Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Another memory of 1971 is tragic – the death of Georgy Asparukhov and Nikola Kotkov. Asparukhov – Gundy and Kotkov – the Kitten or the Tom-cat (the nickname comes from his family name, adoration in this case) were two of the best Bulgarian players in the 1960s. Gundy is still voted Bulgarian all-time best player, ahead of Hristo Stoichkov. Such classifications are always suspect and hotly debated, but one thing is not debated – both are the most loved players. Both were gentlemen players, elegant, never rough, accessible to fans. Kotkov (b. 1938 – d.1971) was Bulgarian player of the year in 1964. Asparukhov (b. 1943 – d. 1971) was Bulgarian player of the year in 1965. They played together in the national team and were close friends – something rare, for they played for different clubs until 1969. On June 30th 1971 they were going to play a friendly in the northern city of Vratza, with Asparukhov’s car. Gundy was driving. In the difficult mountain pass Vitinya the car run into truck carrying gasoline. The cistern exploded and in few minutes the players were dead.
The remains of the burnt Alfa Romeo.
It was not simple accident – it is still debated, and there are speculations that the accident was staged. No proof for that, but the story is dark even without conspiracy. Both players were unpleasant to the Communist government: they were too much loved by fans, and Asparukhov was the closest possible in Communist country to superstardom. Foreign clubs wanted him and the famous coach of Milan, Nereo Rocco, said ‘Asparukhov is my dream of centre-forward.’ Eusebio went to his grave to pay respect when visiting Sofia with Benfica later in 1971. Kotkov had huge fan base too. People, who hated the clubs Gundy and Kitten played for, loved the players. Asparukhov came to football late – almost 15 years old. He played volleyball before invited to join the junior team of Levski (Sofia). In the Bulgarian great divide, Levski is the ‘people’s club’, opposed to the ‘state team’ – the army club CSKA (Sofia). Unlike CSKA, Levski depended largely on players coming from their own junior team. But those players were not immune to obligatory military service – thus, Gundy played two seasons for Botev (Plovdiv), an army club then and satellite of CSKA (to the displeasure of Botev’s fans, for the club is old and founded before Communist rule). Thus, Gundy played for two clubs – Botev and Levski – 247 games in total, scoring 150 goals.
Gundy attacking Milan’s net in 1967. He was particularly dangerous in the air, easily winning high balls and scoring with attractive headers.