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Bulgaria aim to leave recent 'disgrace' behind

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Raheem Sterling

Raheem Sterling

Raheem Sterling

It will be a bright new era for Stephen Kenny when he takes charge of Ireland's opening UEFA Nations League fixture in Sofia, but the Bulgarians are anxious to leave behind their recent unpalatable past.

Bad enough for the Bulgars was their dismal showing in the main Euro qualifiers, finishing second bottom in the table, yet the spectre of racism resurfacing inflicted bigger damage on their reputation.

England's visit to the Vasil Levski Stadium in October proved to be the nadir; audible monkey chants towards the visiting black players and Nazi salutes on the terraces compounded a 6-0 defeat.

Those scenes followed similar events four months earlier at the double-header against Czech Republic and Kosovo, from which UEFA imposed a partial two-match man.

The European governing body escalated the punishment to a full stadium closure for the concluding qualifier with the Czechs. Ironically, the one victory they managed in the campaign was secured without any fans present.

The fallout from the shameful episode was steep but led to current boss Georgi Dermendzhiev being installed. His predecessor Krasimir Balakov attracted derision for claiming not to have heard the abuse directed at England's Tyrone Mings and Raheem Sterling, despite the referee twice stopping the match.

He ultimately quit, following swiftly behind president Borislav Mihaylov.

Another match will be played behind closed doors if repeat offences are carried out by their hooligan element. Bulgaria face a trip to Hungary on March 26 for their Euro play-off but will be at home against either Romania or Iceland in the final.

"What happened last year was a disgrace and I don't see it recurring ever again," emphasised Dermendzhiev about the possibility of racist behaviour dished out to Ireland's black players when they visit on September 3.

"I'm optimistic about this issue. It should not be heard at any sports venue."

Meanwhile, Slovakia manager Pavel Hapal is preparing to face Ireland in Bratislava, while conscious logistics could be influenced by the growing threat caused from the coronavirus.

Although there have been no confirmed cases so far in Slovakia, UEFA will invoke a contingency of either keeping fans out or relocating the fixture to another unaffected city.

"We are getting ready for the match and don't see any problem," stressed Hapal.