SOFIA: Bulgarian authorities' decision to allow the domestic league to restart but without any fans in attendance after the COVID-19 stoppage has sparked widespread criticism from clubs and supporters in the Balkan country.
The top-flight season, which has been on hold since mid-March as part of lockdown measures, will resume on June 5 in a shortened format with clubs already conducting team training.
However, several managers and players along with fans have criticised the government for allowing the reopening of cinemas and holding of concerts with spectators, maintaining a safe distance, while keeping soccer supporters away from stadiums.
"Such matches are a parody," said Cristiano Giaretta, the sporting director at Bulgaria's most successful club CSKA Sofia. "They look like friendlies with no crowd, no intensity.
"This is not football," added the Italian. "Football includes full stadiums, people eating sandwiches..."
Some fear the performance of players could suffer in the absence of spectators and a normal atmosphere at the grounds.
"The matches (in the Bulgarian league) with spectators were not very attractive and you can only imagine what they will look like without fans,” said Botev Plovdiv coach Ferario Spasov.
"It’ll be only for the sake of appearance."
On Saturday, Germany's top-flight Bundesliga became the first major European soccer league to return to action, with several other championships also resuming without spectators this month. Fans are allowed at matches in Belarus.
Bulgaria began easing its partial lockdown in late April but continued to enforce strict social measures on many of its citizens and businesses, helping to prevent a widespread community spread of the virus across the Black Sea state.
But the prospect that supporters will not be able to return to stadiums anytime soon has frustrated those in the game.
"It’s so painful to see the empty seats," said goalkeeper Hristo Ivanov of Etar Veliko Tarnovo, who were 1991 champions.
"It’s hugely unfair to let people go to cinemas and concerts, allow shopping malls to reopen and not let fans at the stadiums. We are all much more tired mentally than physically and we are hungry and thirsty for sports and football."
As of Tuesday, Bulgaria had 2,259 confirmed coronavirus cases, including 112 deaths.
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Ken Ferris)