“Someone rears their head and twenty others go to press the lid” goes the Bulgarian jibe, echoed earlier this month by Levski Sofia director Nasko Sirakov. Perhaps it’s a cloud from the Soviet age that still hangs in the air, inspiring disapproval and distrust amongst the common stock whenever anyone breaks from the pack and seeks to bargain on their own terms.
At the beginning of the 2013/14 season members of the A Group – the league competition in the former communist state – find themselves in open protest against both Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski and league heavyweights Levski over sponsorship contracts coming in from abroad. The rebellion, carrying demands but so far no threats for if those demands aren’t met, represents a resounding show of solidarity in a football culture with a history of seeking safety in numbers.
The current dispute revolves around a deal, co-brokered by former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, for Russian oil giant Gazprom to plough money into the country’s most successful club in exchange for a pipeline across Bulgaria to connect Russia with Serbia. Borisov has defended the arrangement by claiming that since the state invests next to nothing in the sporting infrastructure of the country such commercial partnerships are necessary if both the national team and the domestic league are to develop, but the other thirteen clubs of the A Group now fear a critical tipping point in the league’s financial balance. With Gazprom’s backing Levski can expect to dwarf those around them with the clout of their new resources, and a division that has seen healthy competition provide five different champions in the last decade looks likely to go the way of so many former Soviet satellites and divide into the haves and the have-no-longers.
As might be expected in a country where all but the youngest sections of the adult population were born and raised in a communist autocracy few eye-brows have been raised by the blurring of the lines between an independently run football club and a former head of state. That Gazprom’s involvement comes as a condition of an agreement designed to help clear commercial and diplomatic channels with international neighbours is far from in violation of a modus operandi to which Bulgarian business practice subscribes, but it’s the favouring of Levski by political heavyweight Borisov that has caused such a stir amongst the league’s majority. They claim that since the new investment channel is part of the pipeline deal – dubbed Project South Stream – and therefore a state enterprise the money should be distributed equally across the league. Anything else is tantamount to state backing of Levski, something the majority of the footballing culture in Bulgaria is keen to leave in the Soviet past.
The accusations, made in an open letter to Oresharski and signed by all thirteen clubs in opposition, are bullish: “We appeal to you, desiring for the development of Bulgarian sport. We believe [this investment] is used by the state and for the benefit of only one club [Levski].” Borisov, as the face of the deal and the real target of the clubs’ consternation, favours a market-based solution to the stand-off: “When we spoke with Gazprom initially they were looking for a single club. Now let them consider the situation”. There is however a sense of resignation amongst the opposition that these are words spoken by a man in the confidence that the dye of his choosing is already cast.
If that is so and Gazprom have already played their hand then the resistance looks to be chugging along in vain, but there is a history of success for collective bargaining in the face of hegemonic corporatism in this corner of the football world. At the beginning of last season all fourteen A Group sides – Levski included – clubbed together and collectively rejected contract offers from four television networks to broadcast live domestic matches, citing derisory payment offers and leaving the league at risk of facing a season without a media partner. The opening round of fixtures was played without television coverage before satellite broadcaster Bulsatcom tabled an increased bid and league football returned to Bulgarian screens. Twelve months earlier when previous rights holders PRO.BG changed ownership and sought to renegotiate contracts with the league by shrinking payments to the less illustrious clubs the members responded unanimously by forcibly preventing the rebranded bTV Action from bringing their cameras into their stadia.
Whether genuine fraternity is at the core of all that has gone on to protect small scale endeavours in Bulgarian football or simply a recognition that individual interests are best served by landing a collective punch this group undoubtedly boasts almost militaristic unity and organisation, and the fact that they now find themselves striking out against one of their own is only likely to harden their resolve.
Sirakov seems to miss the point when he accuses the clubs of seeking to ‘press the lid’ on Levski. The message coming from the protest movement isn’t for Gazprom to put their roubles back in their pocket and close the door behind them, rather that any pay-out might be of greater benefit if invested in all fourteen clubs, in the shape of a naming rights deal for the A Group itself for example, instead of being sunk into one club whose ensuing dominance will in turn sink the division as a high-quality, competitive spectacle. A league sponsorship deal is the proactive alternative being tabled by the counter-movement – at least it would be if they were to be allowed into the negotiating room – and it is sensitive to the financial needs of a domestic game that doesn’t currently boast the riches of the more illustrious twenty or so European leagues ranked above it. Unless the collective voice is heeded however the lid is likely to remain fastened on Bulgarian football as a continental force.
By Robert O’Connor