First Division. The picture has two faces: one before and during the season and another after its end, when the Communist Party interfered with its draconian decree. First of all, there were new changes to the rules introduced. No points were given, if a match ended scoreless 0-0. The main objective for this rule was an aim of increasing scoring, which steadily fell down after 1971. How wise was such rule should be considered after seeing the final table. The other change was abolishing the short-lived promotion/relegation play-offs between those just above relegation zone and the second-placed teams in the Second Division. On the surface, the change made some sense after the reorganization of Second Division from 2 groups to one league. Behind the facade, it looked like that the grumbling over ‘operation saving Slavia’, which took place at the end of the previous season was taken into account and without fuss the old rule was abolished. That was all about the new design of the championship. Four new teams joined the top league for this season as a result of the effort to keep Slavia out of relegation – all of them were well-known former members of first division, but their strength was somewhat dubious. As a general observation, there were almost no surprises during the season and the championship was dominated as usual by Levski-Spartak and CSKA. Scoring jumped up, but how much the new rule contributed to it was questionable – first of all, Levski, CSKA, and Trakia had formidable strikers and scored a lot, thus increasing the goals-per-game average. The new rule ‘encouraging’ scoring by itself could not do much: one needs scorers. Very few games ended 0-0, so only few points were lost – just one team, Cherno more (Varna) ended 3 matches 0-0 and only three teams ended with a scoreless tie twice, Trakia (Plovdiv), Minyor (Pernik) and Spartak (Pleven). There was one casualty of the rule – Minyor (Pernik) ended relegated just because lost 2 points on scoreless ties. On the other hand, Etar (Veliko Tirnovo) mastered the new rule: they won 14 games and lost 15. Their single tie was scoreless, so no point for it, but there was no danger with such record, but secure mid-table position. It was painfully clear what the danger of losing points did: play to win at home, and to the devil with away games. Not a new approach, but now something was added to it: a silent understanding between the clubs that whoever hosts a match should win it. You give me 2 points now, I give you 2 points later. Nobody can prove fixing ever. All that mattered little because of the great war between Levski and CSKA for supremacy.
Chernomoretz (Burgas) was the league’s outsider this season – somewhat, the bright squad of few years back stalled and instead of going up, went down. Last with 21 points.
Newcomer Minyor (Pernik) ended next to last with 25 points. True, the squad was shaky, but they lost 2 points to scoreless ties and that did them – in normal counting, they would have been just above relegation zone.
ZSK Spartak (Varna) were lucky – thanks to the misfortune of Minyor, they survived with 26 points. Now, that was the team much praised only a short time before, which went to play againt Manchester United in the European competitions… what went wrong? What went wrong was the simple fact that the club had no home-grown talent and heavily depended on good, but aging players, lured from other clubs. It was clearly short-term policy, ready to misfire: veterans call it a day, no similar players available to replace the retirees and the end comes. Point in case: if Diev, Gyorev, and Smilkov were really good, they would have been regulars in their former clubs.
Dunav (Russe), a newcomer like Minyor – 2nd-placed in the Second Division the previous year and promoted only thanks to the strange relegation/promotion play-offs – was hardly a team for top-league football, so they struggled, looked like going back to where they came from, and eventually were lucky to survive with 26 points (they lost 1 point). New rule or not, 10 teams were largely concerned with avoiding relegation this season, especially in the spring half of it, so Dunav was among the happy survivors.
And so was Beroe (Stara Zagora) – they finished 10th with 26 points (1 point lost to scoreless tie). Their great star Petko Petkov coached them right after retiring as a player and he was sacked after the end of the season. Of course, it was impossible to see the future at the time, but it is mind boggling now: this very squad was entirely different in the next season. Weird ups and downs were typical for Beroe, but to go from barely avoiding relegation to the title was too much of a transformation.
Sliven (Sliven) went down – 3rd in the previous season, although thanks to late penalty of Botev (Vratza), which awarded them 2 extra points after the season finished, now they plummeted down to fighting for survival. Same squad, though… Their captain, Nikolay Arabov – crouching 2nd from right – was regular national team players and the only star. The traditional help from CSKA remained as well – three former CSKA players were here. The rest was middle of the road players, still young, but already with massive experience.
Cherno more (Varna) – 10the with 26 points (1 point lost to scoreless tie). Barely escaping relegation the previous year and largely thanks to the operation for saving Slavia and no better this year. Still suffering from the corruption scandal two years ago, which banished half of their team.
Spartak (Pleven) – 9th with 27 points (2 points lost to scoreless ties). Newcomers and doing relatively well, but… they were expelled, when found guilty of bribing two years ago. Unlike Cherno more, they did not lose players – the club was bribing others, its players were not involved – and this was perhaps the best squad Spartak ever had. Came back to top division right away and, frankly, expected to be stronger. So, a bit of disappointing season – especially for a team led by one of the greatest stars of the 1980s, Plamen Getov, and coached by one of the best coaches the country ever had, Georgy Vassilev. Sitting from left: V. Sabotinov, Kr. Lazarov, Pl. Getov, G. Vassilev – coach, V. Daskalov, Bl. Krastanov, F. Spassov.
Middle row: St. Velichkov – assistant coach, D. Todorov, Tzv. Tzvetkov, Tzv. Krastev, R. Christov, Ml. Angelov, V. Spayiisky, Kirchev, Al. Chenkov – assistant coach.
Top row: St. Parchanov, Kutyanov, Ochev, Tz. Gavazov, M. Gavrilov, Bl. Petkov, V. Nikolov.
Etar (Veliko Tirnovo) – 8th with 28 points (1 point lost to scoreless tie). Solid or clever – 14 wins, 1 tie, 15 losses. Not really in danger, not very strong either… nothing remarkable. Future greats – Krassimir Balakov and Trifon Ivanov – were already playing. Balakov was regular, Ivanov just a humble beginner, playing rarely.
Slavia (Sofia) – 7th with 29 points (1 point lost to scoreless tie). Of course, nobody would officially say that rules were hastily changed to save them from relegation the previous season, but the club knew it was in trouble and tried to improve the fading squad. It was not a rebuilding, though – just a patch-work. All hopes were placed on three veterans – Tchavdar Tzvetkov agreed to play one more years as playing assistant coach; Andrey Zhelyazkov returned from Feyenoord, and another illustrious veteran also came from foreign spell – Tzvetan Yonchev, who made his name as CSKA winger. Frankly, there was no future in the trio, but they had big names and as names go – at least the regular eleven looked descent. Really, the future was much to desired for: only two promising young players, not enough for a core of new strong squad – the goalkeeper Antonio Ananiev and center-forward Petar Aleksandrov.
Sitting from left: Mladen Radkov, Zheko Andreev, Zefir Badiev, Ilian Aldev, Ivan Khaydarliev, Tzvetan Yonchev, Ivan Piskov, Pavlin Dimitrov, Dr. Mikhail Iliev – doctor.
Middle row:Trendafil Terziisky – conditional coach, Plamen Petkov, Antonio Ananiev, Svetlin Kalistratov, Georgy Iliev, Andrey Zhelyazkov, Petar Aleksandrov, Ivaylo Venkov, Yordan Kostov, Slavcho Niklenov, Kostadin Krastanov, Aleksandar Shalamanov – coach.
The season was so-so at best and Slavia finished it with 14 wins, 14 losses, and 2 ties, one of them scoreless. Not as bad as the previous year, but without much promise either – the veterans helped, but it was clear they were goners: Zhelyazkov, the only one of them who was still playing for the national team, was bound to play abroad again; Tzvetkov played his last season; Ivan Iliev was near retirement and very likely to play his last days somewhere else. Aldev and the two former CSKA players, Yonchev and Georgy Iliev, were also too old to build a new team around them. Rebuilding barely started and the immediate goals seemed to be just hanging in the league.
Botev (Vratza) – 6th with 29 points. The previous year they were found guilty of bribing and their match against Sliven was voided and awarded to Sliven – which changed the final table in a scandalous manner: ZSK Spartak was turned back at the final ceremony and the bronze medals given to Sliven. ZSK Spartak protested in vein and the whole issue was solved in 1990, when the old decision was overruled and ZSK Spartak installed back at 3rd place. This season Botev was guilty of nothing, but felt casualty of the Cup final scandal – they had wrong name! A name of historic person. And were renamed. But that was after the season ended, Otherwise, nothing particularly noticeable – relatively good season as far as final position. Crouching from left: Valery Grekov, Valery Tzvetanov, Yulian Emilov, Tzvetan Danov, Ivan Stoyanov, Tzvetan Petrov.
Middle row: Petar Kamenov – coach, Todor Todorov, Todor Mitov, Rossen Sabotinov, Ivan Radoslavov, Ventzislav Lukanov, Nikolay Dobrev, Georgiev, Georgy Kamenov – assistant coach.
Top row: Dr. Petar Kyupriisky – doctor, Danail Marinov, Emil Marinov, Lyudmil Tzvetkov, Ventzislav Bozhilov, Bichovsky, Iliya Valov, Kostov – masseur.
Pirin (Blagoevgrad) performed best of the newly promoted clubs and finished 5th with 31 points. Well, it was not particularly exciting season, but at least the troubles plaguing them since the late 70s appeared to be over: a new team was established, there were no scandals and perhaps the most important factor was that no great young talent emerged, attracting the interest of the big clubs. Petar Mikhtarsky, 19 years old, just started his career and was noticed, but Lady Luck smiled on Pirin – all big clubs had formidable center-forwards at the moment. But the smile was even bigger that that: thanks to the Cup final scandal, Pirin went to represent Bulgaria in the UEFA Cup – ate least statistically and with artificial help, this season became the best ever season in the history of the club.
If Pirin was lucky, thanks to circumstances, Lokomotiv (Sofia) was unlucky, because of the same circumstances. They were seemingly ready with new good squad – few veterans remained, but their role was largely supportive by now and retirements were going on smoothly: Yordan Stoykov retired (and became the assistant coach of the team), but Ventzislav Arssov returned from Cyprus. He, Georgy Bonev, and Boycho Velichkov were only remains of the team of the 70s, but talented youngsters already gathered experience and promised solid, if not great future. Velichkov and goalkeeper Nikolay Donev were national team players and although they were not going to last, their absence was not dangerous. Lokomotiv played strong fall season and finished 2nd, but slowed down and dropped to 4th place by the end of the season. 33 points, finally, losing a point to scoreless tie.
Trakia (Plovdiv) finished 3rd with 33 points (2 points lost to scoreless ties) – ahead of Lokomotiv (Sofia) on better goal-difference. By now, it was expected – arguably the best squad this club ever had was not going to win a championship. It was clear for some years already – as it was clear that they too strong to drop down. Then again, it was a squad worth a title – and they got it, at least for awhile. This is a picture published after the end of the season, mostly illustrating the great confusion the Cup final created: the photo of ‘the champions’ was not actual one at all: the back-up goalkeeper Milan Karatanchev was not a member of the quad this season – he moved to Second Division Arda (Kardzhali). Anyhow, sitting from left: Antim Pekhlivanov, Marin Bakalov, Blagoya Blangev, Kostadin Kostadinov, Petar Zekhtinsky, Trifon Pachev, Vassil Simov.
Middle row: Ivan Glukhchev – coach, Georgy Georgiev, Ivaylo Stoynov, Zapryan Ivanov (this player deserves a note: during the years he appeared under three different names – Nikolov, then Ivanov, and finally Rakov) , Slavcho Khorozov, Dimitar Mladenov, Boris Khvoynev, Lyubomir Dobrev – doctor, Nikola Dafinsky – assistant coach.
Top row: Atanas Pashev, Dimitar Vichev, Roumen Yurukov, Todor Zaytzev, Kosta Tanev, Simeon Batakliev, Milan Karatanchev, Mincho Minchev.
The importance and influence of the players here is not to be denied – stretching from 1980 to the end of the 1990s, players of this squad had key roles in Bulgarian football. At least 13 of them played for the national team. Yet, as a squad, there was always something missing. May be they were unfortunate in some way, but they were no champions. Not with performance.
CSKA ‘Septemvriisko zname’ – 2nd with 36 points (1 point lost to scoreless tie). It was not their season – in a sense, CSKA lost the battle for the championship in the fall: they 3rd in half-season, lagging 5 points behind Levski. Levski played well in the spring and nothing changed: one round before the end of the season CSKA had no way of catching up. Even if the stupid rule was not in place, they lost the title – with full record and assuming they won their last match, they would have 39 points. Levski had 40, even if the rule for scoreless ties applied only to them and they lost their last match. No matter what, CSKA was second. However, the Cup final scandal happened before the last round and both top teams were expelled and disbanded. They did not play their last games and victories were awarded to their opponents – in the case of CSKA, they had to play with Dunav (Russe). Dunav benefited greatly from the penalization of CSKA: they got 2 points for nothing and escaped relegation thanks to that. If the match was played, Dunav certainly was going to be relegated – they were too weak an opponent for CSKA and it was highly unlikely CSKA would go to make some deal to save them – or at least try to save them, for Levski also had nothing to play for anymore and could give the match to Beroe, which, having better goal-difference than Dunav would be still 14th and Dunav out.
Levski-Spartak led the championship from start to finish and won the championship one round before its end. The picture was taken then, clearly for publication as soon as the championship was over: this seasons champions. Then the Cup final was played with the horrible aftermath and the photo was published 7 years later, when justice was restored. This was the great squad of Levski of mid-80s, which was destroyed. Not completely, but one can only wonder what could have been, if this team was not so severely penalized, if only for awhile: it was highly talented team, rapidly climbing up, but not yet at its peak. It could be argued, that they never reached their potential because their ascent was stopped, coach and players suspended. Frankly, when suspensions were lifted, something was missing – crucial time was lost, spirit broken down a bit. It was really a shame to kill this team, but time cannot be reversed and nothing could be changed. Anyhow, these were the champions, a second season in a row. And they were not champions…
Instead of the previous picture, this one was hastily published. It says, as if nothing happened, that this is the new champion of Bulgaria – Trakia (Plovdiv). Standing from left: Iv. Glukhchev – coach, Z. Ivanov, M. Yanev, Sl. Khorozov, Iv. Kochev, D. Vichev, G. Georgiev, K. Tanev, N. Dafinsky – assistant coach.
Middle row: L. Vlassov – masseur, Tr. Pachev, V. Simov, P. Zekhtinsky, K. Kostadinov, R. Yurukov, At. Pashev, L. Dobrev – doctor.
Sitting: R. Bayrev, Y. Dinev, M. Bakalov, D. Mladenov, A. Pekhlivanov, B. Blangev.
Here is much better photo of the champions by default. Unlike the one published in Bulgaria, the Slovak magazine published a real one of the champions – there is no Milan Karatanchev, but the actual back-up goalkeeper Mavri Yanev. He had a single appearance and disappeared without a trace, but this is just a novelty. Really important is the mood – the new champions do not look happy, certainly knowing that the title is not really theirs. It was rumored then that a new star of the Party, coming from Plovdiv schemed heavily to make Trakia champions by whatever means and seized the opportunity of the scandal to push his own agenda, thus, arguing for the strongest possible penalties for CSKA and Levski. Now this line is forgotten and the scandal heavily mythologized, focusing only on CSKA and Levski – everything else is out of the picture: the bribery scandal in the Second Division, the scheming of the functionary from Plovdiv, the unfair escape from relegation of Dunav (Russe), the renaming of whole bunch of clubs, which irritated their supporters, since they were innocent casualties of a scandal in which they had no involvement at all, the stupid rule for scoreless ties, breeding corruption. Neither Botev Plovdiv as a club – which played under the name of Trakia at the time, although they were forcibly renamed in a much earlier campaign, in the 1960s – nor their fans, not even individual players of the team, got ever much pride of the awarded title, but they got to play in the European Champions Cup – the only point of satisfaction. Then 1990 came and the artificial title was taken away and restored to Levski.