The recent visit of representatives of the Czech Football League (LFA) to the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) was the first of 12 exchange visits scheduled to take place as part of SD Europe’s, Liaison-based Integrated Approach to Improving Supporter Engagement (LIAISE) project, which is funded by EU’s Erasmus+ programme and co-financed by Uefa.
As part of the visit, Tomáš Čarnogurský, supporter liaison officer (SLO) coordinator for the LFA, and Svatoslav Batá, SLO at Bohemians Praha 1905, had the opportunity to meet with all relevant stakeholders involved in the organisation and preparation of football matches in Bulgaria. Celtic FC SLO John Paul Taylor also took part in the visit as SD Europe‘s expert observer and rapporteur.
On the opening day the participants were introduced to a full-day workshop by the BFU’s SLO coordinator, Dimitar Christov. Deputy general secretary Pavel Kolev provided the participants with a thorough overview of all main issues of concern to the supporters: the format and credibility of the competitions, attendances and TV schedules, kick-off times, the role of the police in the organisation of matches, and stadium infrastructure and the inability of clubs to invest in it since stadiums are state-owned.
“The BFU, through Mr. Christov, is trying to introduce minimum service standards at stadiums for home, away and disabled supporters. Unfortunately, many clubs are still unconvinced of the benefits of having an SLO,” said Mr Kolev, before adding: “There is a hybrid responsibility system between the BFU, the clubs and the police which makes decision-making difficult and opaque.”
The representative of the Bulgarian National Football Information Point (NFIP), Mr. Minko Pondev, then outlined the role of his unit in match organisation. The NFIP cooperates with the BFU in the risk assessment of matches and shares information with local police departments.
“Our role is to collect information and share it with the local police departments ahead of matches. Our main source of information is the fans, and for this reason we maintain a communication with the SLOs. However, most of our communication goes through the fan groups direct, as not all clubs have proper SLOs and there are no police liaison officers yet,” said Mr. Pondev. He also identified stadium infrastructure as a main issue affecting match organisation as well as lack of clarity in the role and responsibilities of each stakeholder – a view shared by the BFU.
The first day concluded with the SLO of Slavia Sofia presenting the way he works with the club, the fans and the police through regular meetings and ongoing discussions. Giving his point of view on the situation, he said: “If I could change one thing, it would be to improve stadium infrastructure, as this is what creates the biggest problems for SLOs.”
BFU’s SLO coordinator, Dimitar Christov, introduces the delegation to match officials
On the second day participants had the opportunity to witness the pre-match preparations for the Bulgarian Cup final between Levski and Slavia Sofia, which was overshadowed by a serious injury to a policewoman caused by a Levski supporter a few days previously.
Police measures were tight, and the delegation had a first-hand look at all activities, including security checks, undercover police, access to the CCTV room and discussions with the referees and the match delegates, who showed great interest in LIAISE.
Apart from the police measures, there was wide awareness among the fans regarding potential deviations from what is considered ‘acceptable’ behaviour. On the Slavia Sofia side any issues were addressed by their SLO; on the Levski side they were dealt with by the club’s security officer.
Earlier in the day the delegation met with the general director of Levski Sofia, Mr. Krassimir Ivanov, who explained the internal processes the club employs to liaise with supporters and the police, identifying as a key issue the lack of clear responsibilities and expectations from each party. Although they are struggling on the SLO side, Levski have adopted a culture of ongoing engagement with the ultras through existing club structures – most departments have regular communication with the various supporter groups as well as with individual fans.
In a similar vein, the safety officer of CSKA Sofia, whom the delegation met afterwards, shared the concerns regarding infrastructure and stakeholder responsibility. As at Levski, CSKA has adopted a horizontal approach to the different factions within the fan base, with the SLO focusing more on liaison with the ultra groups.
On the final day a scheduled meeting with the deputy director of the Capital Directorate of the Interior, Mr. Anton Zlatanov, left a positive impression on the delegation regarding the future.
The police also appear to be eager to address issues such as the lack of stewards and training, disproportionate measures towards supporters, the absence of a structured approach by each party (dependent on the initiative of competent individuals), poor infrastructure and clear responsibilities of each party involved in matchday organisation. They hope to do so in a working group that was set up to review the current legislation, with changes in the law expected by the end of the year. The BFU is also part of this working group, at a political level; however, no SLOs or fan groups have been invited to participate.
Speaking for the LFA, Tomáš Čarnogurský said: “The Bulgarian Football Union has set a very high standard for exchange visits and it will be difficult to match the quality of the organisation. It was a very instructive three days. Not only did we see that we share many challenges with our colleagues in Bulgaria, we also got some inspiration for how we can try do things differently at home to be more effective in the future.”
The observations of the delegation, along with further input from the BFU and the Bulgarian NFIP, will flow into the proposed national action plan for Bulgaria that will be one part of the project’s intellectual outputs.
This was the third LIAISE event so far, following a preparatory meeting between project partners in Prague in March and a supporter liaison workshop in Stockholm in April. Two more workshops are planned (one on the integrated safety, security and service approach in Sofia in November and one on supporter engagement in Lisbon in June 2019), along with another 11 exchange visits involving the project partners.