For many people growing up in Australia, the sport is taught from a young age and there are plenty of opportunities to get involved, be it through playing, coaching, umpiring, supporting or volunteering. However, for the majority of countries outside of Australia, the sport is unknown, so when people see it for the very first time, one of the most common reactions is “what is going on? This looks crazy!”
So when Sofia Magpies and AFL Bulgaria chairman, Atanas Kirachin, first saw the game, he was fascinated.
“It was a Saturday morning in the autumn of 2010 when I woke up early and saw there was some live sport on TV while having breakfast. When I saw the TV guide saying “Australian football” I thought it was a game of the Australian association football league or something like that but, for the next 5 minutes, I was stunned by what I saw, thought “I have no idea what this is nor what’s actually happening within that gameplay but it looks amazing.” The game was actually the Grand Final replay,” said Kirachin.
Following that first interaction with the game, Atanas’ interest in the sport continued to grow and he found a couple of other fans on a social media page.
Fast forward to 2013, and AFL in Bulgaria started, thanks to Atanas and those other fans starting the “AFL Fans Bulgaria” group on Facebook, which now has over 100 people in it. In 2014, they created their own website and got together a group of footy fans to have a kick around in a local park.
In the next five years or so there was interest to create a team, but Atanas and his fellow Bulgarian AFL fans struggled to get enough players, ground and equipment. It wasn’t until former AFL Europe Game Development Manager, Lisa Wilson, suggested holding a ‘Taster Session’ that Atanas could see his dream of starting a team develop into something.
They conducted this session with over 10 people attending and from there, the Sofia Magpies were born.
Their first game was against the Zagreb Hawks earlier this year, and they also wear the traditional Port Adelaide Magpies guernseys – perfect for the team’s founder Atanas and an Australian, Brian, who are both Port Adelaide fans.
Finding grounds to play on in Bulgaria is difficult due to a number of laws and regulations, but even still, the Magpies and Atanas are persistent in finding any patch of grass large enough to train or play in the 9-a-side format.
In August, the team travelled to Denmark to play the Odense Lions reserves, which was the Magpies first ever game outside of Bulgaria.
“Travelling was fun because we spent 2-3 days together as a team… Going to Odense and seeing how their club is running from the inside will really help us grow our club properly,” said Kirachin.
Out of the two games they have played in so far, one main highlight that stands out to Kirachin was in their first game against the Hawks.
“My mate Georgi Srebar, who I’ve known for 10 years now, kicked the first goal this club has ever scored,” Kirachin said. “But a real highlight would be us winning a game and I know it won’t be long.”
It’s been a long and challenging process for Atanas to get the game going in Bulgaria, but the fact the team has managed two games this year, including one away, shows that it can be done and the sport of Australian Football has a future in Bulgaria thanks to the passion of those involved.