The Bulgarian top league had rather strange championship: at a glance, it was the same as ever. The usual suspects dominated the championship, leaving the rest far behind. Then a stand-alone team, much better than most, yet, not quite equal to the leaders. Then 10 fairly equal teams, but the strange thing was the some recently strong clubs, now in relative decline, were at the same level with clubs, having strong and stable squads at the moment. And finally three outsiders at the bottom. To a point, generational change affected the whole league – the 1970s generation was stepping down, the reason some teams were in shambles, and a new talented generation was pushing up, but not yet ready to make true impact.
Pirin (Blagoevgrad), fresh from Second Division spell, was going back down – they were last with 19 points.Seemingly, there was no end the their troubles – relegated in 1981, they came back right away, and with some hopes: the initial problem, leading them to decline – keeping veterans too long, thus finding themselves suddenly without good middle-aged generation taking the reins – was apparently solved. There were still some, but few, veterans, but around them was a team of talented and very promising young players. Vassil Metodiev, arguably the best Bulgarian coach at this time, was hired and at first everything looked good. But then came a visit to ZSK Spartak in Varna, some players partied all night, foreign tourist reported rape the next morning, and half of the regular starters – the father of Dimitar Berbatov among them – were promptly arrested, tried and sentenced to jail. That lead to last place in the championship, but also to two other things: first, Vassil Metodiev could not get out of trouble – he was sacked a few years back for daring to eliminate Soviet club in European tournament , now his players were involved in gang rape. And that was not the last of his misfortunes. The other thing was the retirement of one of the most emblematic players of this period: the veteran goalkeeper Christo Christov, who made his debut in the national team at 36 years of age. Now he was 40, still solid and ready to guard the gate for ever. He had nothing to do with the gang rape, but years later, when it was possible to speak publicly, he said that he felt ashamed, too old for such behavior, no longer in touch with the young generation, and these feelings made him quit.
Rozova dolina (Kazanlik) ended 15th, also with 19 points, but better goal-difference than Pirin. Unlike their companions back to second division, ‘the Roses’ were expected to be relegated – they never played top league football before, came from small town, and had weak squad. Third row, from left: V. Stanchev – masseur, Nikolay Dyakov, Stoykov, Yordan Todorov, Koycho Koev, Dinyo Stoyanov, Emil Lichev, Christo Popov.
Middle row: Christo Minev – team doctor, Zlatko Minchev, Christo Gotzkov, Atanas Yovchev, Ivan Zafirov – coach, Lalyo Radukov – assistant coach, Tenko Nachev, Kolyo Petkov.
Sitting: Zheko Zhelev, Toshko Tanev, Kamen Petkov, Kralyo Orozov, Angel Yanev, Kanev, Ahmed Dormushev.
It was lovely to see such a modest club battling in the top division, but many looked at them in alarm: the whole Bulgarian football was in danger, because instead of traditional centers from big cities, modest clubs from nowhere were invading the top division – Belasitza (Petrich) first, now ‘the Roses’. Nothing good would come out such clubs – they had nothing to either produce, or to offer to good players from elsewhere. They were not competitive enough and that affected the big clubs, making them lazy – no much skill or effort was needed to beat a team like Rozova dolina, which came with very pedestrian squad without any experience. Very few of their players ever played first division before and only the aging midfielder Zheko Zhelev was recognizable name – but his peak was almost 10 years ago, when he was a member of the strong Beroe (Stara Zagora) team and considered national team material. And the city of Kazanlik was too small and modest to be able to get strong players from elsewhere – if going to such town, many felt there was no need to travel too far from home: one can get the same money in some second or third, or even forth division club without having to relocate. Rozova dolina was able to get only one experienced player in the summer – the once-upon-a-time exciting left winger Bogomil Simov. He was going to be 35 and was at its peak at the same time Zhelev was – the first half of the 1970s. As for the rest of the squad… the central-defender and team captian Kralyo Orozov summarizes it: a local legend he already was, but at 31 he played his first game in the top league. He never attracted the interest of bigger clubs when he was at his prime. His teammates were the same. They tried, but were not good enough to compete at top level.
Khaskovo (Khaskov) ended 14th with 22 points. They were expected to finish low, prime candidates for relegation. From a bigger town, but considered similar to Rozova dolina – not having strong local talent and not able to recruit from elsewhere. This was their 3rd season in First Division – the first attempt in the late 70s lasted one year, the second time they managed to finish 9th, but fooled nobody – too modest to keep up. To a point, they depended on help from Levski-Spartak (Sofia): coaches came from there and they brought two or three players, which Levski did not need for one or another reason, with them. Neither coaches, nor players lasted more than a year – it was more like temporary help, just to go through the season. The suspect approach misfired soon enough and perhaps the Pirin disaster helped them to finish just above direct relegation. They still to go to promotion-relegation play off, though… but managed to prevail over second division candidate Osam (Lovech) and buy one more season in the top league.
Chernomoretz (Bourgas) was 13th with 28 points. Hardly an outsider – they were rather a bit unfortunate, finishing at the bottom of the 10-team bulk of fairly equal teams. They were 13th not because of fewer points than others, but just because of worse goal-difference. Yet…
Siting, from left: Ivan Yovchev, Atanas Velikov, Tzvyatko Mutafchiev, Nikolay Kalushev, Ivaylo Kotzev, Todor Raykov, Georgy Iliev.
Middle row: Lyubomir Borissov – coach, Rossen Kavrakov, Stoyan Mavrov, Valentin Deliminkov, Ivan Pritargov, Georgy Madzharov, Pumpalov, Toma Tomov – assistant coach.
Third row: Lyubomir Georgiev, ?, Krassimir Dimitrov, Dimitar Papazov, Todor Russev, Vladimir Stoyanov, Krassimir Nikolov, Georgy Bachvarov.
A few years back Chernomoretz showed great potential with its group of exciting home-grown youngsters. Now it was already clear that Deliminkov, Yovchev, Ilchev, Madzharov, Papazov, Kavrakov either reached their maximum or lost ambition and settled for mediocre careers. Ivan Pritargov was already getting too old way beyond his peak, but the others were becoming a big disappointemt: consider this – Yovchev and Ilchev were only 23 years old with about 150 top-league games already. And looked like their best years were over, they were not going to get better. They were not going to play for the national team. Big clubs were not asking for their services. They were trying to avoid second division instead… Which they did, winning the promotion-relegation play-off with significant difficulty.
Slavia (Sofia) was 12th, escaping the shame of going to promotion-relegation play-off thanks to better goal-difference. ‘Only yesterday’ they were title contenders… but it was inevitable: their lovely team, built in 1974-75, aged. Tchavdar Tzvetkov, Andrey Zhelyazkov, Vanyo Kostov, Atanas Aleksandrov, Georgy Minchev, Andrey Chakarov were no longer around, but playing abroad. The days of Georgy Gugalov, Ivan Iliev, and Iliya Velichkov were numbered. The whole team had to be replaced, thus the crisis – no new team was shaping yet.
Botev (Vratza) was 11th with 28 points and ahead of Slavia and Chernomoretz only on better goal-difference. Well, they actually finished 6th after a strong season and finally stabilizing their team after years of relative decline. But the weird rule… their 3rd Division second team was last and relegated, which meant automatic 2-point deduction from the first team record. It was mockery of the boys’ performance and what possible ambition they could keep when out of the blue they were at the bottom of the table?
Sitting, from left: Valery Grekov, Borislav Borissov, Ventzislav Bozhilov, Tzvetan Danov, Dimitar Efremov, Iliya Voynov.
Middle row: Petar Kamenov – coach, Lyudmil Assenov, Valery Tzvetanov, Todor Mitov, Emil Marinov, Yulian Emilov, Emil Assenov, Georgy Kamenov – assistant coach.
Top row: Danail Marinov, Vassil Terziysky, Valentin Maldzhansky, Valentin Tzenov, Ivan Radoslavov, Iliya Valov.
Perhaps the wonderful central defender and national team player Maldzhansky was getting old, but there was exciting group of youngsters already considered a national team potential: Danov, Valov, Voynov, Emil Marinov. Very likely the administrative robbery this season made their minds – Maldzhansky and the Assenov brothers left after this season, Danov, Valov, and Voynov left in the next few years – yes, the trio went to play for the national team, but as players of CSKA.
Belasitza (Petrich), the Cinderella of the First Division took the 10th place with 29 points. To many, especially from the circles governing football, Belasitza was a big irritation – they represented a small town like Kazanlik, had no tradition and hardly produced anything in their own youth system. They tapped on the regional pool, using largely discarded players from the regional leading club Pirin (Blagoevgrad). A few veterans, a few more players not good enough for Pirin, and depending entirely on home games was the philosophy of success – contrary to any logic, Belasitza stayed in the top league year after year. And once again they survived, thanks to home wins on their incredibly hostile stadium. Hard as rock, with little grass to begin with and deliberately kept this was – every other club hated playing in Petrich. Local supporters with their mean attitudes made matches in Petrich very bad experience for all visitors. But the formula worked and that was particularly annoying, even offensive – the big regional club and one of the largest developers of bright new talent, Pirin, was relegated once again – tiny Belasitza, using those no longer good for Pirin, stayed in the league. The second leg of their direct championship clash was almost a slap in the face: Belasitza won 6-4! Pirin was not able to beat the small neighbor at all – the other match ended in 0-0 tie. Yes, Belasitza was disliked, largely by football officials, but they were also darlings for many – for their fearsome resistance, for their spirited attitude, for surviving against all odds.
And why not preferring Belasitza, when Cherno more (Varna) with its sturdy and competent squad managed only to finish above Cinderella on goal-difference? That was what was really wrong with Bulgarian football: this squad was considered one of the best in the history of Cherno more. Very competent, very experienced, stable, without weak positions, a squad at its prime. Which settled for mid-table existence, showing no ambition whatsoever. Players, just a few years ago considered a national team potential, were now only solid second-raters, satisfied with the fact that they were too strong to be relegated. And since almost the whole team was nearing 30 (7 of the regulars were born in 1954, another 3 in 1956), the future could be only trouble.
Etar (Veliko Tirnovo) took the 8th place – also with 29 points, so goal-difference put them above Cherno more and Belasitza. But bellow ZSK Spartak (Varna), which had better one by a single goal. Etar perhaps was one of the most satisfied clubs this year – they were shaky for years, going and down, unable to reestablish themselves in the top league. It looked like they managed to remain at last, so it was more than good season. Thanks to their former player and rapidly noticeable young coach Georgy Vassilev, who became perhaps the most successful Bulgarian coach in the 1990s. It was just the beginning of his job with Etar, though: for the moment, he managed to keep the team in the top league. But it was still the problematic rag-tag squad, composed mostly from players used -and often discarded – by other clubs before. Real building of a team was just beginning – around a core of good players: Stefan Lakhchiev, Georgy Tzingov, Emil Dimitrov, and new arrival Mitko Argirov. The future was promising, but it was distant future yet.
ZSK Spartak (Varna) finished 7th, but they were the discovery of the season, ending with their most successful year ever – they also reached the Bulgarian Cup final and eventually went to play in the Cup Winners Cup. Sitting from left: Georgy Aleksiev, Todor Popov, Zhivko Gospodinov, Stefan Simeonov, Borislav Gyorev, Roumen Dimov, Krassimir Venkov.
Middle row: Sasho Borissov, Stefan Stefanov, Assen Mikhaylov, Plamen Kazakov, Mustafa Demirov, Niazim Ismailov, Radi Radomirov.
Third row: Svetoslav Marinov, Emil Lichev, Lyudmil Goranov – coach, Stefan Naydenov, Blagoy Kalfov – assistant coach, Vladimir Nikolchev, Krassimir Zafirov.
Essentially, the team was made the previous year, when Ivan Vutzov came to coach the ailing for years club. He used the usual second-division formula, usually producing dubious short-term results, if any: he brought with him some oldish players from Levski-Spartak and Akademik (Sofia), kept just a few local stars, and added some local and imported promising talent. Typically, such a mix worked with difficulties for a year, but Vutzov managed to actually build a team. After winning promotion, he was appointed to coach the national team and his assistant Lyudmil Goranov became the head-coach of ZSK Spartak. He kept the already made team intact and the season was swell. The mixture worked well – aging local heroes Krassimir Zafirov, Ivan Petrov, and Encho Nedev, former Levski-Spartak players Angel Stankov and Vladimir Nikolchev, former Akademik (Sofia) regulars Sasho Borissov and Borislav Gyorev, plus who knows why discarded from Beroe promising midfielder Stefan Naydenov and previously unheard of discoveries Zhivko Gospodinov and Assen Mikhaylov. Only Borissov and Gyorev were new additions – all others won promotion from Second Division the previous season. Very experienced squad with 3 former national team members – Zafirov, still one of the best goalkeepers in the country, Petrov, Stankov. The old helped the young – Assen Mikhaylov and Zhivko Gospodinov soared and were included in the national team – if Mikhaylov only briefly, Gospodinov became a key national team player for the rest of the decade and played at the 1986 World Cup. The only problem of this team was age – it was obvious that Petrov, Nedev, Zafirov, Stankov, Nikolchev, and Borissov were nearing retirement (however, two of them ‘disappointed’ – Zafirov played quite a few more years, as good as ever, and Borissov moved to CSKA when he was almost 30 years old – perhaps the most unusual transfer, for CSKA never took old players). The season was great, but more important was the next step – to a point, it was a test for Lyudmil Goranov: he inherited already made team and his job was not that much to improve it, but to keep it strong. That is, finding good players to replace those going into retirement. No point in looking into the future here – suffice to say Goranov managed to keep the team strong for a brief, but exciting period – and the excitement blinded him.
Sliven (Sliven) fimished 6th with 30 points. Nothing much in terms of points, but from local point of view it was strong season. Well, strong by default, for if Botev was not unjustly penalized, Sliven would have been 7th. Still good, though… Their approach was the same as ever: get players from CSKA and that will be enough. It was – 6 former CSKA players, half the regular srarters: Yordan Filipov, Krassimir Goranov, Ivan Metodiev, Angel Kalburov, Svetlin Mirchev, Metody Tomanov. Add the national team sweeper Nikolay Arabov and few very experienced second-raters – Dancho Yorgov, Ivan Valchev, Tenko Dobrev, Georgy Pavlov, Petko Tenev – and there was a squad like Cherno more: strong and well balanced. With no big ambitions, though – just keeping mid-table strength. Arabov was star on national scale, but Yordan Filipov must be mentioned first of all: at 36, he was voted best goalkeeper in 5 rounds the previous season – more than any other keeper. This season he was ‘only’ second best. And he had more years to play, as it turned out – including a return to CSKA. However, Sliven was not a promising team – their approach was year-by-year, depending on how many former CSKA players departed or arrived.
Spartak (Pleven) finished 5th – arguably, their best season. The points were not much – only 31 – but traditionally they were weak and lowly team, so it was more than great. And it was, because they had a team just approaching its peak. Individually, most of the players were getting old, but as a squad, they were at the verge of their finest. Very experienced, very well oiled together, and having two great young stars – Plamen Getov, already becoming a legend at 23, and rapidly emerging Lachezar Tanev, 20 years old. Both were not only highly entertaining players, scoring lots of goals, but were becoming national team starters virtually by the minute. Spartak was really going to play big role at least in the next two-three years, but it was not going to be – after the season ended, they were expelled from the league. Were they guilty is hard to say – a scape-goat they certainly were. Paying players under the table… as if all clubs were not doing the same. So, instead of going up, Spartak went down – to second division. National team players and all. And the players started to leave immediately…
Lokomotiv (Sofia) was 4th with 32 points. On the surface, it looked great, but club officials and fans were not fooled: for a modest club with limited resources and always in the shadow of CSKA, Levski, and Slavia, Lokomotiv could be only grateful to finish in the upper half of the table. More than that would be rare sensation and this was not the time for sensations: their good old team aged and retired, but the new team was not ready yet. Only Stoykov, Bonev, and Arsov remained from the 1970s team and they were on their way out to play a bit abroad. The skeleton of new team was already at hand – Boycho Velichkov, Nikolay Donev, Nako Doychev, Nasko Zhelev, Vladimir Lalov, Aleksander Markov, Boris Iliev, Aleksander Dudov – but it was only a skeleton, even a potential skeleton, for some of the youngsters were only promising, but yet unknown, players (the member of the excellent 1994 World Cup Bulgarian squad Plamen Nikolov was 21-years old with a single championship appearance so far. And another appearance was quite absent from the future, for slightly older regular goalkeeper Nikolay Donev was already called to the national team). At this undeveloped stage, Lokomotiv had no way to challenge the leaders – just grateful to end a bit ahead of the bulk of equal teams.
With 38 points, Trakia (Plovdiv) finished 3rd. Top row, from left: Ivan Glukhchev – coach, Dimitar Mladenov, Dimitar Vichev, Aleksander Nikolov, Kiril Peychev, Mitko Argirov, Lyuben Vlassov – masseur, Lyubomir Dobrev – team doctor.
Middle row: Krassimir Manolov, Ivaylo Stoynov, Petar Zekhtinsky, Blagoya Blangev, Slavcho Khorozov, Atanas Marinov, Kosta Tanev.
Sitting: Atanas Pashev, Roumen Yurukov, Marin Bakalov, Kostadin Kostadinov, Vassko Simov, Strumen Avkov.
The picture is a bit mysterious – not exactly 1982-83, but not quite any other season… something in between seasons of that time, most likely. Glukhchev was not head-coach in 1982-83 – not before 1984 in fact, but Argirov was not playing for Trakia anymore – he moved to Etar. That apart, Trakia seemingly resigned to take third place and not to be title contender at all – high above the bulk of the league, yet, quite bellow the two traditionally leading clubs. Nowadays member of this team spill the tale how Levski and CSKA feared them and how they routinely demolished the grands, but let take a look at the records: against CSKA 1 tie and one loss this season. Against Levski – one win and one loss. According to tradition, really – as an Army club, Trakia very rarely played seriously against the ‘big brother’. When they did, they managed a tie at home. Again, as an Army team, they applied all their abilities against Levski – which usually resulted in home win and loss away. And in the big picture that resulted with 3rd place at best. It was quite short of the potential of this team, which appeared to be limitless at this time, for Trakia had the best youth system, constantly providing newer and newer highly talented youngsters. So much talent, the youth system rejected Christo Stoichkov – not good enough. And rightly so – 13 national team players at the picture above! Not all at the same time and certainly of very different longivity, but 13! And only the goalkeeper Vichev over 30 at the moment – the next oldest star, Zekhtinsky, was 27. Kostadinov and Pashev, the most regular national teams regulars, were 23-years old. Yet, Trakia settled for permanent third position – there was no longer any doubt, for this squad was expected to run for the title since 1977. They did not so far, so they were not going to do it in the future for sure. Instead, a different and destructive problem emerged: crowding. At almost position there were two players available. Point in case: both goalkeepers already played for the national team. But one had to sit reserve, almost permanently. Argirov left for that very reason – he wanted to play. Soon he was followed by others – Peychev and Manolov, for instance. Meantime some were getting old… Khorozov was rapidly transforming from great promise to unfulfilled promise: he was already 26 years old not only unable to win a title, not only no longer a potential national team star, but a player in great danger of losing his regular place, for there was younger talent and no space for all in the team.
Levski-Spartak (Sofia) finished 2nd – 3 points behind the champions and 4 points ahead of Trakia. It was a season of mixed emotions – on one hand, Levski did not play all that well and lost the battle for the title early. On the other hand, there was a daring change, which was supported enthusiastically by the fans. The coach Dobromir Zhechev made the group of talented youth starters – for the fans, it was a long-waited to tradition, to the true spirit of the club. For Zhechev, it meant looking for a new job. Borislav Mikhaylov, Nasko Sirakov, Bozhidar Iskrenov, Nikolay Iliev, Petar Kurdov, Emil Velev, Krassimir Koev played together in the youth formations and now became the skeleton of a new and eventually successful team. All of them would soon be major stars, defining Bulgarian football of the 1980s and beyond. If not for daring decision of Zhechev, who knows? They may have been lost, like all juniors of the club in the 1970s. Almost all were members of the first team for some time and had some playing time too – but before Zhechev they appeared sparsely, one by one, mostly as substitutes or in the odd unimportant game. Shortly before the end of the championship Levski was a point behind CSKA and won the derby 3-0, thus coming on top. It was very confident victory, but the edvantage was quickly lost in the remaining games – perhaps the main reason Zhechev was sacked. And the main reason for mixed feelings: there was a lot of promise, but seemingly the team was not ready to win yet.
CSKA ‘Septemvriysko zname’ won 4th consecutive title. Sitting from left: Radoslav Zdravkov, Tzvetan Yonchev, Plamen Markov, Georgy Slavkov, Ruzhdy Kerimov, Stoycho Mladenov, Chrsito Zapryanov – masseur.
Middle row: Boris Stankov – coach, Georgy Iliev, Yancho Bogomilov, Spas Dzhevizov, Dinko Dimitrov, Nedyalko Mladenov, Georgy Dimitrov, Christo Marinchev – assistant coach.
Top row: Krassimir Dossev, Krassimir Bezinsky, Valery Kulinov, Nikola Milanov – chief of the team, Vassil Tinchev, Aleksander Aleksandrov, Georgy Velinov.
On the surface, everything was fabulous – CSKA not only won the championship once again, but had a good chance for a triple this year. Looked like permanent dominance – this squad, made of 13 national team players, was finely tuned and at its prime. It was not aging team either, but with enormous experience to its credit. But there were problems and power struggles: the team started the season with its maker in the helm – Asparoukh Nikodimov. Then he was sacked out of the blue and for no visible reason and hardly ever coaching veteran Stefan Bozhkov was installed. He coached the team in the spring, but in the above photo was already out – replaced by Boris Stankov. He was head coach for a very brief period – the next season there was another coach. Why Nikodimov, who elevated CSKA from the shaky uncertainty in the second half of the 1970s and build this excellent squad was sacked was unclear and not made official, but became known: Nikodimov was too strong headed and too independent. It was stupid to sack him, but that was CSKA – no mercy. They kicked out Nikodimov twice already – once, because the club did not want players around 30 years old, no matter how they played, and now as a coach.