is arguably Bulgarian soccer’s most famous export since the turn of the century, best known for his skillful ball control and strong scoring record at top clubs across Europe.
He is also a hugely popular figure with fans, particularly in Bulgaria, and says that his vision for the sport is “completely different” compared with those currently governing the federation in his home country.
He has been living and working in Bulgaria since retiring from soccer.
“Football is suffering and no major talent can go out and play in big leagues,” Berbatov says. “There is no infrastructure back home, no stadiums. The kids are training in poor conditions.”
The BFU acknowledged that most stadiums in Bulgaria, while being renovated, are in “poor condition,” but told CNN that this is a consequence of neglect from club owners and the government’s “lack of involvement” in the sport.
Berbatov says that he and his team have toured the country three times, presenting their vision of how they would govern the sport to the clubs in Bulgaria.
“We are frozen in time,” he adds. “We are still in ‘94. And we think this is how things should be done. No, it’s 2023. Things are completely different in football and this is what I want to show the people back home.”
As he awaits a decision from the court regarding the 2021 congress, Berbatov is also pressing soccer’s authorities to investigate the circumstances under which Mihaylov was able to win the election.
He says that Aleksander Čeferin, the president of European soccer governing body UEFA, was “very concerned” about the situation when the pair spoke in the past, while world governing body FIFA, he says, is yet to answer his team’s requests.
CNN Sport asked UEFA about Berbatov’s apparent conversation with Čeferin but did not receive a response.
“Isn’t it the job of FIFA and UEFA as governing bodies to constantly be everywhere in the federations and see the red flags and work to be sure – not to act after the incident – but prevent incidents like this happening?” says Berbatov.
FIFA did not respond to CNN Sport’s request for comment, but in a statement, UEFA said that it has “never expressed any concern regarding the election process in BFU.”
It added: “We can confirm that UEFA has received a file containing numerous documents pertaining to the matter from Mr Berbatov. Our administration has thoroughly examined these documents but has not found anything suspicious or untoward.
“Finally, there is an ongoing legal case before the national court involving two candidates. UEFA will monitor the case’s progress and be attentive to the outcome.”
Berbatov says that he remains committed to his task, confident that he is the man to bring positive change to Bulgarian soccer.
“We will succeed, there is no doubting that,” he adds. “It’s going to take a while and it’s taken now two years of back and forth, back and forth.
“This is not the thing that I love to do, but that I am forced to do. Hopefully, FIFA and UEFA, they will wake up and try to investigate.”
CNN’s Aleks Klosok, Ben Church and Boglarka Kosztolanyi to reporting.
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