Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor launched an investigation Friday into the country’s football management, with the focus on the actions of federation president Borislav Mihaylov.
Bulgaria’s prime minister also increased the pressure on Mihaylov by writing a letter to FIFA President Gianni Infantino urging the world governing body to take “decisive action” by removing him as the federation leader and installing an interim management.
The moves follow the mass protests that gripped Bulgaria’s capital on Thursday as several thousand football fans took to the streets to demand the resignation of Mihaylov, the goalkeeper in Bulgaria’s storied run to the semifinals at the 1994 World Cup.
The fans’ fury was fueled by the federation’s decision to play a European Championship qualifying match against Hungary in an empty stadium, and longer-term unhappiness with the national team’s decline.
In the protests that eventually turned violent, dozens of fans and policemen were injured, some of them seriously. Police detained nearly 40 people.
“The Bulgarian government is deeply aggravated by these developments,” Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov told Infantino and other senior FIFA staff in a letter published on the government website. It cited “long-amassed criticism and dissatisfaction of football clubs” with football leadership in the country.
The letter also pointed out that FIFA’s statutes grant it the power to remove member federation leaders “under exceptional circumstances” and install a normalization committee
Based on that statute, Denkov added, “I would appreciate your involvement in possible solutions to this unprecedented situation.”
The Bulgarian national team hasn’t qualified for a major tournament in nearly two decades. After the two losses to Albania and Lithuania in October, fans called for a nationwide protest, blaming the federation’s leaders and calling for their resignations.
In previous weeks, football fans shouted “Resign!” in the 18th minute of every league match, addressing Mihaylov and his aides, who have led the federation for 18 years.
The prosecutor’s probe comes after numerous media reports alleging a range of violations and potential criminal activities, including the misappropriation of public funds and involvement in illicit betting schemes.
Mihaylov was first elected in 2005 to lead the national football federation. The men’s national team has slumped under his leadership and has not qualified for a major tournament since Euro 2004.
Mihaylov was out of office for 18 months after he resigned in 2019 under pressure from the government. He left one day after Bulgaria fans made Nazi salutes and targeted England’s Black players with racial abuse during a Euro 2020 qualifying game in Sofia.
Denkov cited that “racist scandal” in his letter to Infantino.
Mihaylov returned to counter a leadership campaign by Dimitar Berbatov, the popular former Manchester United forward. That led to disputed elections and court cases.
Berbatov condemned the violence during Thursday’s protests, saying “any kind of aggression during protests only provokes more aggression.”
“People were ready to protest at the stadium as a regular audience, but after that right was taken away from them, emotions were bound to escalate,” Berbatov told the bTV channel on Friday.
From 2011-19, Mihaylov was a member of the UEFA executive committee, the body that runs European football. Weeks before he won the UEFA election for a seat on its ruling body, the Bulgarian team was involved in an international friendly game against Estonia in Turkey that was part of a notable match-fixing investigation.
Bulgaria’s 2-2 draw with Estonia, in which all four goals were scored from penalty kicks, was linked to betting scams by a Singapore crime syndicate that had fixed games worldwide.
That game, which took place nearly 13 years ago, is part of the ongoing investigation revealed Friday, Bulgarian media reported.