St Pat’s comes to Bulgaria with CSKA Sofia in ‘civil war’ – The Irish Times

When St Patrick’s Athletic arrive in Sofia on Thursday to take on the doyens of Bulgarian football CSKA, they will have one foot in a political drama that promises to revitalize domestic football in the country while threatening its longest-held traditions . It comes at the end of nearly a decade of intrigue and intrigue.

In early 2014, domestic football in Bulgaria went under, taking its most famous club with it. Local support for the league had not kept pace with growing interest in foreign football, and crowds at the Bulgarian Army Stadium which could have been estimated at over 70,000 in CSKA’s heyday – as in the team’s 4–3 win over Bayern Munich the first leg of their 1982 European Cup semifinals – had become a trickle. Left to drift and decay by the government and football authorities, the financial infrastructure collapsed under mounting debt until it could no longer support the weight.

Plans to ease the pressure by making CSKA the first football club to be listed on the Bulgarian stock exchange fell through and ailing owner Aleksandar Tomov bowed to pressure from fans and handed control over to two of the club’s ‘ultra’ fans, their responsibilities it would be his job to find the necessary investments to keep the business from going under.

They achieved that much – the club was sold to oligarch Grisha Ganchev, at the time owner of CSKA’s great rivals Litex Lovech – but not in time to convince the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) that they were financially fit for the upcoming 2015 to be ready. 16 season; the club’s license was revoked and one of the former communist bloc’s great footballers was relegated to play in the wilderness of Bulgaria‘s third tier.

The current season is on the upswing. This is their seventh season back in the top flight – despite a bailout of the squad, their only season in the third tier brought them a paltry league record of 31 wins from 32 games and a paltry 146 goals scored – and fifth straight year in Europe.

The club, who have recorded four runners-up finishes against the new dominant force in Bulgarian football, Ludogorets Razgrad, since returning to the top flight, appeared to have landed something of a coup in November 2020 when they were appointed technical director of the former Newcastle have United and West Ham United manager Alan Pardew. His job, according to a statement from the club, was to use his “huge experience and contacts… to attract players”, a not unwise contingency in the context of the financial crash that previously saw the club collapse around it.

When first-team manager Stoycho Mladenov was sacked in April 2022 after CKSA failed to stage a title challenge against Ludogorets, Pardew was brought in as manager on a contract that would run until the end of the 2022–23 season. Everything was going well until a problem known in Bulgarian football arose and thwarted the operation.

“After the game Bulgaria vs England 2019 in Sofia [when England players were racially abused]the BFU launched a campaign to try to eradicate the problem of racism,” says Metodi Shumanov, a journalist who helped the BFU spread its anti-racism message. “But there is still a lot to do. The Botev Plovdiv game against CSKA last season was a huge scandal.”

During that game in May, four of the club’s black players suffered racial abuse from their own supporters, including having bananas thrown at them from the stands. Less than two weeks later, Pardew resigned on the grounds that “the events leading up to and during the game were not acceptable to me”. But despite the manager’s disgust, there was more lurking in the murky depths of the club’s internal politics than meets the eye.

“CSKA lost the cup final against Levski Sofia a few weeks ago,” says Schumanov. “A group of die-hard fans who were very angry broke into the stadium to protest and did some damage, then they started boycotting the games. Civil war is raging at the club.

“There are many foreign players in the CSKA team who are considered mercenaries by the die-hard fans. They insist more Bulgarians play for the club, which is why there was this reaction during the game against Plovdiv. The relationship between the Ultras and the club has broken down.

“The club are now turning their attention to other types of fans; families and children. They organize these “CSKA afternoons” with club legends present for fans. Dimitar Berbatov was there recently. Hristo Stoichkov will be at the St. Patrick’s Game on Thursday. They are trying to make the club more family friendly.”

And so, amid Pardew’s principled departure, a once-cast-iron bond between CSKA and its Ultra supporters has been broken, possibly forever. It could be a long-overdue catalyst in cleaning up the last vestiges of discrimination that continues to embarrass Bulgarian football.

Or, unthinkable for a homegrown game that remains on the financial brink, it could drive a stake through the heart of the game, severing it from the fans that were once its lifeblood and tipping the whole edifice over the edge.

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