Bulgaria - the Land of Alma Your Mater
A week ago, Bulgarian football legend Hristo Stoichkov was bestowed the title Doctor Honoris Causa of the "Paisiy Hilendarski" University in his native city of Plovdiv.
The move raised quite a few eyebrows and prompted jokes along the following lines: "Alma Your Mater and Honoris Your Causa are the new greetings in Bulgaria's academic circles."
The jokes, however, flared into a scandal when Tsvetozar Tomov, a respected sociologist, announced he is so outraged he is quitting the University in question over the shame and embarrassment inflicted by awarding the title to the football player. In an open letter, sent to the President of the Plovdiv University, Zapryan Kozludzhov, Tomov declares that "he did not want to be part of the humiliation."
At this point, Bulgarians, at least those who care what is happening around them, stood once again divided – with one group launching a staunch defense of Stoichkov, saying he is the "greatest contemporary Bulgarian," and "the individual who had done the most for his country," and the other acclaiming Tomov's decision and dignified position.
Of course, a controversial character like Stoichkov breeds controversy...
Who is Hristo Stoichkov?
Stoichkov is regarded as one of the best football players of his generation and the greatest Bulgarian footballer ever. He was a member of the Bulgaria national team, which he led to the semifinals and to the fourth place at the 1994 World Cup – an all-times top Bulgarian football success.
Bulgaria also finished second in the qualifying group for Euro 1996 with Stoichkov scoring 10 goals for his team during the qualifiers
In the late-80s of the 20th century, he moved from Sofia's CSKA football club to FC Barcelona, where he was part of Dutch Johan Cruyff's "Dream Team." Stoichkov helped Barcelona to one of the most successful times of the club, winning the Primera Division four years in a row between 1991 and 1994 and the European Cup. During his stay in Barcelona, he turned into an idol for the club's fans, and was Bar?a's most popular player.
Stoichkov retired from international competitions in 1999 with 37 goals in 83 appearances for the Bulgarian national team, but between 2000 and 2003 he competed in the US. He has a total of 292 goals and 606 matches in his track record.
He is also the most honored Bulgarian football player ever – in the mid-80s, he won the European Golden Boot with CSKA; at the 1994 World Cup, he was awarded the World Cup Golden Boot as the joint top goal scorer of the tournament (with Oleg Salenko), with six goals, as well as earning the Bronze Ball award. Stoichkov was honored as European Footballer of the Year in 1994 and was named by Pel? as one of the 125 Greatest Living Footballers at a FIFA Awards Ceremony in 2004. He has been named several times Footballer Number One of Bulgaria and Competitor Number One on the Balkans.
In mid-October 2011, Stoichkov was appointed Bulgarian consul in Barcelona. He is known to be a close friend and staunch supporter of Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, with whom he often plays tennis or kicks ball.
The Flip Side of the Coin
Stoichkov's coaching career is a stark proof that not every great football player makes a great coach. His tenure as manager of the Bulgarian national football team, between its start in July 2004 until its end in April 2007, is largely seen as a disaster with the failures to qualify the team for the 2006 World Cup and for Euro 2008. In the aftermath, he coached several second division Spanish teams. His coaching career seems to have ended in March 2010, when he left South Africa's Mamelodi Sundowns.
Apart from his footballing talent, Stoichkov is notorious for his short temper and, to put it mildly, colorful language. He will remain in sports history with his cursing and heated arguments with other players and referees. Nicknamed The Dagger, he was involved in a fight during the final of the 1985 Bulgarian Cup, which resulted in an original lifelong ban, reduced later to a one year suspension; in his first season with Barcelona, Stoichkov was suspended for two months for stomping on a referee's foot; in 2006, he was sued by a former American University college student in Washington DC, whose leg he broke in a violent tackle during a match against DC United in 2003; he kept his bad temper as a coach as well, prompting a couple of proven players to quit due to personal differences while Stiliyan Petrov, the captain of the team, announced he would not play for Bulgaria as long as Stoichkov was manager - a fall-out they later settled.
In 2008, Stoichkov attacked and hit a Bulgarian photo reporter in Barcelona. Photographer Lubomir Asenov, who was in Spain for a Formula 1 race, saw Stoichkov in a restaurant and took a photo of him. The later reportedly ran out after him; hit him in the face, knocking him on the ground. Stoichkov's assault was allegedly accompanied with many curse words and with threats, some of which were directed at Asenov's pregnant wife. Barcelona police confirmed at the time there was an incident involving Stoichkov, but did not provide more details. The football legend later apologized to the reporter, explaining the attack with the fact the victim did not ask for permission to take a photograph and with an attempt to protect his own family.
Stoichkov, who had worked all over the world, including the US – for Chicago Fire and DC United, still entertains scores on YouTube with his English language skills, demonstrated in a 2009 interview for the South African TV in his capacity as coach of Mamelodi Sundowns. There, Stoichkov answers the reporter's question if he was satisfied with the way the team played, the following way: "Two parts. I talking before, before the game, fifty - fifty. First half very good, second half I'm no like. Too much peoples come... only for the... for the pass the time. No work, no sacrififisy*. This is the team. The next time may be no play couple guys. I am very mad." The same interview gave to the word the famous thought: "Play good football. Sometimes lune, sometimes win.
Dictionaries define Honoris Causa as a title bestowed as token of respect, honor and recognition.
According to Wikipedia, an honorary degree or a degree honoris causa (Latin: "for the sake of the honor") is an academic degree for which a university (or other degree-awarding institution) has waived the usual requirements, such as matriculation, residence, study, and the passing of examinations. The degree is typically a doctorate and may be awarded to someone who has no prior connection with the academic institution. Usually the degree is conferred as a way of honoring a distinguished visitor's contributions to a specific field, or to society in general. The university often derives benefits by association with the person in question.
In Stoichkov's case, he was bestowed the title mainly for his contribution to the launching of a project for a sports facility at the Plovdiv University. He was nominated by Professor Veselin Margaritov, Dean for Sports and Social Activities.
In other recent contributions, in July, the football legend brought to Bulgaria Spanish architects from GRAS design and the Spanish investor company WMA, who presented in the capital Sofia several large-scale projects for new sports facilities - for a new national stadium and two others, also in Sofia, and one in Plovdiv. A delighted PM Borisov declared that a tender for investors is to be launched ASAP.
Gras' idea is for all facilities to be owned in public-private partnership, meaning the cash-strapped State will still have to shell money for them. Meaning also that Stoichkov's contribution boils down to knowing the right people in order to execute his, certainly, well-intended plans.
Here is what he said about the sport's center at the Plovdiv University for which he was made Doctor Honoris Causa: "I am ecstatic and proud I was able to help – I turned to Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, and to Finance Minister, Simeon Djankov, to find out how we can help..."
Regardless of all controversy that has surrounded Stoichkov all along, no one can deny his stardom play, his prominence and fame, even today, years after he retired from the game. They turned him into some sort of Bulgarian brand name and trade mark, with many across the globe still associating Bulgaria with Stoichkov - a source of pride for several generations of Bulgarians, in a country where football, and other successes, are few and scarce.
His admirers and supporters firmly believe that for this reason he deserves any possible honor and blame Tomov for blowing a simple token of respect into a senseless scandal.
Stoichkov, who graduated par correspondence from the National Sports Academy, is shrewd and street-smart – no one has ever labeled him stupid. He is indeed the most successful Bulgarian football player and one of the most successful Bulgarians overall – precisely because of that, showering him with unnecessary titles, way beyond the area of his expertise, seems a little bit over the line.
Tomov's move, though rare and unusual for Bulgaria, is not unique – he follows in the footsteps of prominent Bulgarian visual artist, Svetlin Rusev, and prominent poet, Boris Hristov, who declined accepting the country's highest order and of sculptor, Professor, Velislvav Minekov, Chair of the Control Committee of the Union of Bulgarian Artists, who recently revolted against intentions of the Union to make Borisov honorary member, denouncing the decision as "servile and shameless," and prompting the PM to postpone accepting the honor.
The Bottom Line
The issue here is much deeper than simple bickering about who deserves what honors – this is some sort of a revolt of embattled Bulgarian intellectuals against the "genocide" they have been subjected to during the last 66 years of Communist regime and the following Transition period – a genocide that turned them into a closed and almost secret society.
This is where the line between sports glory and academia has to be drawn. It is the outcry against the "Chalgization" (chalga or pop folk is a Bulgarian music genre - a blend of Arabic and Balkan influences) of Bulgarian culture; against the loss of any and all true values; the confusion between right and wrong, moral and immoral, beautiful and ugly, between material wealth and wisdom; against the 66 years of bestowing titles, awards and orders to the docile or to those close to the power – turning them empty of both sense and honor.
Bulgarian culture and education are in shambles over years and years of wrong approaches and lack of cash.
The much-purported theater reform of the current cabinet felt through the cracks, with theaters struggling and actors starving; same for musicians, filmmakers, community centers and libraries.
The oldest Bulgarian Institution, the Academy of Sciences (BAS), founded in 1869, is about to become extinct over severe budget cuts in 2010, 2011 and now 2012. A number of its institutes closed last year and 1 400 were already laid off. Those remaining work for dismal salaries, which have not been paid in the last couple of months.
Of course, in a country with a population of slightly over 7 million, 2900 researchers and scientists and a total staff of 6 338 seems outdated, cumbersome and even absurd. BAS is in desperate need of reform and of projects applying for EU financing, as Borisov and Djankov insist, so are theaters, cinema and all of the above mentioned. But artists, people gazing at the stars and staring in microscopes, are hardly the people who can be good managers and project writers. And this is where the State should come in with reforms and assistance...
The draft budget 2012 provides for more funding for education and culture, but it raises college fees; it is so austere and these sectors have been underfunded for so many years that the slated resources would remain inadequate. True, Bulgarian students often grab medals and awards in international Olympiads in a number of school subjects, but such kids would do it even if they were self-taught or home-schooled. Research shows that the average Bulgarian pupil lags behind all in Europe in reading and math skills; close to 50% of Bulgarian youths at the university threshold are exposed as functionally illiterate.
Some 90% of Bulgaria's libraries have not acquired new books in the last three years. Just 10% of all Bulgarians have the habit of visiting libraries, compared to the 60%-70% average for the European Union. The average Bulgarian, who often brags about his or her intellectual supremacy over other nations (Americans for example), buys an average 0.56 books per year, compared to the 11-12 books bought by a citizen of a Western European country.
Even though those in Bulgaria, who live on minimum wages (BGN 270 a month – EUR 135), minimum pensions (BGN 136 a month – EUR 68), and miserable pay couldn't care less about new highways and top-of-the-line sports facilities, which the cabinet has vowed to build (the latter with Stoichkov's involvement), there is no doubt that they are needed, as long as there is someone left in Bulgaria to use and enjoy them.
But, culture, education and innovations are a must too – a nation without them is a nation without future; a nation which will continue to consider people who can kick ball to be its greatest heroes and beneficiaries; a nation doomed for ever to be known to the world for setting the Reichstag on fire and attacking Pope John Paul II in the negative, and giving birth to Hristo Stoichkov in the positive.