The religion of rugby in Bulgaria - thousands at the "Vasil Levski" stadium in support of the "lions"
The religion of rugby in Bulgaria - thousands at the "Vasil Levski" stadium in support of the "lions"

Sport is not only results, points and videos of what is happening on the field. The story and the destinies behind it, which are at the heart of the magic of any game, are actually far more key.


In our country, in recent weeks, a film has excited the sports community. Because it is different, made with a lot of effort, but also a lot of heart. The documentary “In the name of God RUGBY!” already went to several screenings, filled halls and told the turbulent Bulgarian story of this game, which excites hundreds of millions around the world.


And rugby turns 200 years old this year. It’s the sport that soccer is descended from, of course. And not only. In September, the World Cup in France will captivate the planet, and given that rugby is a religion in countries such as Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, France, South Africa, Argentina, Japan… It is clear that the event will have a huge global impact and audience.


The author of the film is Vasil Varbanov - a popular radio and television journalist who, in parallel with his musical and cultural shows, has been a rugby commentator for more than 13 years. He was also a long-time competitor, so he knows closely the philosophy of this sport, as well as the specifics of its culture. And in our country, matches are broadcast mainly from the Six Nations tournament, which in the spring of every year opposes the six biggest powers of Europe.


The film is a narrative, a series of stories, but also a testimony of life in our country in different periods of the last century, going beyond the sports context. will show you three of the storylines in it - stories that are part of the basis of the film. And the more than half-century-old love for this game in our country, which is rekindling today despite the long-term smoldering outside the focus of much public attention - for one reason or another.


Talking about elite in this game is not difficult. And it has the almost divine status of mythical teams - the great “All Blacks” from New Zealand, Australia, England, France, the current world champion South Africa, Ireland - the leader in the world rankings. Next comes a “second ring” of very classy squads playing in the European Six Nations Super Tournament - Scotland and Wales, as well as the increasingly fast-progressing Italians. Around this level from South America we have the “cougars” from Argentina, where the sport is extremely popular.


From this region, but in the next “ring”, are the fighters from Uruguay and the Chileans looking for a place under the sun. In addition to these teams, we have Japan (host of the last World Cup), Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, Romania, USA… For the World Cup this year in France, Namibia and Portugal qualified, which also gravitate around the second or rather the third “rings” in the hierarchy . This is a solid core of 20 or so teams that, as a class, seriously outperform the others.


For 200 years of history - and the game celebrates so much in 2023, the world championships as a stage appeared relatively late. Only nine tournaments have so far preceded the show that awaits us in France from September 8 to October 28. It is also the longest World Championship in any team sport.


Only four teams have been champions - New Zealand (3 times), Australia (twice), South Africa (three times) and England (once).


And where is Bulgaria here, you may ask?


The answer is that our national team has earned recognition as the fastest growing in the last 24 months, having progressed 35 positions with a streak of 14 consecutive victories. And today it is in 59th place in the ranking of World Rugby - the governing body of the game.


Our country has never been so high in this ranking, which dates back to 2003, such a rise is unheard of for the Bulgarian national team. Just for comparison, our rugby team is ranked much higher in the world ranking of its sport than that of football, for example. The national team, in the game where the ball is kicked only with the feet, is 77th on the FIFA list.


Teams such as Turkey, Serbia and Slovenia were defeated in this wonderful series, and the success over the Maltese away from home sounded the loudest. They are 14 places ahead of us in the rankings.


The Bulgarian team earned the privilege of being supported by several thousand people at the “Vasil Levski” National Stadium. The crowds at the matches grew with each subsequent victory, and the atmosphere was typical of the game of rugby - loud support for ours, but in a tone of respect and sportsmanship for what the opponents were doing.


How did this rise come about? Naturally, with work, dedication and attitude - and in this sport they are on a pedestal. Because rugby is probably the only team game where you can’t do anything by yourself. The team is the star, not the individuals.


Great credit goes to the French coach Romain Balmis, who works without salary in the Bulgarian national team. He has taken this position as a cause.

He arrived in our country almost a decade ago, initially working as a teacher at the Victor Hugo French Lyceum in Sofia. His love for rugby, as well as the diploma he has for coaching in this specialty from his homeland, connect him with the NSA team.


And there the players are very impressed by his ideas and qualities. Soon after, a competition was held for the national team coach, Balmis applied and was approved in 2017.


There is no big money in rugby here. Funds are limited, but there is no shortage of players with big hearts and desire. The French coach is taking steps to assemble a strong group - organizing longer camps before matches, imposing some new rules - the right places to train, players wearing the same outfit outside matches.


All things that contribute to the team being a collective today. And for the team to win matches. Because the hunger for success was there before, but this particular setting, which the Frenchman adds, is missing.


According to him, “Bulgarians were born for this sport, with huge athletic potential”.


The victories over Slovenia with 39:19 in April this year and over Turkey with 54:13 in May 2022, filled the central stand of “Vasil Levski”. At both matches, the spectators were not less than 4000. This is a new wave of interest and euphoria around the game - not just because our team is winning.


The effect of Balmis’s work and the incredible dedication and spirit of his players is readily apparent. The rise of our rugby team has also impressed the world community in this game. His units of measurement are the recognition of the fastest-progressing team in the rankings, the winning streak and the new self-confidence.


As well as the thousands of new rugby fans in Bulgaria who come to the matches. They are probably also the biggest reward for the work of players and coach.


“After sixty years of national rugby tradition, a wonderful French boy had to come and tell us, ‘wait, let’s stop dealing with nonsense and focus on the important things,’” says Vasil Varbanov about him.


Bulgaria is rediscovering - at least in its mass audience - a sport that set foot on native soil almost 100 years ago. And it only looks forward and upward to the future of the melon ball game that creates and unites tough guys and gentlemen.

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