The 1980-81 Bulgarian championship was strange – CSKA was a big European news this season: they reached the semi-finals of the European Champions Cup, eliminating Liverpool on the way. Yet, the season was not exceptional at home. It depends on the point of view one adopts: in the final table 5 points divide the last from the 5th, meaning that 12 of the 16 league members were preoccupied only with survival. If one prefers positive approach, then First Division was actually very competitive, having a lively season of equally tough teams and no real favourites. The truth is perhaps different: 2-points-for-a-win system gives a maximum of 60 points in a 16-team league. Most teams, including 3 of the top 4, finished in the medium range of 30 points, give or take a point or two. In reality a bulk of not exceptional teams geared themselves for a maximum take at home and whatever happened away. No ambition, no taking risks, no really classy teams, for after all even the champions managed just 67% of the maximum – and that is speaking for the team beating Liverpool. Winning at home was the key for survival and no wonder the last in the league was there only because they tied too many matches. That is not to say there were no ups and downs, improvements or declines – no matter the whole situation, there always are such particulars.
In a league of 50%-ers every lost point was perilous – Pirin (Blagoevgrad) finished last with 26 points.
Standing from left: Ivan Mularov, Yordan Kostov, Petar Tzvetkov, Boris Nikolov, Metody Stoyanov, Atanas Atanassov.
First row: Zhoro Vanchev, Krassimir Bezinsky, Yordan Murlev, Christo Denchev, Kostadon Yanchev.
The club paid heavy price for its make, the same Lokomotiv (Plovdiv) suffered of: the team was composed of old veterans and talented, but inexperienced youngsters, without a middle generation. B. Nikolov and M. Stoyanov were already nearing their careers. So was the goalkeeper Christo Christov, not in the picture, who was almost 38 and still a national team regular – curiously, he debuted for Bulgaria only two years earlier. The rest were bright and highly talented boys – three of the pictured above were soon to become among those defining the 1980s of Bulgarian football – Denchev, Bezinsky, and Yanchev. But they were still barely 20-years old and most importantly, Pirin was able to keep such highly promising players: the trio – and not only they – were soon to be snatch by CSKA and Levski-Spartak. Unbalanced squad was doomed: Pirin tied the most games this season – 14 – and the consequence was fewer points than anybody else.
The other relegated team was Minyor (Pernik) – together with 3 other teams they ended with 27 points and lost the race on worse goal-difference.
Standing from left: Petrov, Ganev, Boyanov, Yordanov, Evgeniev, Malinov, Grigorov, Naydenov, Banchev.
Crouching: Serafimov, Dobrev, Slavov, Todorov, Vassilev.
To a point, Minyor was similar to Pirin –a core of aging veterans and hardly anybody of class behind them. Evlogy Banchev, Georgy Yordanov, Vesselin Evgeniev, Slavi Malinov, and Angel Slavov defined the club in the 1970s, but now one after another they were leaving football – only Slavov and Evgeniev remained in the team after this season. But unlike Pirin, Minyor was not an incubator of young talent – they largely depended on players discarded by the big Sofia clubs, such as Ganev, Dobrev, Naydenov. They were not old, they were experienced, but also their best days were already in quite a distant past – never becoming stars and eventually losing ambitions. Whatever bright talent emerged was quickly moving to Sofia – the future national team player Grigor Grigorov and the very promising centre-forward Emil Serafimov from this squad. Minyor was shaky and unbalanced, heavily depending on few strong players – not enough for solid performance.
The relegated were somewhat unlucky – if either team earned only a point more, they may have been safe. The irony was in that neither of the relegated was really weaker than most of the league. Tiny deficiencies decided the future, but still there were teams going up and down. The absolute debutant Belasitza (Petrich) was a pleasant surprise – the team was considered prime candidate for relegation, but they finished 12th. True, goal-difference helped them, for they had 27 points too, just the same as Minyor. Belasitza made the most of their home games, playing with good spirit and the final result was great for them not only because they were good for at least one more first division season, but also because Pirin was relegated when they remained: Pirin was the big club of the region, which meant that Belasitza was supplying club – if there was bright talent, it was going to Pirin, as it happened before this season started: Zhoro Vanchev and Atanat Atanassov in the Pirin’s photo above were spotted playing for Belasitza. The movement of players was, of course, two-way: bright youngsters going to Pirin, no longer needed old players of Pirin moving to Belasitza – ironically, Belasitza benefited from seemingly unfavourable exchang and former Pirin players were the dirving force of the team, but the most impressive and important player was local – a diminutive mid-fielder called Lozan Trenchev, bald and already 28 years old, who so far played only second-division football. Now he was praised all around the league and the fate of Belasitza depended largely on his inspiration – his age also benefited the club: at 28, no big club was after him, for he was ‘too old’.
The other improving club was Spartak (Pleven) – although with only 31 points and negative goal-difference, they finished 5th.
Retrospectively, the best years in the history of the club just began – of course, Spartak was not a club ever able to compete for a title or a cup, but finishing in the upper half of the table was the best they could aim for and 5th place was an achievement of the finest kind. Spartak managed to build a solid team from a mix of players big clubs found unsatisfactory, various second division strong players, and local talent. But their jewel was Plamen Getov, one the biggest Bulgarian stars of the 1980s and, arguably, the most entertaining player of the decade – highly skillful, excellent goal-scorer, and particularly deadly free-kick taker: fans particularly loved his unusual delivery – Getov took free-kicks from the spot, without running to the ball, but simply staying next to it, taking aim, and kicking it in the net.
The last improving team was Cherno more (Varna), similar to Spartak (Pleven) in its formation, except if Spartak depended on former players of Levski-Spartak, Cherno more used former CSKA players. The crisis of the second half of the 1970s was overcome, there was solid new squad which, like Spartak’s, was good for upper-half of the league performance.
Going down were two clubs: Sliven (Sliven), 14th this season with 27 points, was at last caught up by their predicament. For years, Sliven served as something similar to a fram-team for CSKA and its performance heavily depended on the players sent by CSKA. It was always risky, for it was impossible to make a stable squad – whoever played welled was moved back to CSKA and at the end of the 1970s the shuffling was too much too often. Consequently, Sliven slipped down. Botev (Vratza) on the other hand experienced genuine decline, noticeable for some time already. 12th this year with 27 points and ending there only on better goal-difference.
Crouching from left: Christov, Tzvetanov, Bozhilov, Panov, Penkov, Karchev, Vesko Petkov, Belyov.
Middle row: Dobromir Zhechev – coach, Krastev, Dimitrov, Venkov, Vassil Petkov, Mitov, Efremov, Stoimenov, Petar Kamenov – assistant coach.
Third row: Kyupriisky – team doctor, Tomov, Maldzhansky, Angelov, Vassilev, Toshkov, Arsov, Kostov – masseur.
Either starting rebuilding too late, or unable to rebuild at all – Botev had a few veterans from their once upon a time strong team left – Penkov and Angelov were at the very end of their careers and behind them were those, who were just young hopefuls in the early 1970s, but now should have been the leading core of the squad – Toshkov, Efremov, Tomov, Belyov. However, they never fulfilled expectations and it was clear for years already that they were not first-rate players. To them eventually were added more experienced players, but the club they came from tells the story: Bozhilov, Karchev and Stoimenov came from Akademik (Svishtov). They were largely a second-division players, so not exactly bringing class to the team, let alone leadership. This squad was suspect at best – too much experience, but little ambition and, since most were above 25 years of age, its clear that none would be improving in the future – they already reached the limits of their potential. All except central defender Valentin Maldzhansky, who joined Botev not long ago – a late bloomer, already 30 years old, but playing better and better, eventually included in the Bulgarian national team. But he was just one player , unable to stop the downfall of Botev.
The club, which went down this year, was Slavia – they finished 7th with 29 points, losing 6th place to Cherno more on goal-difference. Only the previous year Slavia was running for the title… the squad was the same…
Well, Slavia was practically robbed from the title the year before – they were ordered to give up in favour of CSKA. Slavia fans bitterly remember to this very day ‘the robbery’, often omitting the real reason: Slavia belonged to an Army branch at the time, thus, eventually subordinated to the Ministry of Defense. The order came via Army structure – CSKA was the prime club of the Army as whole. The team immediately was demotivated, seeing its efforts and ambitions meaningless and practically collapsed this season – and stayed demotivated and going further down in the near future. But there was also tradition: Slavia was notoriously moody and unpredictable. Inconsistency is there mark to this very day, so it was not just ‘the robbery’ guilty for the weak season: it was also typical Slavia – great one day or year, terrible the next.
Chernomoretz (Bourgas) apparently reached the limits of its potential – 11th this season with 28 points.
Crouching from left: Ivaylo Kotzev, Nikolay Kalushev, Stoyan Mavrov, Ivan Ilchev, Aleksy Zhelyazkov, Ivan Yovchev.
Middle row: Toma Tomov – assistant-coach, Lyubomir Sheytanov, Ivan Pazachev, Roumen Christov, Valentin Deliminkiv, Georgy Madzharov, Rossen Kavrakov, Dimitar Papazov, Vassil Zhelev – coach.
Top row – Dimitar Dimitrov, Ivan Pritargov, Georgy Manolov, Tzvyatko Mutafchiev, Todor Raykov, Georgy Iliev.
Two year ago this team was considered very promising and compared to Trakia, for it was based on bunch home-grown youngsters – Ilchev, Yovchev, Deliminkov. But unlike Trakia, Chernomoretz had no junior system bursting with talent and this one generation stayed alone. By now, there was no more improvement – seemingly, the team reached its best and just stayed there: pleasant mid-table team.
So was the league… except the top four. The sensation was Akademik (Sofia) – it looked like after the crisis of the late 70s, dropping them down to second division, they were coming back with their next great team. It was entirely new team – only one player from the old days was still around, the striker Borislav Gyorev, who played a very minor role in the great team of 1973-77. The new squad was made pretty much like the one before: a team of experienced, but no longer needed by the big clubs, players blended with young talent from provincial clubs. The chemistry was right, new leaders emerged, Akademik played a great season, competing for a top place and finishing 4th at the end with 34 points – 3 points ahead of Spartak (Pleven), but only 2 points short of silver medals. At the moment the revival was assured… but it turned out to be faulty expectation: immediately after the end of the season the key players moved to Levski-Spartak and CSKA, followed by others as well. The old problem of Akademik: as a ‘students’ club, it was unable to offer more than education to its players – money were short, players cannot stay after finishing University, the big clubs able to snatch whoever they wanted, and on top of everything, students were just fine continuing their education without playing for Akademik. Instead of new great era, this season turned out to be only a meteoric season and the very last successful season of the club.
No matter how good Akademik was, it was not for a moment considered a title contender – the race was between 3 clubs and it was peculiar one this year. Trakia (Plovdiv) ended 3rd with 35 points.
Bronze medalists crouching from left: G. Andreev, I. Mikhaylov, P. Zekhtinsky, K. Kostadinov, Kr. Manolov, T. Pachev, K. Stoyanov, M. Bakalov, G. Slavkov.
Standing: D. Dermendzhiev- coach, B. Blangev, D. Mladenov, At. Marinov, S. Khorozov, G. Tenev, D. Vichev, K. Peychev, K. Tanev, M. Argirov, P. Dimitrov, G. Bakalsky, I. Glukhchev – assistant coach.
Trakia was the most promising team for some time and great things were expected from this very young squad – there was so much talent, that it was even difficult keeping track, for the wonderful youth system of the club constantly pumped up new boys even more exciting than those of the previous year. The result was highly competitive team with a long bench: consider just this a an example – the three goalkeepers. Vichev was already a national team member, his back-up Peychev was included in the national team as soon as he managed to get some playing time, and Tenev was Junior national team regular, already considered more talented than his older teammates. There was no doubt these boys will be winners, the question was only when – and so far they were excused for been too young yet, not experienced enough, not at their peak. The same was found valid for their coach too, for Dinko Dermendzhiev was still a player two or three years back and took coaching position right after retirement: still too young, still without enough experience. Just wait a bit longer… which was becoming already an old excuse, used every year – this team had to deliver at last. Well, they played as equal with the big clubs by now, even beating them frequently, so… next year surely. Just give them a year – bronze was very promising step, as a whole the season was splendid. Yet… with CSKA somewhat underperforming and Levski-Spartak shaky only 3rd place? At least Trakia played solid season, going upward.
Levski-Spartak finsihed 2nd with 36 points. One better than Trakia, 4 less than the champions. The best defensive record this championship, rather weak strikers.
Sitting from left: T. Barzov, R. Gochev, St. Staykov, A. Stankov, E. Spassov.
Middle row: K. Ivkov – assistant coach, V. Grekov, Pl. Nikolov, St. Aladzhov, Chr. Mladenov – coach, N. Zaykov, N. Grancharov, V. Balevsky, P. Bonov – assistant coach.
Third row: Y. Yordanov, Vl. Delchev, B. Borissov, Vl. Nikolchev, M. Stanchev, P. Panov, Kr. Borissov, B. Mikhaylov, Br. Kochev.
Sitting from left: Christo Denchev, Plamen Nikolov, Roussy Gochev, Krassimir Chavdarov, Todor Barzov, Emil Spassov.
Middle row: Kiril Ivkov – assistant coach, Petar Petrov, Petar Kurdov, Bozhidar Iskrenov, Emil Velev, Christo Mladenov – coach, Borislav Borissov, Grigor Grigorov, Plamen Tzvetkov, Vesselin Balevsky, dr. Zhan Fillipov – team doctor.
Tor row: Sofrony Sofroniev – masseur, Nikolay Grancharov, Vlado Delchev, Nasko Sirakov, Angel Slavkov, Marin Stanchev, Valery Grekov, Borislav Mikhaylov, Mikhail Valchev.
The selections of summers 1980 and 1981 – perhaps showing the problem of Levski-Spartak. The team aged and naturally it was difficult to replace major stars like Pavel Panov. Experienced and largely successful coach was at the helm, Christo Mladenov, but he had a weakness already known: he was mellow and did not take risks. He preferred established squads, but veered drastically in the opposite direction if things were not going well, although never really risking. The traditional strength of Levski-Spartak was depending on home-grown players – the club had talented juniors, but Mladenov was not willing to play them. Levski-Spartak had a weak season, finishing 2nd, but hihly criticized by the fans and not at all performing steadily as CSKA or showing great potential for the future as Trakia. And Mladenov went in the opposite direction – during the ‘1300 years Bulgaria’ Cup in the summer of 1981 (the lower photo is taken at that time) he introduced his new team: gone were Panov, Aladzhov, Staykov, Yordanov, Krassimir Borissov, Nikolchev, Kochev. A radical change… but not radical enough – Barzov and Grancharov remained. Yes, they played with big hurts, but also were part of the old team and aging themsleves. Few others were even more suspect, for they either failed to impress (Stanchev), or clearly were not to be used by Mladenov juniors (Grekov, Zaykov, B. Borissov). To new arrivals were mostly juniors – Mikhaylov, Sirakov, Velev, Slavkov – , one player already dismissed from arch-rival CSKA – Krassimir Chavdarov, and three players, who impressed only during 1980-81 – Mikhail Valchev and Plamen Tzvetkov from Akademik (Sofia) and Grigor Grigorov from relegated Minyor (Pernik). Given Mladenov’s inclination to mistrust youngsters, it was clear that the experienced players taken from other clubs will be regulars and they were suspect, except Mikhail Valchev. So it was the old game again… a shaky team and no real chance given to the young talent. Levski-Spartak was not getting the right chemistry and was scared to introduce fully new team. Second place – a failure from the club’s and its fans point of view – was just the best these team could do.
This left, on the surface, CSKA with easy task – the arch-rival shaky and Trakia still not ripe for a real challenge, one team race then from start to finish. It was that, when looking at the final table – CSKA finished 4 points ahead of Levski-Spartak – but…
Sitting from left: Angel Kalburov, Ruzhdy Kerimov, Metody Tomanov, Radoslav Zdravkov, Plamen Markov, Tzvetan Yonchev, Mario Valkov, Nikola Velkov.
Middle row: Stoycho Mladenov, Angel Rangelov, Georgy Iliev, Toshko Arsov, Spas Dzhevizov, Georgy Dimitrov, Georgy Velinov, Dinko Dimitrov, Ivan Zafirov, Tzonyo Vassilev.
Top row: Nikola Milanov – director of the football club, Stoyan Yordanov – assistant coach, Asparoukh Nikodimov – coach, Dimitar Penev – assistant coach.
Well, 21st title and this was the best squad in the country. Asparoukh Nikodimov assembled wonderful team and, seemingly, the third great team of CSKA has finally arrived – and with a bang: the boys reached the ½ finals of the European Champions Cup. Perhaps that was why they were not overwhelming in the home championship – too many matches, preoccupation with European tournament, may be even a bit giddy by their European success and not giving their best against the smaller clubs of the Bulgarian league. But the team was already made and was going to be only better – Nikodimov was eventually known for getting rid of former teammates: only two were in this team – Zafirov, on his way to retirement, , and Tzonyo Vassilev, to be dismissed soon as well. Other veterans had their days numbered too – Goranov, and Angel Rangelov, still a national team option, had it written on the wall as well – either a reserve or out, for there was a great new pair of central defenders, the Dimitrov brothers, Gerogy and Dinko. The squad was young, yet experienced, and perfectly balanced without any weak position. The bench was long enough for trying various combination, and the philosophy was attack. Take away Zafirov and Vassilev, for they were not going to be part of the team anymore and may be a reserve or two, like Arsov, who in their own turn would not last long – and this squad was practically the Bulgarian national team of the 1980s decade – some did not play for long, but the core would: Velinov, Georgy Dimitrov, Stoycho Mladenov, Zdravkov, Yonchev, Markov. So, champions, but not overwhleming champions… a bit strange season for the best by far Bulgarian team at the moment.