Violent protests break out ahead of Bulgaria-Hungary soccer qualifier

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Thousands of Bulgarian soccer supporters on Thursday took to the streets of the capital, Sofia, in protest over the management of the national soccer union, a demonstration that eventually turned violent.

The qualifying match between Bulgaria and Hungary for next year's European soccer championship fell victim to a bitter dispute between the management of the Bulgarian Football Union and soccer fans from across the Balkan country.

Minutes before the kickoff, fans began to throw makeshift bombs, stones and plastic bottles at the police. After trash cans were set on fire, police responded with water cannon.

More than 20 football fans and five policemen were injured, emergency service medics said. Four of the fans were admitted to hospitals with serious injuries.

Some 40 people have been detained and police seized a large amount of pyrotechnics, signal pistols, boxes, metal pipes and other items prohibited in mass gatherings.

The last straw that infuriated the fans, whose anger had been simmering for a long time, came with the union's decision to play Thursday’s match in front of empty stands at the national stadium in the capital.

Some 1,600 police in riot gear were dispatched to secure the area around the empty stadium in downtown Sofia.

The Bulgarian national team has failed to qualify for a major tournament for nearly two decades. After the latest two humiliating defeats by Albania and Lithuania in October, fans called for a nationwide protest, blaming the union's managers for the poor results and calling for their resignations.

In previous weeks, soccer fans have been shouting “Resign!” in the 18th minute of every championship match, addressing the president of the Bulgarian Football Union Borislav Mihaylov and his aides, who have been at the helm for the past 18 years.

Fearing new riots against his leadership, last week Mihaylov asked UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, to order the game to be played behind closed doors due to exceptional circumstances.

“The Bulgarian Football Union has provided UEFA with necessary guarantees from the relevant local authorities and stadium management in Sofia to host the match at the Vasil Levski National Stadium without spectators,” said a UEFA statement.

Fans said the union's move was “unprecedented”, as there is no other case in soccer history where a soccer union has voluntarily asked to host a soccer match without fans.

The decision fueled anger not only amid Bulgarian fans. The state-run news agency BTA reported that many Hungarians with tickets decided to travel to Bulgaria regardless of whether they would be allowed into the stadium. As they had already planned their trip, they intended to join the Bulgarian fans’ protest, according to BTA.