Police used water cannons against the fans protesting against the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) and its long-time president Borislav Mihaylov

Sofia (AFP) - At least 33 police officers and 24 football fans were injured in clashes outside the stadium where Bulgaria were playing a Euro 2024 qualifier against Hungary, authorities said Friday.

UEFA had ordered Thursday’s game in Sofia to be played behind closed doors after a request by the national federation, which feared trouble following a supporters’ call for a major protest against the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) and its long-time president Borislav Mihaylov.

But around 4,000 supporters gathered outside the national stadium and some involved in the demonstrations suffered broken limbs in the clashes.

“Twenty-four injured were examined, including seven who were hospitalised with head traumas, broken legs and arms and many who were gassed with pepper spray,” Katya Sungarska, a spokeswoman for the national emergency centre, told AFP Friday.

“The injured police are 33, there are some with serious injuries and hospitalised,” Stefan Ivanov, deputy chief of the Sofia police directorate, said at a briefing.

Thirty-three football fans were detained last night and arrests were still being made, he said, slamming the violence as “an unprecedented violation of public order with serious aggression and posing high risk”.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov said he would consult UEFA about their assessment of the organisation of the event and the decision to shut the stadium to fans.

“Yesterday we witnessed ugly scenes of violence. Their main cause is the long-standing management of the Bulgarian Football Union which led to a decline of Bulgarian football, without any prospects for development,” Denkov told journalists.

But he refrained from directly calling for Mihaylov’s resignation.

Several politicians have already demanded the 60-year-old former goalkeeper for the national team to quit immediately but the BFU has not commented.

The prime minister sacked the deputy minister of the interior after he allowed fans from rival clubs to gather in one location.

- Fans’ anger -

Police said supporters from Sofia’s arch rivals CSKA and Levski as well as fans from Plovdiv and Varna has gathered outside the stadium on Thursday.

They shouted “Resign!” and held banners “18 years is enough” to call for Mihaylov to stand down, accusing him of corruption and leading Bulgarian football into an unprecedented decline.

Violent clashes erupted after groups of masked fans started to throw smoke bombs, pavement blocks, stones and beer bottles at police lines.

Over 1,500 policemen in full anti-riot gear were in place to ensure security.

Two water cannons were deployed to disperse the crowd – a measure used relatively rarely in the Balkan country.

An AFP reporter saw at least seven fans with head injuries after police pushed away the supporters, who set fire to a police van and several garbage containers.

Fans’ anger has built up in recent years over the poor results of the national team that has failed to qualify for any major tournaments and went through numerous coaches during Mihaylov’s time at the helm of the federation.

The controversial president quit in 2019 but then withdraw his resignation and was re-elected in 2021, despite a record marred by suspicions of match-fixing and a racist abuse scandal during a match against England in 2019.

Hungary qualified for the finals as a result of the 2-2 draw on Thursday.

Despite the point Bulgaria achieved, they are last in their Euro 2024 qualifying group, with three points from seven games.