Football may be Bulgaria’s most popular sport, but for the past decade and a half, the men’s national volleyball team has had by far the most success. But with good results come high expectations, including the one that Bulgaria qualifies for the Olympics – a feat that the team finally managed in 2008, ending a 12-year drought.
Failure to qualify for the London games this summer would be an unmitigated disaster, yet it is one that Bulgaria is staring in the face as it begins a three-day tournament in Sofia, the last chance to catch a flight for the Olympics, under less than auspicious circumstances. Complicating matters considerably is the struggle for power
With much of the team unchanged since 2008, including one of the world’s best players in Matei Kaziyski, fans fully expected the team to qualify for the London Olympics before reaching this point, but Bulgaria flubbed its lines repeatedly, most recently at the qualifying tournament that it hosted last month, losing unexpectedly in the semi-final against Germany.
The defeat exposed the rift between the president of the volleyball federation, Dancho Lazarov, and the team’s head coach Radostin Stoichev. The duo has never been on the best of terms, with Lazarov justifiably seeing Stoichev, one of the most successful club coaches in European volleyball in the last decade (winning the Italian league and national cup repeatedly, as well as the world club championship), as the biggest threat to Lazarov’s own position.
Lazarov fired Stoichev and quickly secured an agreement with Silvano Prandi, the previous head coach of the team, to replace Stoichev as coach, going as far as to suggest that Stoichev intentionally undermined his team and lost to Germany on purpose.
The move backfired, with the team and fans quickly uniting in their opposition to Lazarov, the undisputed czar of Bulgarian volleyball for the past decade. Kaziyski threatened to quit the national team if Stoichev was not reinstated and thousands of fans joined Facebook petitions demanding Lazarov’s resignation.
Unexpectedly for Lazarov, the fans’ view swayed Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, who asked Stoichev to be put back in charge, while Prandi refused to waddle into the mess and turned down the job, leaving no choice for the federation but to reinstate Stoichev despite having spent a week slinging mud at the coach. Stoichev accepted, but made it clear that it was only a temporary solution to paper over the cracks until after the qualification tournament.
Fans and some clubs have long opposed Lazarov, but could do little to topple him as long as Lazarov was surrounded by allies that he himself promoted to positions of power in the federation. That might be changing now, with Finance Minister Simeon Dyankov ordering earlier this week an audit of how the federation has been spending its government subsidy.
Last year, the Cabinet earmarked two million leva for the federation, both to organise the Olympic qualifying tournament and the final tournament of the World League, which this year will be played in the Arena Armeec Sofia hall. This makes the federation the recipient of one of the largest government sports subsidies, while at the same time it will receive not insignificant revenue from hosting the tournaments.
Lazarov’s hold over Bulgarian volleyball now looks more precarious than ever. The national team can easily deal his position another blow by securing a spot in the London Olympics, which would further strengthen Stoichev’s hand in this conflict. Depending on the outcome of the Olympic qualifying, the conflict could be resolved as early as June 14, when the volleyball federation will hold its annual meeting.
Bulgaria’s main rivals for the one qualifying spot are France; their match is scheduled for June 9, sandwiched between encounters against much less-fancied opponents – Pakistan and Egypt.