In November 2019, reports emerged that Bellator MMA had signed several new fighters, including Bulgarian welterweight Georgi Valentinov. The 26-year-old fighter holds a 21-5 professional record and is currently riding a three-fight win streak dating back to December 2018.
Valentinov, who has reportedly been training under the tutelage of John Kavanaugh in Dublin over the past few months, has only lost two fights since March 2013. Both those losses took place under the ACB banner, which the fighter has since recovered from with three consecutive victories at Bulgarian promotion Grand Fight Arena.According to Kavanaugh, Valentinov is “more than ready to participate in international tournaments. I just have to knock on some doors and get him inside.”
Kavanaugh’s knocks must have been heard, for Valentinov signed with Bellator MMA a few weeks later. However, when officials at the U.S. based promotion scouted the Bulgarian fighter, they failed to consider his affiliation to a notorious far-right football hooligan group and his alleged involvement in the racist chants that marred the now infamous England vs. Bulgaria European qualification match last month.
After being sanctioned earlier this year for racist chants during qualification matches against Kosovo and the Czech Republic, Bulgaria once again became the setting for extremism in October. The incident took place at a Euro 2020 qualifier against England in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, where the match was halted twice due to racial abuse targeting the English players.
The game, which took place on October 14, was first halted during the 28th minute when England was leading 2-0. A stadium announcement revealed that Bulgarian fans were participating in racist behaviour that was “interfering with the game” and that the game would be stopped if the abuse continued. When the fans failed to heed the warning, the game was halted again during the 43rd minute but eventually carried on into the second half and ended 6-0 to England.
The racist abuse ranged from fascist symbols, Nazi salutes, racial chants, and monkey noises. While Bulgarian coaches and officials denied any such incident took place during the match, various football organizations across Europe were quick to condemn the actions. England’s Football Association (FA) tweeted that English players were subject to “abhorrent racist chanting” and that it is “unacceptable at any level of the game,” while Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) called for Bulgaria to be removed from Euro 2020 qualifying.
The infamous match had immediate ripple effects on the country’s football federation. Bulgaria’s coach Krasimir Balakov resigned after the match, as did the Bulgarian Football Union’s executive committee. The president of Bulgaria’s football association Borislav Mihaylov also stepped down following the game after pressure from the country’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.
Two weeks later, UEFA imposed sanctions on Bulgarian football federation, including fines totalling €85,000. They also ordered the Bulgarian team to play an upcoming Euro 2020 qualifying match at home in an empty stadium, which deprives the federation of potential revenue.
While UEFA’s sanction will have a financial impact on the Bulgarian federation, it was viewed as “disappointing” by anti-racism organization FARE.
“We welcome the speed of this decision but we are disappointed that Bulgaria will not be expelled from the Euro 2020 qualifying competition given their previous record and obvious inability to deal with the problems they face,” Fare said in a statement.
The Euro 2020 qualifier highlighted the racism still rampant in European football and its deep roots in countries such as Bulgaria. While England is also guilty of racial, homophobic, and Islamophobic abuse in their domestic leagues, the problem is far more systemic in Bulgaria, and is visible in its institutions, socio-politics, and its fan culture which breeds extremist groups such as Sofia West 1999.
Bulgaria’s Extremist Soccer Hooligans
During the now infamous Bulgaria vs. England match last October, observers noticed a handful of stadium stewards remove their official bibs and join in the Nazi salutes and monkey gestures. Photographs later showed that those who removed their bibs were wearing clothes emblazoned with the logo SW99, the emblem of Sofia West 1999, the notoriously extreme faction of the PFC Levski’s “Sofia West” ultras.
The photographs and video evidence highlighted a clear link between far-right groups and football federations in Eastern Europe and the toxic culture prevalent amongst fans. It also highlighted the influence that ultras groups like Sofia West hold amongst Bulgarian football fans.
“Sofia West 1999 are not just one of the most extreme groups among Levski supporters, but notorious in Sofia for violence, overt neo-Nazi displays and criminal activities outside football,” said Pavel Klymenko of the FARE Network, which helps UEFA and FIFA investigate discrimination and racism cases. “They act rather as a criminal gang aiming to promote their extreme political views than a football hooligan group.”
In May 2018, Sofia West made headlines when two young boys paraded around the track in front of Levski Sofia fans with Nazi and fascist symbols painted on their bodies. The inscriptions on the bodies of the boys, who both appeared to be younger than 10, read “Levski hooligan”, ACAB (“All Cops Are Bastards”), and SW 1999 (the most extremist faction among Levski’s “Sofia West” ultras). One was also wearing a swastika, while the other made Hitler salutes. The incident was later investigated by the State Agency for Child Protection, though it remains part of a shocking trend in Bulgarian football.
In 2012, UEFA fined Levski Sofia 30,000 Euros for racist behaviour during a Europa League match. The following year, the Bulgarian Football Union fined Levski Sofia after supporters waved a swastika banner and another wishing Hitler a happy birthday. In 2014, the group also waved a banner in the stadium that read “Say Yes to Racism.”
Sofia West is also responsible for the proliferation of swastika graffiti across Sofia. Canadian journalist Michael Colborne walked around the Bulgarian capital and took pictures of the disturbing trend, noting that these markings were made by Levski Sofia football hooligans.
Sofia West has also been known to organize fights against other hooligan groups, such as this encounter between an SW99 supporter and rival group CSKA Sofia.
Many of these Bulgarian hooligan groups have ties with the far-right mixed martial arts scene as well. Lokomotiv Plovdiv’s “Lauta Army” ultras operate a boxing club, CSKA Sofia group “Animals” is affiliated to the far-right German MMA scene in Leipzeg. Sofia West boasts several members and supporters who are professional fighters, including Daniel Iliev and Bellator’s Georgi Valentinov.
SW99’s MMA Connection
Earlier this year, Sofia West 1999 published a post on social media informing its supporters about Valentinov and Iliev’s upcoming fights, ending the post by saying that “Sofia West stand firmly behind our brothers, believing that they will be able to meet the extremely serious challenges.” The post — one of many similar announcements featured on the group’s Facebook page — confirmed the close relationship between the extremist Ultras group known for their infatuation with Nazism, and some of Bulgaria’s most popular fighters.
“The common denominator between football violence and combat sports seems to be the cult of violence – often targeting not just football rivals but various minorities who are easy targets to blame for any problems – the Roma community, LGBT+ people, migrants and refugees,” said Klymenko. “Combat sports present not just the means to an end – be better in football violence, but with the latest commercial success and appeal of the MMA also seems like a viable and fashionable career option for some.”
Since suffering back-to-back losses at ACB events in the United Arab Emirates and Austria in 2018, Valentinov returned to Bulgaria to put an end to his losing streak. He competed on the inaugural Grand Fight Arena (GFA) show in December 2018, where he defeated Joao Paulo de Moura e Silva by unanimous decision. He followed that up with two more consecutive wins on the next two GFA shows in 2019 and was ultimately signed to Bellator following his third win. Each of his last three fights were heavily promoted by Sofia West 1999 on their Facebook page and were attended by some of the most prominent members of the group, including the group’s leader Lyubomir Kostadinov.
A notorious criminal who served time for drug trafficking, Kostadinov is an infamous figure in Bulgarian football. He once ordered the brutal beating of the marketing director of the PFC Levski team and also claimed that corrupt politicians are responsible for the proliferation of hooliganism, which they use to manipulate the masses for political votes. Despite being a dangerous criminal, he was pictured with the Minister of Youth and Sports, Krasen Kralev, during a meeting with representatives of the National Club of Levski Supporters in 2017, and again at the recent GFA shows in Bulgaria alongside Valentinov.
Valentinov’s affiliation to Sofia West extends beyond a handful of pictures and friendly relations with the extremist group. The Bellator fighter was also pictured at the infamous England vs. Bulgaria game in October, where he was seated alongside Sofia West hooligans and allegedly participating in the racist chants and salutes. Faced with media reports citing his presence at the match, Valentinov denied any racism and instead claimed that the gestures were misinterpreted.
“Should we just sit and be silent because we do not know how our gestures will work?” Georgi Valentinov said on bTV. “They got it wrong. The fact that fans are waving in some way does not mean it is offensive.”
Valentinov did not respond to BloodyElbow’s request for comment.
Given the information available on Valentinov and his ties to the extremist hooligan group, it appears that Bellator MMA signed a fighter with questionable affiliations and potentially far right views. However, when BloodyElbow reached out to Bellator for comment, the promotion announced its decision to release Valentinov from his contract.
“Bellator takes these matters very seriously and has subsequently released Georgi Valentinov from his contract. Racism, and symbols associated with such, have no place in the sport and will not be tolerated by the organization.”
Bellator’s decision to release Valentinov is a strong statement from the second largest MMA promotion in North America and reaffirms the organization’s stance against racism. Given the significant rise of radical right wing activity in MMA in the form of neo-Nazi fight clubs and training facilities, Bellator’s stance is a positive step in the ongoing struggle against the rise of far-right fight clubs and extremist groups infiltrating the sport.