Monday, February 2, 2009

In the beginning of 1969 Bulgarian football was ‘reorganized’ in mid season – the Fall leg was already finished. ‘Reorganizations’ were nothing new in Bulgarian football, but this one was sinister: out of the blue mergers were ordered. Lokomotiv was amalgamated with Slavia (Sofia), becoming ZSK Slavia. Levski was amalgamated with Spartak (Sofia) and lowly Sportist (Kremikovtzi, a village, administratively part of Greater Sofia) under the name Levski-Spartak. CSKA was amalgamated with Second Division club Septemvri (Sofia), changing its full name from CSKA Cherveno Zname (Red Banner) to CSKA Septemvriisko Zname (September Banner – if the name of the month is amusing, there is reason – ‘September’ is short for two Communist events – the September Uprising in 1923 and the ‘Communist Revolution’ in September 1944. Then, in 1944, the Communists came to dictatorial power. There was no ‘revolution’, but invasion of the Soviet Red Army, giving power to Communists – however, the official ‘history’ said ‘revolution’ and massive one at that. Hence, ‘September’ meant that ‘revolution’.) The absurdity was completed by sudden inclusion of Third Division club in the First Division (which was two clubs short after the mergers) – Akademik (Sofia), ‘students’ club, was to continue in the spring half of the season with the points of former Spartak. ZSK Slavia took over the points of Slavia, and no longer existent Lokomotiv was… kept in the final table, finishing last with the points won in the Fall. It was interesting what would have happened, if the points of their 15 Fall games kept no longer existing club above the relegation zone, but eventually other teams won more points thanks to playing 30 seasonal games. The mergers were nasty in many respects: three of the old traditional clubs were practically annihilated. Slavia is the oldest Bulgarian club in existence and had loyal followers. Lokomotiv is also old, having traditional fan base, and if there was a thorough ‘working class’ club, it was Lokomotiv. It was found by railroad workers – its original name was ZSK (Zheleznicharski Sporten Club – Railroad Workers Sports Club). However, Communists were not fond of classic workers club, and not only in Bulgaria – when they came to power in Eastern Europe, they established their own ‘workers clubs’, attached to the Secret Police and the Army (some ‘working class’!), naming them after Soviet clubs of the same breed: Dukla (Prague) – Czechoslovakian army club; Partizan (Belgrade) – the army; Steaua (Bucharest) – the army, and Dynamo (Bucharest) – the Police; Dynamo (Berlin) – the East German ‘Stasi’ Police, and so on. In Bulgaria it was CSKA (Sofia) – the army, named after CSKA (Moscow) and Spartak (Sofia) – the Police. CSKA – founded in 1948 – was the government club, heavily promoted from day one: the best players were invited to the club and they completely dominated the 1950s. Unlike other clubs, CSKA hardly had any player developed in their youth system – they simply took the best players of other clubs, which was not difficult at all: players were taken for their army service, paid better than anywhere else, and occasionally threatened. And just to cover all angles, the army created vast satellite system – at least three other Bulgarian clubs playing in First Division were army clubs (the results of them playing against CSKA were known in advance). However, successful club becomes popular eventually – CSKA had the second largest fan base by 1960. Spartak (Sofia), by contrast, had no fans at all – they were also created by the Communist government, but not so heavily promoted. A new club and Police club at that, Spartak were disliked. But after 1965 they had very strong team – in footballing terms, always a pity: good team playing at empty stadium. (By the way, Akademik were also in this situation in the 1970s and early 1980s. Unlike Spartak, Akademik still exists and still has no fans.) The 1960s were difficult for CSKA – suddenly other clubs were winning championships and it is interesting to look at the ‘mergers’: every champion of 1960s seized to exist in 1969. The first were the provincial clubs – Communist states promoted clubs from the capital city. In 1967 two Plovdiv clubs disappeared – Botev (champions in 1967) and Spartak (champions in 1963) were merged into Trakia (A lowly third club was also part of the merger – Akademik, but nobody even remembers them. Botev’s fans never chanted ‘Trakia’ – always ‘Botev’, to the annoyance of the Communist regime.) Lokomotiv (Sofia) were champions in 1964. They were merged with Slavia, an old rival, and also a club affiliated with the army by 1969. It was a disaster – traditionally, clubs, players, fans disliked each other. Even Communist approved functionaries of both clubs found impossible to work together with the ‘opposition’. Fans massively withdrew their support – and many never returned, moving to support other clubs. Most likely, that was exactly the aim of the government – to destroy traditional fan base. It was successful plot – today both clubs (the merger lasted only two years) have pitiful number of fans. Nikola Kotkov was so disgusted, he moved to play for Levski – at least to play with his good friend Gundy. But it was not exactly moving to Levski – it was moving to Levski-Spartak. Levski were also champions – in 1965 and 1968, thus, for 5 years between 1960 and 1968 CSKA was ‘robbed’ from the title. Levski was the most popular club in Bulgaria and the only club disrupting CSKA’s dominance. It was already the most popular Bulgarian club in 1944, when the Communists became the rulers of the country. At that time Levski was attacked as ‘Fashist’ club – nothing true in that, but popularity had to be curbed. Thus, Levski became the ‘people’s club’, opposing the system and a victim of the system, at least in the minds of the fans. And its popularity grew, creating a classic derby – Levski vs CSKA. People vs Government. Nothing helped… Levski was renamed during the 1950s into Dynamo, but the fans still came to the stadium and chanted ‘Levski’ (the club is named after the most popular and beloved Bulgarian revolutionary of 19th century – Vasil Levski. Even the name meant opposition to the state and freedom.) The club was not attached to powerful state organs or enterprise, to keep it poor and isolated, yet, homegrown players were capable of beating the Army’s stars. For a while the club was attached to the State Post, a humiliation, for postmen are traditionally ridiculed in Bulgaria (the image of a postman is lazy good-for-nothing person munching sunflower seeds). Did not help – fans remained loyal. And… Levski trashed CSKA in November 1968 7-2. The biggest humiliation ever (only after the fall of Communism the record was bettered – 7-1 in 1994.) But it was 1968 – the scary ‘Prague Spring’. Who knows what may had happen – Levski fans were real or possible anti-Communists. And to some degree, the fans of other popular clubs. Crowds at stadiums were considered risky – massive numbers of people, gathered freely, without any government control, so unlike obligatory gatherings for state holidays and parades. Very unpredictable – ‘Down with CSKA’ may change quickly to ‘Down with Communism’, chanted by thousands. The crowd may easily spill on the streets after the game – the ghost of spontaneous anti-Communist demonstration pricked constantly the state. The very chant ‘Down with CSKA’ smelled of anti-Communism… Every Levski match was heavily guarded by mounted Police, aiming at quick dispersal of the fans after the end of the game. Which was difficult too, for many fans came from the provinces, and had to be whipped back to the train station as quickly as possible – the state did not like unaccounted for people lingering in the capital. The trouble was, those provincials had to be somewhat packed for easier control on the their road to the trains – that is, they had to be concentrated in a crowd, just to avoid potentially dangerous ‘crowding’. Football games were big trouble. Merger with the Police made sense – for sure, it was going to alienate fans. I am not talking here for some Traffic Cops – it was the State Security, the Bulgarian equivalent of KGB. The idea of supporting the arch-Communist institution was revolting – large section of old fans quit going to the stadium in disgust. My father was one of this group, and so was I. The new club included half of the Spartak squad – these players were not accepted for years by the fans, they were ‘suspect’ more or less until 1975. Some big favorites of the fans were forced to end their careers. All players had to become Communist Party members in order to be employed as Police officers (every club in Communist country consisted of ‘amateur’ players employed otherwise – a Police club, therefore, consists of Police officers, kicking the ball in their ‘spare time’… but nobody can be employed by the Secret Police, unless he is a well checked Party member… so there.) Unlike Lokomotiv and Slavia, there was no big trouble in Levski-Spartak – rather obvious, since the Secret Police took over: objections were not to be voiced safely. There was one known rebellion, coming from Spartak player – the old great goalkeeper Georgy Naydenov refused to play for the new club. For him, it was unacceptable to play for Levski – he was CSKA player for years, spending his last football seasons in Spartak. Not big deal, though… he simply retired, and good thing too, for it was unlikely Levski fans to cheer him. However, the merger changed the nature of Levski – it became like CSKA: a club robbing other clubs of their players. The Minister of Internal Affairs (the Police, with the Secret Police on top) was Levski fan… which was not flattering for traditional Levski fans – Levski was becoming too close to the state, and therefore, similar to CSKA. The funeral of Gundy and Kotkov became political problem because of the Minister – a problem with nasty results, and a problem fueling myths and speculations. (The third club, merged with Levski, was insignificant affair – the Second Division Sportist belonged to giant and hated metallurgical enterprise, polluting Sofia to this very day, and now CSKA is related to it, in a weird turn of affairs – club and plant have the same owner. But this relation did not bring fruits – the Police was the real trouble. Sportist was quietly removed from Levski-Spartak, preserving remote affiliation in secondary sports for some years. In football – no significance.) Mergers were completed in the provinces too: Cherno More (Varna) was amalgamated with lowly local club, Akademik, but kept the name Cherno More (Black Sea, in translation). Two clubs from the mining city of Pernik were also merged – Minyor (Miner) and Metalurg (Metallurgist) under the name Krakra Pernishki (Krakra of Pernik, a medieval Lord, famous for resisting the Ottomans). The merger did not last. Both cases seemed to be only a camouflage of the real mergers – nothing disruptive came out of them, the Varna club even preserving the old name. In Pernik fans continued to support, shouting ‘Minyor’ (Metalurg never had solid fan base, nor they played higher than Second Division football until mid-1990s) – in a few years the club was once again Minyor and Metalurg reappeared separately too (Pernik is somewhat special case: never really big to challenge the football establishement, they had loyal working class following, which also tended to support Levski. Minyor is the traditional club, belonging to the coal mines. But the city had another big industrial employer – a metallurgical plant, which also run sports club. It was more rivalry between the heads of different industrial enterprises, disguised under the Communist concept of larger industries having sports clubs, ideally – but never in reality – supported by the workers of the corresponding industry. As it was and is, Minyor is the only club Pernik fans support. Yet, the city been relatively small, same fans supported Metalurg in another sport – they were the only ice-hockey club outside Sofia, and it was a matter of Pernik pride to support the hockey team against the big clubs from the capital.) As for CSKA, it was a merger for the sake of appearances. The army had been merged with Septemvri some years ago. By 1969 Septemvri was small club of no imporatance and hardly any fan base, playing in Second Division. It was also a club established after 1944, like CSKA. The name was opportune, changing nothing and signifying nothing sinister for the fans of CSKA. No players were taken in the ‘new’ club – unlike the other mergers, there were no tensions, no rivalries, no superfluous players, no grumblers, no players to be ‘approved’ or ‘disapproved’ were they fit for Party membership and Army ‘employment’. There was no team to be forged from two squads. CSKA ended in perfect condition to win the championship – and it did. The merger was just for face – to hide somewhat the real aim, to pretend some real reorganization of Bulgarian football and not simply destruction of the old clubs. Later Septemvri was quietly removed from CSKA and reestablished (today playing in Bulgarian 4th Division). In footballing terms, the ‘reorganization’ copied those of the late 1940s and 1950s – constant mergers, renaming, new clubs, keeping most clubs in uncertain flux, and peeling away fans, but never really touching the Communist club. Thus, the reorganization appeared to aim at restoring the hegemony of CSKA of the 1950s, by same method employed then. To me, the aim was largely political – to prevent even the slightest possibility for emerging of opposition via football support. Czechoslovakia was too hot in 1968-69. Football aims were secondary, however tempting.