Most of the Bulgarian top division was nothing special. Decline settled in few clubs:
Botev (Vratza) was one of them, slowly going down. They were 10th this season – out of danger still, but their direction was clear. Similar was Sliven, although their fate mostly depended on the quality of players given or taken by CSKA. Sliven finished 13th. Trouble loomed for Pirin (Blagoevgrad) and Lokomotiv (Plovdiv) – they had the same problem: a core of very old stars, surrounded by talented youngsters lacking experience. No players at the prime of their careers – both clubs lacked key players 25-28 years old. The veterans were kept to lead and shape the game, but they were getting too old to produce strong football. Pirin escaped relegation, ending at 12th place, but Lokomotiv (Plovdiv) was not so lucky – they were 15th and relegated.
Lokomotiv (Plovdiv) was one of the best Bulgarian teams a few years back, even candidates for the title. It was sad to see them going to second division. It was even sadder to see great stars going to end their careers in second level league – Todor Ivanov (34 years old), Nedyalko Stamboliev (33), Kosta Bosakov (30), Gancho Peev (33), Georgy Vassilev (35), Christo Bonev (33). Especially the last two, who were leading players for years, national team players, legends. Bonev was the best Bulgarian player of the late 1960s and most of the 1970s, ranking high in Europe, and one of the all-time best Bulgarian players. It was also sad to see bright talent, much better than most players in the league, going down – Vesselin Balevsky (21), Krassimir Chavdarov (22), Eduard Eranosyan (19), and Ayan Sadakov (19). The quartet was already marked as raising stars and stars they became, especially the last two – but not before going to second division (except Balevsky, who moved to Levski-Spartak after the end of the season). It was painful lesson: late start of rebuilding was costly, very costly. Lokomotiv was shaky in the 1980s, unable to gather a team similar to the great one of the first half of the 1970s. Pirin followed the same pattern and same fate, but Lokomotiv went down first.
The other relegated team was Etar (Veliko Tirnovo), which just came back from a stint in second division. Etar came back with a team without chemistry and real class and nothing changed in 1979-80: a bunch of former reserves of Levski-Spartak were added to no good. The new coach was great, but perhaps not fully motivated – Vassil Metodiev made Lokomotiv (Sofia) champions in 1978, but committed ‘unthinkable crime’ – eliminated Dinamo (Kiev) in the European Champions Cup 1978-79, and was fired as a punishment. Etar was not his cup of tea and in any case he needed time to shape a team of his liking. There was not time, he had a rag-tag squad, and finished last. Which ended his engagement with the club.
The other newcomer did much better: Minyor (Pernik) belonged to first division even more than Etar, but normally they occupied the lower half of the table. Like Etar, the squad was misshapen and in early stage of rebuilding. Like Pirin and Lokomotiv (Plovdiv), it was risky squad of old stars and young talent, with mediocrity in between. But enthusiasm helped them and they finished 10th.
Good season for Minyor, but it was not a team for the future – this photo more or less spells out trouble: it is from the testimonial of Georgy Yordanov (pictured on the right), the all-time goal-scorer of Minyor. This season was the last for the well respected center-forward. Inevitably, the veterans were stepping down. At the same time Minyor, located next to Sofia, was old hunting ground for the big clubs from the capital – whatever young talent was spotted was quickly snatched. Minyor had almost no chance of building strong team and there was a sense the club was not going to last in the top league.
Lokomotiv (Sofia) finished 11th , too low for practically the same team, which won the title two years earlier. To a point, the team was shaken by the punishment of their coach Metodiev, but the lowly place was misleading: it was not that Lokomotiv was declining, but rather temporary misfortune, relatedto to their particular style. Lokomotiv played defensive football, depending on counter-attacks. They never scored a lot of goals and scoring was in the feet of Atanas Mikhailov, already a legend. Minimal wins and plenty of scoreless ties was the typical record sheet of Lokomotiv – this season they failed to win enough fixtures, drawing ties instead, and as a result finished rather low. The only problem the club had was the aging of Mikhailov – he was 31. However, it was a minor and even immediate problem – traditionally, Lokomotiv was one-man show and they already had the next great key player – Boycho Velichkov (22). And Mikhailov was not retiring yet – he was good for at least 2-3 more years with his peculiar style of playing (he was never involved in defensive efforts, did not run much, was highly technical, and even getting too fat was not a major problem – essentially, it was enough to give him a few free kicks and corner kicks and he will score at least a goal. Which more or less equaled victory, given the defensive approach of the team.)
The bright side of the league was supposed to be Trakia (Plovdiv) – the club not only managed to avoid a crisis a few years back, when the old stars retired, but emerged with the best young talent in the country. And there was no ending – the youth system of the club introduced new exciting players every year. The squad was young and internally highly competitive and balanced – there was ready replacement of practically every starter, even more than replacement: a newcomer often relegated a year or two older starter to the bench. So far, the team was labeled ‘young and promising’, thus excused for occasional failure – great things were expected in the future. Perhaps 1979-80 was the key season – most of the players were around for 4-5 years already. It was time to show real teeth, which they did not… Trakia finished 5th. Not bad, still considered the most talented squad and… the team for the future. Trakia was risking to become just a never fulfilled promise. Which they really became – coming close to greatness, never great. They should have been contenders in 1979-80, but were not, and the excuse that they were too young was no longer valid – their key players were already 25 years old (Zekhtinsky, Khorozov, Aleksandar Ivanov, Peychev, Krassimir Manolov, Garabsky).
Instead of champions – 5th. The moment was missed and lack of character was showing: at 25, Aleksandar Ivanov was already… past his best, a reserve, and ready to move elsewhere. Few years back he was thought the next great Bulgarian playmaker… Few years back Atanas Garabsky was playing for the national team – now, also 25, he was a substitute. So was Peychev, the reserve goalie, who was expected to be more than a regular – he reached the national team eventually, but for a very short spell. Yet, everybody was talking of these guys as future stars – and most of them retired under this label. No wonder… Levski-Spartak finished higher than Trakia.
The champions of 1978-79 had a problem and a problem detected perhaps two years back: morally aging squad.
Familiar faces for many years… Staykov, Aladzhov, Borisov, Voynov, lead by Panov. These played at the 1974 World Cup. Others came a bit later – Tishansky, Yordanov, Grancharov, Spassov, Stankov. Few were really old – Aladzhov (33), Staykov (31), Panov (30), but this was a squad which reached its prime around 1975-77 and it was far from perfect even then. There was persistent problem in the center of defense, for instance. Peculiar individual limitations became more and more a liability with time – the players were not really old, but getting older and no longer capable of developing or changing. 1979-80 was a season of crisis – the team was not even a contender. Levski-Spartak struggled. They finished 3rd, but far behind the top two. Leaky defense, inefficient strikers, moody midfield. It was a wake-up season – it was time for radical change, but… the eternal problem was at hand: how to dismiss legendary players, especially when they think they are still too good. Years later Stefan Staykov recalled the aftermath of this season with displeasure: ‘they benched us in favour of some youngsters. There was a whole national team sitting on the bench’. True… and not: why playing this very Staykov, who was blind to shots from a distance and reacted to balls by estimation: if the ball was judged going out, he simply did not move. He was often wrong and the ball ended in his net. Anyhow, Levski-Spartak was miserable this year – another finger pointed to Trakia: even when Levski-Spartak was so weak, the great talents of the country failed to come close – Levski-Spartak finished 4 points ahead of Trakia, outscoring them by 6 goals.
More or less, the league was not exciting and almost nothing optimistic. Yet, the season stays in memory -because of the race for the title.
The 1979-80 Bulgarian championship was decided by a single point and CSKA got their record 20th title. A memorable occasion, but tainted by the bitter accusations of the fans of Slavia. To this very day they – and the club after the fall of Communism – swear they were robbed. The race lasted the whole season – CSKA was leading by 2 points at mid-season, but Slavia had better scoring and defensive record. CSKA lost only one match in the fall – Slavia lost 3. In the spring, Slavia reduced the difference to a single point – at a glance, nothing dramatic: CSKA lead all the way. Not by much, but had the edge nevertheless. Given historic tradition, nothing surprising – Slavia did not win a single title after 1945 and were notoriously moody. Strong half-season did not mean much – usually Slavia was quick to destroy itself. But this year they stayed strong all the way – and the reason they lost the title, Slavia supporters claim, was that CSKA was helped. Interested Communist Party officials, the Federation, the referees, other clubs – all plotted against Slavia. CSKA had to win their record title, and Slavia was not to win ever, for, as the oldest Bulgarian club, Slavia would not serve Communist ideals well – they were tainted as ‘bourgeoisie’ . Well, CSKA was ‘helped’ often, so there was nothing new in that. The mechanism was as described by Slavia’s supporters. But they miss – deliberately – one key pointof pressure: CSKA and Slavia both belonged to the Army. Different branches, but in the military structure CSKA stayed higher and subjected to following orders. As a rule of thumb, Slavia hardly ever played seriously against CSKA and it was unlikely the club really rebelled this season: at the end of the day, if order came to lose the title, they will follow. It was not to the liking of the fans, perhaps not to the liking of the players and the club’s functionaries, but when the top general orders lesser officers obey. The sad thing is Slavia really had fantastic season and deserved to win. Were they robbed or ordered to lose the title is a matter of speculation, but nothing can be proved, for nobody involved is speaking. The politics of Bulgarian football, however, are known: the Army clubs – Trakia, Sliven, Cherno more – were to play strong against Slavia and lose without a fight against CSKA. Other clubs would do the same, when local Party bosses get a call from Sofia. Referees will show suspect yellow or red card here and there, give – or not give – a penalty, thus helping CSKA. And Levski-Spartak, out of the race this year, was not going to help – not because of rivalry with Slavia, dated back to the 1920s, but because Slavia usually served as CSKA satellite against Levski: giving away points to CSKA, but playing their best matches against ‘The Blues’. Slavia was alone against everything and everybody, including its own brass, which was going to give up, if ordered so. Slavia had excellent team this year – at last – and was at its peak, but in purely football matters it was not enough: CSKA emerged from its slump with a strong team precisely this year. And they won their record title.
Sitting from left: Vassil Simov, Mario Valkov, Krassimir Goranov, Nikola Christov, Plamen Markov, Tzvetan Yonchev, Vassil Tinchev, Angel Kalburov.
Middle row: Asparoukh Nikodimov – coach, Krassimir Dossev, Metody Tomanov, Tzvetan Danov, Ivan Zafirov, Angel Rangelov, Georgy Velinov, Dimitar Penev – assistant coach.
Third row: Ivan Metodiev, Spas Dzhevizov, Yordan Fillipov, Dinko Dimitrov, Georgy Dimitrov.
This is not the full squad, so one more picture is in order:
First row from left: Angel Rangelov, Tzonyo Vassilev, Ivan Zafirov – captain, Spas Dzhevizov, Vassil Simov, Ivan Metodiev, Tzvetan Yonchev, Angel Kalburov.
Standing: Georgy Velinov, Asparoukh Nikodimov – coach, Dinko Dimitrov, Krassimir Goranov, Mario Valkov, Vassil Tinchev, Nikola Christov, Plamen Markov, Georgy Dimitrov, Dimitar Penev – assistant coach, Yordan Fillipov.
Still missing – Stoycho Mladenov and Radoslav Zdravkov, suspended ‘forever’ for illegal transfers. Technically, not part of the squad – not part of organized football really, but since ‘forever’ was short time in Bulgarian football, they trained with the rest, getting ready to start playing. This vintage was full of former, current, and future national team players – a typical CSKA of any time, but with a difference: this was the new great team of the club. Asparoukh Nikodimov practically established himself as the leading Bulgarian coach this season – he was young and his team was young. As usual, almost all players were harvested from other clubs. The brightest talent of the country was gathered here – players defining the 1980s, becoming legendary: Velinov, the Dimitrov brothers, Yonchev, Markov, Dzhevizov, and add Mladenov and Zdravkov. Internally competitive squad, having equal to the regulars substitutes at almost every post. Young squad with young coaching staff, they were growing together. Young, yet, a squad with plenty of experience. It was said often – the mercurial star of the previous generation Georgy Denev, rudely dismissed from Nikodimov earlier, is never tired to support this view – that Nikodimov did not want to coach former team-mates and kicked out all of them prematurely, but the young coach was no fool: contrary to the legend, here are quite a few of the players he played with – Fillipov, Zafirov, Vassilev, in particular. The veterans were needed to provide leadership and back-up for the young boys. A new great period for the club started this year, one more legendary vintage, which is a matter of eternal, perhaps unsettlable debate: which vintage of the club was the greatest ever – the unbeatable one of the 1950s, the one of the late 1960s-early 1970s,which eliminated the great Ajax, among other victories, or this one, which just popped out in 1979-80 and went to beat two European Champions Cup holders. Few of this squad were not former or future stars – even the unknown deep reserve in 1979-80 – Tzvetan Danov – eventually became a member of the national team. Looking at the squad – they were worthy of the title. A deeper and more versatile squad than Slavia of the same year. Comparing the two opponents, it is hard to see how Slavia was ‘robbed’ from the title – CSKA was at least equally strong and played modern football, thanks to their younger coach. Round numbers stay in memory – and for CSKA this is historic year: their 20th title was won and fantastic period started.