Photo: Iveta Bankova (centre) with her colleagues Stanislava Tsekova (right) and Silviya Radoyska (left)
Bankova: “Bulgarian women’s football is making progress”
In Bulgaria in May to cover the UEFA European Men’s Under-17 Championship, I took the opportunity to catch up with Iveta Bankova, head of the International Football Department at the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) and a central figure in women’s football development in the country.
Women’s Soccer United: Iveta, can you tell us a bit about your sporting background?
Iveta Bankova: From a very young age I trained at rhythmic gymnastics, but outside of that I was always playing football with the boys. And after doing gymnastics for eight years I decided to look for an organised girls’ football team and found one in Sofia. The problem was it was the team of the National Sports Academy (NSA) and only students there could play, but when they saw how enthusiastic I was they made an exception! I ended up doing my degree at the NSA too so was able to carry on playing for them, and at the same time I got involved in the Bulgarian national team. We didn’t have a senior side back then, only an U-21 team, but I played for them in some friendly games and qualifying matches – I was so excited to be representing my country!
WSU: How did the opportunity to work for the BFU come about? What is your role within the federation?
IB: Well, when I finished my degree in Sports Management from the NSA I started to look for a full-time job straightaway. Even though I played football and had a UEFA B coaching licence, making a living from playing or coaching wasn’t an option in Bulgaria at the time. So I managed to get a three-month work experience placement in the national Ministry for Sport and after that the opportunity to join the BFU came along. It was all really sudden, I met the President, went for an interview and got the job – I was the happiest person in the world!
At the moment I’m the head of the federation’s International Department, and it’s the department I’ve always worked in. I started off just being involved with women’s football, I was responsible for all the women’s national teams, but now I’m in charge of coordinating all of our national teams – men’s, women’s and youths. It’s a lot of work, as we’re just a small, four-person team and the match calendar is getting fuller all the time, but it’s very varied and always interesting!
WSU: How would you describe the current state of Bulgarian women’s football? What work is being done to promote and develop it?
IB: When I first started in the BFU we only had around 250 players to choose from for all our national teams, from U-17 and U-19 up to the senior national side. For that reason one of our priorities has been getting a bigger pool of players to choose from and we’ve made good progress, in just three years we’ve already increased it to over 1,000. We’ve also now got eight centres for women’s football spread all around the country, each of them growing fast.
Things have really picked up since 2012, thanks to the help provided by UEFA through their Women’s Football Development Programme. UEFA showcased the programme to us twice and held workshops explaining all the things they were looking for. Then they came to Bulgaria, saw a presentation about the situation of women’s football in our country and agreed to give us their support. We were given specialist input from [UEFA Women’s Football Development Manager] Emily Shaw, who has really helped us a lot.
They’ve also supported us with coach education, for example the UEFA Technical Study Group came here and most of our women’s football coaches were able to come and attend the sessions. What’s more, through this coach education we’ve had two girls who’ve gone on to get their UEFA A licenses, which is a really huge deal for us.
The women’s game is not yet as popular with the general public as we’d like, so without help from the likes of UEFA it would be very tough. That’s why it’s great news that our support through the Women’s Football Development Programme has been extended. It was due to end next year, but it’s now been extended through to 2020.
WSU: In your view, what are the main obstacles that need to be overcome for the good of Bulgarian women’s football?
IB: One of the main things regards coaching and coaching development, as not all of those involved have much experience. The level of recognition given to women’s football in general also needs work. In Bulgaria we don’t have the problem that you hear about in other countries, of people saying “you’re a girl, you shouldn’t play football”. Here it’s more a question of getting some good results to show for our work, because the mentality here in the Balkans is a case of “if you’re getting good results, everything is ok and keep doing what you’re doing” but if not people lose interest.
It’s not a sexism issue, we have a lot of girls playing in boys’ teams, with mixed sides up to the age of 14 and the boys are fine with that, if they see they can play well then they’re happy to have girls on their team. So that’s not a big problem, the major problems are coaching, the ‘results mentality’ and perhaps some organisational issues. In the federation we’re doing a good job but I think we can do an even better one in terms of administration. This is a huge project and we have quite a small team, so ideally we would need more people specifically dedicated to each area that we want to promote and develop.
WSU: One final question, what are the objectives that you and your team have set for the medium- and long term?
IB: At first we wanted to grow the number of players, so we have more and better players to choose for the national teams. Now we also want to set up more clubs and support existing ones, whether it be financially or with our expertise, and in fact it’s something we at the BFU are quite good at. The problem is a general problem in Bulgaria across all sports, in that the state isn’t currently supporting sport, but thanks to help from UEFA and also FIFA we can cover most of the clubs expenses in the local and national championships, which is very important for them.
Another of our goals involves the national team. We have decided the senior national team should not enter the qualifying phase for the next Women’s EURO [in 2017], but we hope that’s only the case this time and that by the qualifying phase for the following EURO [in 2021] we’ll be back. Our results haven’t been good and when you lose heavily all the time the players, those involved and the general public begin to lose interest and it’s a genuine problem [when you’re trying to develop a sport]. So, by the time the next EURO 2021 qualifiers come around, we’re hoping to have made a big improvement and to be able to show that we have players who can play and compete at that level.
UK-born but currently based in Spain, I’ve been covering men’s and women’s football for UEFA.com for several years, including trips to two Women’s U-19 European Championships