With so many scare stories about the tide of Bulgarians and Romanians heading to Britain in January 2014, it’s worth recalling that before the Iron Curtain was torn apart, both countries were even more shrouded in mystery than they are today. This was certainly true of the footballing world, with any trip to Bulgaria or Romania treated as a journey into the unknown. Clubs from Eastern Europe were invariably tagged as “the disciplined East Germans”, the “mighty Magyars” and of course, the “crack Bulgarians”.
Cunning and strong
Today, Bulgarian teams are less problematical than the feral dogs that roam Sofia at will. You’re only likely to bump into them, the teams that is, in the Europa League. But there was a time when outfits like CSKA and Levski Sofia were feared throughout the continent. Indeed, when Chelsea travelled to Sofia in 1970 in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, their 1-0 victory in the first leg was heralded as a major achievement. “Chelsea drenched their skills in sweat and finally established themselves as one of Europe’s most powerful teams”, crowed the British media. CSKA, the Bulgarian Army “crackshots” (there, that word crack again), was noted for its “cunning and strength”, words that would not have been used to describe anyone other than Iron Curtain teams in the Cold War period!
CSKA Sofia was the official team of the army during the Soviet era. This was fairly well aligned to the whole eastern bloc, with many teams the property of the police, the army or even secret police. Right across that region, such teams dominated their local football.
Chips off the old bloc
CSKA and their close rivals, Levski, were the leading clubs in Bulgaria, although the authorities were never enamoured with the latter owing to its pre-communism heritage. CSKA have won the Bulgarian championship 31 times and the Cup 10 times, while Levski have been champions 26 times and cup-winners 25. In an all-time table of league performance in Bulgaria, CSKA have accumulated 3035 points and Levski 3025 – just 10 points difference in 65 years. Unsurprisingly, the capital city has dominated football in Bulgaria, with Slavia and Lokomotiv the next most successful clubs.
CSKA also had a respectable record in Europe. They reached the European Cup semi-finals in 1966-67, losing to Inter Milan and in 1973-74, ended Ajax Amsterdam’s glorious run of three seasons at the top when they beat a Cruyff-less Dutch side in the second round of the European Cup. Similarly, they beat holders Nottingham Forest and Liverpool in 1980-81 and 1981-82 respectively.
The two Sofia giants, if there is such a thing now in Bulgarian football, have not had it all their own way in recent years. CSKA last won the title in 2008 and Levski a year later. The two sides dominating domestic football are Litex from Lovech and Ludogorets Razgrad. They are currently joint top in the Bulgarian A Professional Football Group (A PFG in short).
The new breed
Litex was originally known as Hisarya and later as LEX, renamed through sponsorship. It became Lovech in 1994 and was rebranded once more in 1996. Since then, a club that was traditionally in the second tier of Bulgarian football has won the title four times, including 2010 and 2011. Lovech, is a town with a population of around 50,000 and is renowned for having an abundance of lilac bushes.
Ludogorets Razgrad, meanwhile, have won the title for the past two seasons. Their story is remarkable, given they were founded in 2001 as Ludogorie Football Club. From the North East of Bulgaria, it also has around 50,000 inhabitants, many on its outskirts. Known as the “Eagles”, they won the “double” in their first season in the top division and retained the league title in 2013.
The 2013-14 season may take some beating for Ludogorets. They won five of their six Europa League games in a group that included PSV Eindhoven and Dinamo Zagreb and will play Lazio in the last 16. Naturally, this has alerted other European clubs of some of the talent in their squad. Brazilian midfielder Marcelinho, who scored nine goals in 19 games before the winter break, is being eyed by a number of Dutch clubs. Solvenian striker Roman Bezjak could also be on his way in January. The 24 year-old has netted 10 goals in 17 starts, the sort of form that could yield a hefty fee for the club.
Not that money seems to be a problem for Ludogorets. The club’s owner, shipping tycoon, Kiril Domuschiev, has invested considerable sums to bring football success to Razgrad. But he’s done it by building a multi-national squad, which has not always pleased the football fraternity in Bulgaria. It’s not an Abramovich-type situation, but in relative terms, Ludogorets have advantages over their rivals. For example, they paid EUR 700,000 for a Dutch winger, Virgil Misidjan in the summer of 2013, an amount that clubs like CSKA and Levski would use to bring between 10 and 15 players to their clubs. Domuschiev has pledged around EUR 2m for winter signings as Ludogorets look to strengthen their squad. No wonder the club claim that “the best is yet to come”.
But it is not just just about signing an all-star team of foreigners, claim local football experts. Their goalkeeper, Vladislav Stoyanov, is a local lad and was named in UEFA’s team of the Europa League group stage after keeping four clean-sheets in five games.
Ludogorets are also looking to use the financial rewards from a successful European campaign to develop young talent that can feed Bulgarian football in the years to come and build-up their infrastructure off the pitch. Only one other club in Bulgaria – Litex Lovech – are making similar noises. The Sofia old guard, however, continue to decline and show little business acumen in developing talent that they can later cash-in on through the transfer market.
Ludogorets’ average crowd is just over 2,000, which is higher than the top division’s average of 1,900 but less than half of CSKA’s 4,700 and Botev Plovdiv’s 4,400. Levski average 2,200 and the other two Sofia sides, Lokomotiv and Slavia, pull in around 500 and 300 respectively. Litex Lovech’s average is 1,400. It’s a far cry from the old days when CSKA could pull in 40,000, and the overall average of 1,900 is some 700 below the figure for 2012-13. In 2000 the average was closer to 7,000.
It’s difficult to see how Bulgarian teams can ever be as formidable as CSKA and Levski were in the past as, like all former soviet acolytes, the collapse of communism decimated domestic football. There is no apparent sign of a player that can rival icons of the past like Georgi Asparuhov or Hristo Stoichkov and in Jonathan Wilson’s excellent 2006 book, Behind the Curtain, the then-Chairman of Litex Lovech said it would be “10 years before a Bulgarian side reaches the group stages of the Champions League”. It’s just possible that Ludogorets might just be that club….