Leeds United man narrowly escapes red card as 'dozens arrested' amid fan protest riot police drama

Nick Potts/PA Wire
Leeds United midfielder Ilia Gruev was shown a straight red card during Bulgaria's 2-2 UEFA Euro qualifier with Hungary on Thursday night, however the 23-year-old's sending off was subsequently overturned by VAR.

Bulgaria's game with Hungary was played behind closed doors in the capital Sofia on Thursday evening, due to fears over fan protests towards the Bulgarian football federation. The Bulgarian Football Union had requested the game to be played without spectators, to which governing body UEFA obliged.

“The Bulgarian Football Union has provided UEFA with necessary guarantees from the relevant local authorities and stadium management in Sofia to host the match at the Vasil Levski National Stadium without spectators,” a UEFA statement said prior to the match.

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Bulgarian supporters claimed the union’s move 'unprecedented' given the absence of any prior example where a football federation has voluntarily asked to host a football match without its own fans. The decision is said to have exacerbated ill feeling towards the Union's administration.

Gruev's national team sit bottom of their group with no wins from seven in Euro 2024 qualifying. The Eastern European country have also been beaten by Iran and Albania in recent friendlies, whilst failing to score against Luxembourg in a similarly non-competitive fixture last year.

Leeds' summer signing appeared to have been sent off in the 39th minute of the match, leaving Bulgaria with just nine men for the remainder of the contest, before VAR intervened, overturning the referee's on-field decision. Valentin Antov had been sent off minutes earlier for a second bookable offence, while Hungary's Milos Kerkez was expelled from the field during the second half for a dangerous tackle.

Bulgaria were on course for a first win in 2023 before Aleks Petkov's 97th minute own goal ensured spoils were shared, which also meant group leaders Hungary booked their place at next summer's tournament in Germany. Outside the Vasil Levski National Stadium, tensions flared between police and protesters, leading to 'dozens of arrests', according to local media.

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"Thousands of Bulgarian football supporters on Thursday took to the streets of the capital, Sofia, in protest over the management of the national football union, a demonstration that eventually turned violent," a Reuters report read.

"In previous weeks, soccer fans have been shouting “Resign!” in the 18th minute of every championship match, addressing the president of the Bulgarian Football Union Borislav Mihaylov and his aides, who have been at the helm for the past 18 years."

In excess of 1,000 riot police were called in to deal with crowds in the Bulgarian capital with many protesters left injured after makeshift bombs, stones and projectiles were aimed at authorities and fires started, to which police are reported to have responded with water cannons.

Bulgaria's only remaining Euros qualifier this month is to be staged at Gradski stadion Dubočica in Leskovac where the team will take on Serbia.

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