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discs of peace / echoes of war

Last week in Bulgaria, a new word entered our lexicon – bombachka. The idea that an explosive device would have a cute-sounding diminutive is a bit perturbing, even if the bombachkas themselves proved mostly innocuous.

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We had traveled to Sofia to play in an Ultimate Frisbee tournament, titled — not ironically — “Discs of Peace.” The tournament was scheduled over the weekend, but we arrived on Thursday evening to give ourselves a day to see the city, meeting a friend from our Nairobi days who happened to be in Europe on R&R from her work in Afghanistan. And while peace and camaraderie reigned supreme on the frisbee field, where the teams – from Bulgaria, Germany, Romania, and Moldova – stood shoulder to shoulder in a spirit circle and complemented each other after every match, much more sinister emotions were on display elsewhere in the sports world.

Our friend is half-Croatian, so when D suggested going to the Bulgaria – Croatia Euro 2016 qualifier, she eagerly agreed to get tickets. Ambling around the city center the afternoon before the game, we saw police in riot gear assembling for the soccer match. We also ran into several busloads of Croatian supporters, who prowled Sofia’s boulevards in what can only be described as two medium-sized battalions.

The bad blood was evident even before the opening whistle. The scoreboard ran a “No to racism” ad featuring FIFA’s biggest stars, but the fans paid it no mind. The crowd howled, whistled, and jeered derisively when the Croatian national anthem began to issue from the loudspeakers, to which the small but fervent contingent of Croatians responded in kind. As is typical in soccer stadiums the world over, the visiting Croatians had been herded into their own section in one corner of the stadium, enclosed by a railing and separated from the rest of the attendees. As an added security measure, some seats were left purposefully unsold to create a buffer zone between them and the hordes of Bulgarian self-proclaimed hooligans who occupied seats behind the goal.

There was little action on the field at the outset, with the teams mostly trading possession at midfield, but this did not prevent the fans from growing ever more agitated. A quarter of an hour into the match, the burst of the first bombachka resounded in the stadium. We can’t say with 100-percent certainty who started the small-scale warfare that ensued. Suffice it to say that within minutes, a good portion of the stadium was shrouded in smoke as the opposing sides took turns lobbing flares and firecrackers at each other. The players walked off the field, riot police rushed in; judging by the billowing fumes and the way the Croatian fans suddenly fled upwards from the front rows of their section, it’s fair to assume that they were on the receiving end of a healthy dose of tear gas.

Throughout the commotion, which only lasted about ten minutes, the PA announcer frantically exhorted fans in Bulgarian to stop throwing bombachkas, lest the match be suspended indefinitely. Eventually, calm was restored. The police set up a cordon to watch both the Croatian ultras and the Bulgarian hooligans, and the rest of the match was played out without too many more fireworks – on or off the pitch, an own goal late in the first half providing all the scoring Croatia would need to defeat the hosts.

The incident was not the only — in fact, not even the worst — in recent soccer action. Yesterday’s match between Serbia and Albania was suspended when a drone bearing a flag depicting “greater Albania” flew onto the field, prompting a brief brawl amid a complete security breakdown. Soccer is an elegant sport; sadly, all too often the beautiful game is marred by outbursts of racism or jingoistic nationalism that mirror the ugliest sentiments of its most ardent fans.

Thanks to Kat for the photograph.

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