Bulgaria hosting the annual World League final tournament was meant to be a glorious occasion – the first major international tournament hosted by Sofia’s new Arena Armeec and an opportunity for the men’s volleyball team to, perhaps, make it further in the competition than ever before, with the benefit of strong support from home fans behind them.
Instead, any joy for the tournament that begins on July 4 appears to have been sucked out by the squabble involving the federation, the team and its fans. With a new head coach and missing its star player, Bulgaria has stumbled through qualifying, often looking not particularly bothered in defeat – although, in all fairness, that could have been due to the fact that as host nation of the final tournament, Bulgaria was already qualified no matter what the results.
Granted, with the London Olympics due to start in less than three weeks, this season’s edition of the World League lacks the same urgency as in other years, but it remains one of the sport’s pre-eminent competitions and more than just a warm-up for the Olympic tournament.
Any hopes of a strong Bulgarian showing on home soil were dashed by the ongoing row in the Bulgarian volleyball establishment (narrated in further detail elsewhere on this website).
Two days before the tournament, those chances look even slimmer than before, with star setter Andrei Zhekov withdrawing from the team, certain to miss the World League finals and casting doubts over his participation in the Olympics. The 32-year-old even said he was considering retirement from the sport.
Of course, Bulgaria remains without its best player, Matei Kaziyski, who quit the team in June after securing qualification for the Olympics, siding with coach Radostin Stoichev in the dispute with federation president Dancho Lazarov.
On July 3, Bulgarian sports daily Tema Sport claimed that Kaziyski faced a two-year ban from the game’s ruling body, FIVB, for his refusal to play for the national team. According to the report, which cited Kaziyski “insiders”, the player was considering quitting the national team for good and playing for Italy instead. Kaziyski has played for Itas Diatec Trentino club in Italy since 2007.
The row has taken its toll on the federation, with several of the national team’s sponsors, including Doverie pension fund, withdrawing their support, citing the lack of transparency in the financial reports of the federation.
“I don’t understand much about volleyball, but I do understand financial reports quite well”, Doverie’s executive director Daniela Petkova said on June 19. “It’s the first time ever I see 90 per cent of the revenue and expenses listed in the ‘others’ column on the books. I am not saying it is illegal, but we are rather disturbed.”
Doverie was joined by six other companies that quoted a similar reasoning. The results of the investigation ordered by the Finance Ministry, which paid millions of leva to the federation as subsidies to the federation in recent years, are yet to be made public.
The president of Bulgaria’s Olympic Committee, former world and Olympic champion Stefka Kostadinova waded into the conflict on June 22, asking the federation to smooth things over and bring Stoichev and Kaziyski back into the fold of the national team.
Federation president Lazarov hit back with a scathing reply, accusing Kostadinova of “unacceptable interference” in federation affairs and decrying the lack of any congratulatory message from Kostadinova for the team’s successful qualification for the London Olympics.