The Bulgarian championship was anomalous, when considered from a distance: their was general positive aspects – European success of CSKA and strong new generation of players, many of them very exciting. In the same time the championship was plain old battle between CSKA and Levski-Spartak, leaving the rest of fairly equal league far behind. Individual talent somewhat did not affect team performance – it looked just the opposite somehow. Three teams were quite the outsiders.
With 17 points Akademik (Sofia) was last.
Standing from left: Nikolay Vladov, Zhoro Machkansky, Decho Pavlov, Sasho Borissov, Dimitar Dimitrov.
Front row: Roumen Dimov, Tzonko Simeonov, Plamen Lipensky, Valery Peychev, Kiril Lyubomirov, Borislav Gyorev.
It was hard to explain… the previous season Akademik, freshly promoted, finished 3rd. They earned a spot in the UEFA Cup and generally pleased everyone with their football. It looked like the team was coming back to its great years of mid-70s. Now they were hopeless… and it was hard to figure out why, looking at the squad: most players were young and promising. There was very experienced backbone – Lyubomirov, Simeonov, Borissov, and Gyorev (the only survivor from the great mid-70s team). But the mix did not work, bringing back memories of the late 70-s, when promising looking team went down to relegation. Reason? The predicament… Akademik was easily looted by design: a ‘students’ club, they could not keep players no longer University students. The club did not have financial muscle and big ‘sponsors’. And students could move to another club even without having to drop out from University by now. So, key players moved to Levski-Spartak and CSKA, the team was destabilized and went down immediately. It was not just a temporary underperformance either – more players left right after the end of the disastrous season, further weakening the club.
Beroe (Stara Zagora) – 15th with 19 points. Weak season, not really reflecting the quality of the squad. But Beroe had a history of sudden falls, leading them to second division. Impossible to figure out why same players one year made wonders, even challenging the favourites, and the next were relegated.
Slightly better, but still an outsider – Botev (Vratza), 14th with 22 points.
Front row from left: Efremov, Toshkov, Vassilev, N. Christov, Bozhilov, Emilov.
Middle row: G. Kamenov – assistant coach, Arsov, Mitov, Tzvetanov, Chr. Mladenov – coach, Voynov, Radoslavov, Valov, P. Kamenov – assistant coach, G. Petkov – football section chairman.
Third row: K. Kostov – rehabilitation specialist, Atanassov, Ivanov, Tzenov, Maldzhansky, Strashimirov, Danov, Petkov, P. Kyupriysky – doctor.
Botev was in decline since 1975, so going deeper and deeper down was hardly a news, but still… three national team players in excellent form – Valentin Maldzhansky (current),Tzvetan and Iliya Valov (soon to be). Above average players with plenty of experience – Tzenov, Toshkov, Efremov, Bozhilov. Two bright up and coming youngsters – Yuly Emilov and Iliya Voynov. And one of the highly reputed Bulgarian coaches – Christo Mladenov, who just recently coached both Levski-Spartak and Slavia, and who was the last man leading Bulgaria to World Cup finals – in 1974. Nothing worked… and Botev was just happy to stay for another year after wining minimally the promotion/relegation play-off against Shumen.
Marek (Stanke Dimitrov) was 13th with 26 points – 4 more than Botev and normally they would have been safe. At least for one more year, for here crisis was more than obvious: the exciting years of Marek, leading them to European competitions and dramatic clashes with Bayern and Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen, were practically due to 14 players. Inevitably, they aged, they were beyond their prime and started to retire. By now, the remaining stars were all about 30 years old – and there was not a single worthy player behind them. It was a fatal mistake: the team started with very short team and with time it getting only shorter and shorter (reduced from 14 to 9 good players, to be exact). True, the club was small and hardly able to attract first-rate talent, but seemingly no effort to reinforce was made either. The new rule hurled Marek to promotion/relegation play-off – they lost and went down, having only themselves to blame.
Belasitza (Petrich) was 12th in their second season in First Division. Standing from left: Petar Argirov – coach, Milan Karatanchev, Dimitar Karadaliev, Nasko Stanoev, Yordan Popov, Vladimir Krazhanov, Georgy Bibishkov, Valery Dagalov, Nikola Shalamanov – assistant coach.
Crouching: Roumen Popov, Iliya Redzhev, Lozan Trenchev, Georgy Bokhorov, Dimitar Dimitrov, Valery Stoyanov, Branimir Kochev, Laskov.
Lovely underdog – they survived again against the odds. Not only the squad was nothing much, but their situation was challenging: in the realm of current South Second Division champions Pirin (Blagoevgrad), they were doomed to lose whatever talent they had to the big neighbour, depending in the same time on handouts from the same neighbour. That is, discarded old players were the most Belasitza would hope for – and a big chunk of their team consisted of players Pirin no longer needed. Since Petrich was small town, there was nothing else they can do in terms of recruiting. But helped by peculiarity (Petrich was inside the 20-km border zone, where Bulgarians were forbidden to enter without a special permit issued by the Police – this difficulty greatly diminished the number of visiting fans, so Belasitza played largely in front of their own noisy and sometime violent supporters), climate (it is generally the hottest area of Bulgaria with limited water supply, which the home team used wickedly – the pitch was especially hard with little grass and there was always a good excuse why it wasn’t watered or even leveled. The home team was used to this pitch – its visitors were often unable to adjust), and great spirit (the team frequently overperformed, even players Pirin discarded for lack of ambition), Belasitza managed to stay out of trouble this season. The formula was simple – they made the most of home games, taking full advantage of their situation – away: whatever happens. It was almost impossible to extract a point in Petrich, even for the strongest clubs – and home points so far were enough at the end of the season.
Sliven (Sliven) ended 11th with 27 points – ahead of Belasitza only on goal-difference. A weak season really, but Sliven heavily depended on current players sent from CSKA – if the bunch was strong and ambitious, the club played well; if not – went down. Just for that reason – for serving as a second team of CSKA – many fans wanted Sliven relegated, but they survived this year.
Etar (Veliko Tirnovo) – 10th with 28 points. Etar meandered between first and second division in the recent years, so it was fine they were able to survive – it was like taking a deep breath of relief. There was a good chance for the team to stabilize, to start believing in itself and to reinforce it without panic – a big part of the problems in the recent years was the frequent changes in the squad, some of them clearly patch-up temporary work.
Spartak (Pleven) – 9th with 29 points. Standing from left: Ivan Ivanov – assistant coach, Venelin Nikolov, Nazim Mehmedov, Lachezar Tanev, Tzvetan Krastev, Tony Dzhefersky, ?, ?, Milko Gavrilov, Stanimir Parchanov, ?.
Crouching: Vassil Minkov, Tzvetan Kamenov, Roumen Khristov, Plamen Getov, Blagoy Krastanov, Aleksandar Benchev, Krassimir Lazarov, Vassil Daskalov.
This was a team often praised and retrospectively considered one of the finest Spartak ever had – that is why it was strange to see them so low in the table. Compared to some other teams, Spartak was equal or better. It was a team at its prime, well shaped and experienced. It had three national team players, one of them already considered a genius – Plamen Getov. Tzvetan Krastev was just an accidental member of the national team, but Lachezar Tanev and Getov were defining Bulgarian players of the decade and national team regulars until 1992. Not fillers either, but key stars. Yet, this squad was able only to finish in mid-table – something they had done before with weaker squads. One thing, peculiar for this time period of Bulgarian football – here are 2 bright goalkeepers. That was the case in many clubs, creating uncomfortable problem. But with so many good keepers in the league even leaving was not an easy option – where to go? Almost everybody had a solid starter… and some talent was lost. Point in case – neither Parchanov, nor Nikolov fulfilled expectations in the long term.
Haskovo (Haskovo) – the overachievers of the season: 8th with 30 points.
Sitting from left: Dimitar Dimitrov – administrator, Ivan Tishansky, Todor Apostolov, Ivan Vassilev, Mitko Nikolov, Kostadin Latinov, Yordan Kichekov, Sasho Georgiev, Aleksandar Vezenkov, Radka Georgieva – custodian.
Middle row: Nasko Atanassov – assistant coach, Christo Stamatov – doctor, Svetlin Cholakov, Valentin Kostov, Ivan Tekeliev, Yuksel Redzhebov, Nedyalko Panayotov, Zhivko Gospodinov, Rossen Stratiev, Zapryan Taskov – masseur.
Third row: Marin Gochev, Stoyan Gurkov, Todor Yanev, Aleksandar Kostov – coach, Sali Shakirov, Stoyan Dimov, Kolyo Kostov.
The best season in the history of Haskovo so far – the first time they were promoted, they were relegated right away. Their second foray into top level football was much stronger, although Haskovo had one of the weakest squads in the league and was expected to go down. Only three players – all old – were respectable names: the local hero and team captain Latinov, the centre-forward Kichekov, who was a seen as a future star back in the early 1970s, but never fulfilled expectations and eventually was let go from Trakia (Plovdiv) and settled in Second Division, and the former Levski-Spartak and the nationa team central defender Tishansky. Not enough for strong season. The success was largely due to the coach Kostov, a star left-winger back in the 1960s, who fans loved not only for his skills, but also for his pranks and great sense of humour. Like almost all closely related to Levski-Spartak coaches, he preferred to reinforce his teams with players Levski-Spartak did not need – Tishansky at this time. As a coach, Kostov was not really much, but his sense of humour was a big motivational tool – to a point, Haskovo’s success came mostly on the wings of enthusiasm, fueled by Kostov. But it was clear that the team overperformed and a second such season was unlikely, especially after the coach left with the end of the championship.
A place ahead of Haskovo only on better goal-difference was Trakia (Plovdiv), the big disappointment of the season. If Haskovo overachieved, Trakia underachieved. Hailed as the most talented and promising team in the country for some years, Trakia was supposed to be at its prime, or very near it – but the previous season more or less suggested that they would not be title contenders and whatever hopes lingered were utterly destroyed this year. The team simply stunk. To a point, the miserable performance was explained by unfortunate lack of delivery by the 1981 European best scorer Georgy Slavkov – he missed too many games because of injuries and suspensions. There was another problem, if not a real tension in the dressing room: there are too many strong players and some had to be left out on the bench, particularly the second goalkeeper, who was immediately included in the national team when he happened to be a starter, Kiril Peychev, and the talented striker Mitko Argirov. And Slavkov was keen to play for CSKA again. Slavkov and Argirov left after the end of the season, Peychev – a year later. But after this drop it was painfully clear that Trakia will never be a champion.
Chernomoretz (Bourgas) – 6th with 32 points. Head-to-head matches with Lokomotiv (Sofia) deprived them from 5th place – both teams ended with same points and goal-difference. It was good season, but nothing really special – the talented youngsters of few years ago matured, but their potential as a team was not particularly high, so comfortable mid-table position was the most they could do – this year was better, they finished higher than usual. Well done and good luck in the next season.
Lokomotiv (Sofia) clinched 5th place, which was pretty much the usual and expected – solid play, but just below the best. Better than most. This team was called ‘new’, but there was little really new – experienced Georgy Berkov coached a decade ago and some players of that long gone days were still around. What was new was the absence of their emblematic star Atanas Mikhaylov, who was exported to play his last days of football in Cyprus. There was bright young talent, but very familiar names still pulled the strings. Practically, Lokomotiv maintained its usual position in the league.
In the history of Cherno more (Varna) this season is remembered as one of their strongest – they finished 4th with 33 points.
Crouching from left: Verony Strashnikov, Milen Bakardzhiev, Plamen Ganev, Georgy Kondov, Svetozar Svetozarov, Valery Peychev.
Middle row: Todor Velikov – assistant coach, Ivan Ivanov, Plamen Kazakov, Krassimir Diamandiev, Todor Marev, Ivan Donchev, Spas Kirov – coach.
Top row: Valery Tzelov, Georgy Popov, Todor Atanassov, Vasko Vladimirov, Rafi Rafiev, Borislav Manolkov, Georgy Zhekov.
This was a well-rounded relatively young, but experienced squad – in terms of the club, one of their best teams. Compared to other teams – nothing special really, except a good blend. Their star Todor Marev was quietly getting old and was not called to the national team for years – not his fault, he was really neglected and underrated most of the time. Three players, who did not make it in CSKA – Manolkov, Atanassov, and Peychev – settled well and contributed a lot. But… they did not make CSKA , the very reason they were here. None of other players made the big clubs interested – and not only the big clubs. They were middle-of-the-road, save for the centre-forward Rafiev, who was seen as national team potential for awhile. The final standing was great, but… they were just lucky to have a point or two more than similar teams. The difference between Cherno more and the 12th placed Belasitza was 6 points – between them and the 2nd placed: 13 points.
Slavia (Sofia) finished 3rd, but their performance was closer to that of the lower teams than to the favourites. Not for single moment Slavia competed for the title – rather, like Cherno more, they were just lucky to extract more points than others. 35 points, to be precise. 2 more than Cherno more. They lost a good 1/3 of the total games – 10. Their goal-difference was +2! They scored only 35 goals – barely above 1 goal-per-game average! Sitting from left: Ilyaz Aliev, Botyo Malinov, Nikolay Yankov, Sasho Momchilov, Vanyo Kostov, Roussi Ivanov, Georgy Minchev, Atanas Aleksandrov, Dimitar Diev, Pavlin Dimitrov.
Standing: Georgy Gugalov, Rostislav Grozdanov, Milcho Evtimov, Iliya Velichkov, Todor Parmakov, Ivan Khaydarliev, Zheko Andreev, Spasko Zanev, Ivan Iliev, Mario Kalpushkov.
Yes, this was almost the squad, which was robbed from the title only two years back. But the regulars were also painfully familiar since 1974… and there was a new twist: Bulgaria started to export players. Slavia benefited most at first – Chavdar Tzvetkov was sold to Austria (Vienna) and Andrey Zhelyazkov to Feyenoord (Rotterdam), the bigger Bulgarian transfer in the 1980s. The rest of the aging stars were surely next in line – Kostov, Aleksandrov, Minchev, Iliev, may be even Evtimov and Gugalov. Behind them were Velichkov, Aliev, and Malinov and it was already absolutely clear that reached their best some time ago and would never be leaders of a new team. Only Khaydarliev was such material, but one player was not enough… there was nobody among the youngsters with star potential. So, even tha fans of the club were not excited – 3rd place, UEFA Cup spot, but the season was not a memorable one amd the future was not bright at all.
So much for the league… this championship was not only familiar race between the bitter rivals CSKA and Levski-Spartak, but it was really everything this year – the difference between the favourites and the rest of the league was enormous and seemingly unbridgeable anytime soon. The race was extremely tough, though… 1 point decided winners and losers, and if one of their direct clashes had ended slightly differently, the places would have been reversed. One match CSKA won 2-1 and the other was a 2-2 tie. If both matches were tied, Levski-Spartak would have been 1st , a point ahead. But ‘ifs’ are just ‘ifs’ – CSKA prevailed.
Sitting from left: R. Gochev, Em. Spassov, Pl. Nikolov. T. Barzov, Kr. Chavdarov
Middle row: K. Ivkov – assistant coach, P. Petrov, Chr. Denchev, V. Grekov, N. Grancharov – captain, D. Zhechev – coach, Em. Velev, B. Iskrenov, Gr. Grigorov, Kr. Koev, G. Nechev – assistant coach.
Top row: S. Sofroniev – masseur, P. Kurdov, Vl. Delchev, V. Balevsky, A. Slavkov, M. Valchev, B. Mikhaylov, Pl. Tzvetkov, Zhan Filipov – doctor.
The title was lost, which never makes fans and club happy, but there was something important happening this year: the new great team of the 1980, for many the best ever Levski had, was shaped during this season. Mostly players coming from the youth system, which was a nice return to roots and tradition, and few recruits from elsewhere, the most important of whom was the centre-forward Mikhail Valchev, taken from Akademik (Sofia). This was due to the coaching staff – Dobromir Zhechev and Kiril Ivkov, the legendary duo of central defenders. Both young coaches – there were still players in the squad, who played with them – and some who played against them. Zhechev takes all credit for building the new team, although most of its key figures were already used by the previous coach Christo Mladenov. But Mladenov used in typical fashion – now and then would field a youngster as a substitute. Zhechev made them regulars and at key positions too. But let face it: Levski does not consider 2nd place a success. It did not matter that Slavia was left 11 points behind – what mattered was that CSKA ended 1 point ahead.
A golden team at its prime and champion again. Sitting from left: Alyosha Dimitrov, Radoslav Zdravkov, Georgy Dimitrov – captain, Tzvetan Yonchev, Stoycho Mladenov, Angel Kalburov.
Middle row: Stoyan Yordanov – assistant coach, Mario Valkov, Metody Tomanov, Plamen Markov, Spas Dzhevizov, Georgy Iliev, Dinko Dimitrov, Dimitar Penev – assistant coach.
Third row: Krassimir Bezinsky, Krassimir Dossev, Asparoukh Nikodimov – coach, Georgy Velinov, Nikola Velkov, Ruzhdy Kerimov.
47 points, 3rd consecutive title and 22nd altogether – what could be better? But the this one did not come easy at all – Levski-Spartak breathed in the neck of CSKA the whole season. Nothing new, but this time the enemy did it with almost teenage squad. And CSKA had finely shaped and tuned team at its prime… a team, which already took the scalps with 2 reigning European champions – Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. A team bursting of stars. A team which had no regular place for players with national team abilities like Kerimov or players, who would have been movers and shakers in almost any other club, like Tomanov, Valkov, Velkov. A team so good and demanding Krassimir Chavdarov was dismissed and joined… Levski-Spartak, where he immediately became a regular. The jewel was entirely made by Asparoukh Nikodimov, arguably the best Bulgarian coach at the moment. And it was so weird to see him dismissed after a champion season… after making the first great CSKA team after 1972, after winning three titles in a row for the first time since 1973, after eliminating two European champions. And after looking forward to make CSKA even stronger. But Nikodimov clashed with some of the club’s big suits, who were also big shots in Communist Party and Army hierarchy – and the great coach was kicked out. As a footnote: it was strange to see a second division coach – Vutzov – appointed to coach the national team and in the same time the top coach in the country going to work with second division club, Dunav (Rousse). All that was rather bitter, but happened after the fact – CSKA was champion, all that mattered.