AS the most popular sport in the world, soccer over the decades has shown it can spark riots, warfare, and work stoppages. It is also able to touch off national celebrations on a scale matched only by Armistice Day and V-E day - events that marked the end of the world wars.
Now, soccer may become a catalyst for something else: promoting market reforms in Central Europe.
Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev suggests that his country's recent success in the World Cup Soccer tournament could both bolster national pride and boost the country's international profile, giving a much-needed push to economic reform efforts. Reforms in neighboring Romania, a World Cup quarterfinalist, may likewise benefit from the national team's on-field exploits.
``The transition we are going through is very difficult, and I hope that soccer will make it easier for other things to happen,'' Mr. Zhelev told Bulgarian radio last week. ``The Bulgarian nation will not be the same. It will demand profound changes in the country.''
The Bulgarian national team was perhaps the biggest surprise of the just-concluded World Cup, which was full of interesting twists.
Bulgaria only qualified to come for the final round in the United States by scoring a goal in the last seconds to defeat France in a November match. Once in the US, Bulgaria beat soccer superpowers Argentina and Germany before falling to Italy (2-1) in the semifinals. On Saturday, Sweden thrashed the Bulgarians (4-0) in the third-place game. After the stunning 2-1 win over Germany in the quarterfinals, hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians took to the streets of Sofia, the capital, and other cities to celebrate. The Bulgarian parliament on July 15 voted to award the soccer team the order of Stara Planina. During the Communist era, the high state honor was awarded to Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Muammar Qaddafi.
Zhelev suggested the victory would alter ``the spiritual climate'' and pressure politicians to pick up the pace of the transition from the centrally planned Communist system to a market economy. Reform efforts have made scant progress in the four-plus years since the collapse of the totalitarian Communist regime of Todor Zhivkov. Over that period, the country's gross domestic product has fallen by roughly 40 percent.
In the two years since the adoption of a privatization law, for example, only 63 enterprises have been sold off by the state, raising only $24 million. More than half of the 5,700 state enterprises are awash in red ink, and the money losers have bank debts of more than $3 billion.
Inflation was brought down from an annual rate of around 300 percent in 1991 to about 60 percent last year. But the inflation rate is rising again, due to the stalled reform attempts.
Political stagnation is a major factor holding back reforms. Prime Minister Lyuben Berov is not affiliated with any party, and his government has been unable to build a stable coalition in parliament to support his programs. Mr. Berov's main source of parliamentary support comes from the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which includes many former Communists wary of reforms.
One recent bright spot for the Bulgarian economy was a debt-reduction deal negotiated in June with the ``London Club'' of commercial bank creditors. Pending parliamentary approval, the agreement would reestablish ties with commercial creditors that were cut in 1990 when Bulgaria stopped making interest payments, and then reneged on repaying capital. Bulgaria, a nation of 9 million, has an overall foreign debt of about $9.3 billion.