Futbolna frakcia (Bulgaria)

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Futbolna frakcia
Location: Bulgaria
Bulgaria map.png
Author: Kremena Iordanova
Affiliation: Department of Ethnology, Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski

Original text: Kremena Iordanova, Department of Ethnology, Sofia University 'St. Kliment Ohridski'

Futbolna frakcia refers to an informal society of football supporters in Bulgaria with their own symbols, rules and behaviours. The synonym futbolna grupirovka is equally used. A futbolna frakcia roughly corresponds to the meaning of a football ‘firm’ in English. The frakcia is part of the so-called agitka – a term used to define the whole group of active supporters of a football team, who are engaged in loud and fanatical support of their club. Thus, all the futbolni frakcii of a given football club collectively form the agitka.

In Bulgaria, futbolni frakcii are typically comprised of a mixture of British-style football hooligans and the Italian model of ultras groups. In Western football culture the terms ‘hooligans’ and ‘ultras’ have specific meanings. Hooligans display a wide range of aggressive behaviours, including physical aggression against supporters of other teams. The ultra movement also features aggressive behaviour, but in a less extreme way. Ultras are more closely associated with visual and audio performances involving the display of banners, throwing smoke bombs, shouting, chanting, and the staging of special choreography during the football match. In Bulgaria, however, hooligans and ultras identify as part of the same movement, whose common objective is to support their chosen club.

The appearance of the first futbolni frakcii in Bulgaria cannot be precisely dated. However, it is known that they emerged later than in most other European countries and even then in most Soviet republics. Before the fall of the socialist regime, football fan culture was not widespread, arguably because the Soviet authorities actively opposed such movements. In 1989, the ruling Communist party allowed multi-party elections to take place in Bulgaria, which in turn, after the fall of the Soviet Union, led to Bulgaria’s transition to democracy. Henceforth there has been a growth in ultra and hooligan culture, which has led to increasing concern within the country. The main driver of this growth was the new freedom of expression permitted in the media and new sources like the internet, which not only made it possible for fans to watch games at home on television, but also allowed football fan culture to be articulated and publicised.

By the mid-1990s futbolni frakcii had become increasingly sophisticated in their cohesiveness and organisation. Usually frakcii are divided into rival territorial groups according to the city of origin and districts (rayoni), neighbourhoods and estates (kvartali). They display strong territorial identity which is easily revealed in the names of the frakcii themselves. Examples include North Side (FC CSKA), Lulin boys (FC CSKA) and Sofia West (FC Levski). At present some of these frakcii are split between groups whose fans display behaviour more associated with ultras, and those which are more closely associated with football hooliganism. There are frakcii which are further divided by fans’ ideological and political views. In Bulgaria, the majority of football clubs and their fans are renowned for their support of right-wing political parties. For example, the agitka of FC Levski is associated with the far right, thanks to the influence of the club’s largest frakcia, Sofia West. Sofia West members are closely allied with the fans of the Italian club S.S. Lazio, who are widely known for their far right fascist views. This link with the far right is not universal, however, and other subdivisions of groups exist. Some of the groups, for instance, are formed specifically according to age – the ‘Drinking hools veterans’, a supporters’ group of FC Lokomotiv Sofia, is comprised solely of adults in their 40s. Some frakcii have fixed rules: they have agreed membership fees, which are strictly controlled, as well as a well-established hierarchy within the organisational structure. There are also informal frakcii who do not follow any specific rules and where hierarchy is not considered necessary.

In Bulgaria (as in other European countries) each member of the frakcia has his own role so that necessary activities are well controlled and tasks carried out efficiently. The most active and authoritative fans (usually three or four members) are responsible for match-day activities. Each member has his own tasks: some of them sell tickets; others arrange the travel or sale of club merchandise and membership. Some members coordinate the choreography; others deal with club finances or coordinate appointments with another organisations and arrange many other activities (Dal Lago & De Biasi 1994)[1].

One of the main features defining the collective identity is the feeling of solidarity that exists between members of the various futbolni frakcii. This solidarity is understood as group support for individual cases of need, with all members of the frakcia relying on each other. The mutual trust between members can be compared with the mutual trust experienced within a family. Participants in the community have to respect each other as members of one family so the group remains always cohesive. This idea of informal family is reflected in the language members use to conceptualise their in-group relationships, which is typically expressed in the form of fictive kinship. Members often use the terms ‘brother’ or ‘brotherhood’ when expressing their relationship with other fans in the frakcia.

Each frakcia has its own leader, whose main function is to manage the group. Leadership requires important personality traits, such as charisma, authority, and the ability to carry out all necessary activities and contacts with other groups. The leader must have the necessary social contacts, which include contacts with members of the other frakcii as well as the local police authorities and different state institutions. Another important person is the so-called tartor of the agitka. A tartor is the Bulgarian equivalent of the Italian capo, the equivalent of a cheerleader. The tartor’s main task is to set the tone for chants in the fan sector, using a megaphone or microphone. He has to inspire fellow supporters in the stadium to engage with both visual and auditory performances, such as displaying and waving banners, throwing smoke bombs, shouting, chanting, and taking part in special choreographed movements. A third important person is the guardian of the flag, which is the distinguishing symbol of every frakcia. It must be guarded carefully because a captured flag destroys not only the authority of the frakcia, but that of the agitka as a whole. Stealing scarves, flags or other equipment from opposition supporters shows dominance over them and subjects them to symbolic public disgrace.

In common with large European and Latin American supporters’ groups, the practice of incorporating some of the fan base into criminal organisations has been observed in Bulgaria. Some of the most notorious drug lords in the country are known to conduct their business through futbolni frakcii. In Bulgaria, many football supporters’ groups are linked to other criminal activities as well, including blackmail, violence, robberies and abductions (Spaaij 2005)[2]. For example, the supporters’ club of Sofia West is associated with drug distribution, contract robberies, beatings and alleged murder and they have been repeatedly object of police control and arrests (Benatova 2012)[3].

As well as crime bosses, it is also common for politicians and political parties to use the frakcii for their own ends. Over the last ten years many football supporters have taken part in political campaigns and protests in return for payment. Benefiting from the strong level of group identity, some frakcii leaders try to manipulate the fans to participate in paid activities (Teodosieva 2013)[4]. Almost all the author’s respondents reported knowing frakcia members who participate in protests, either as provocateurs or simply to increase the number of people on the protest. However, it is important to emphasise that a small minority of frakcii are involved in such activities; the majority of fans do not support this behaviour.

Notes

  1. Del Lago, A., De Biasi, R. 1994. ‘Italian football fans: culture and organization’, in Giulianotti, R., Bonney, N. and Hepworth, M. (eds), Football, violence and social identity. London and New York: Routledge: 73-89.
  2. Spaaij, R. 2006. 'Aspects of Hooligan Violence: A Reappraisal of Sociological Research into Football Hooliganism', ASSR Working Paper Series, No. 06/02.
  3. Benatova, M. 2012. ‘Lubo the Lad: Politicians use the futbolni agitki for producing tension’, http://btvnovinite.bg, 31.08.2012 http://btvnovinite.bg/article/bulgaria/lyubomir-kostadinov-mladezha-na-polititsite-im-e-udobno-da-ima-konflikti.html
  4. Teodosieva, H. 2013. ‘1500 paid provocateurs receive between 30 and 150 leva’, 168chasa.bg, 04.07.2013 http://www.168chasa.bg/Article/2120796