Monday, May 18, 2009

To end the year it is may be best to mention those who stepped down. New players emerged; old horses went into retirement. Every year is like that in football, but in the early 1970s benefits were still rare – only massive world stars got final match against ‘the rest of the world’. Not everybody among the top players either. Largely, the procedure was simple: before a regular championship game the veteran comes out on the pitch, few words are said, flowers are given to him, he runs around the field, waving at the fans, who cheer him, he is honored to start symbolically the match with one fake opening kick, and that’s all. Because of simplicity of low-keyed procedures I am not choosing high-profiled player here, but rather one of the many not so great. One of the typical cases.

Ivan Vutzov retiring in 1971.
Vutzov, born 1939, started his football in his hometown, Gabrovo, playing for the local club – Yantra. He moved to Botev (Plovdiv) – this was his military service: recruited in army-sponsonred club. In 1960 he went to Levski (Sofia) and played with blue shirt 213 matches, scoring 4 goals. He was playing central defense, so the number of goals is rather normal. Twice Bulgarian champion with Levski – 1965 and 1968. A national player and member of the national squad in World Cup 1966. In England he got international recognition: he managed to score twice in his own net. The second goal was wrongly listed under the name of another player, but it was Vutzov’s achievement. He moved to Akademik (Sofia) in 1968 – I think his transfer was related to the forced mergers, when extra players from Sofia clubs were transferred to Akademik, but I may be wrong: Vutzov was getting old and Levski no longer needed him. He played the next 3 seasons with Akademik’s shirt (above) and retired as player of that club, but he is largely considered Levksi player by football historians. Hardly a star, though… Levski, historically, has a large list of stars and Vutzov ranks lowly. In the same time he is traditionally considered part of Levski’s history, thus disqualified as Akademik’s legend.
In real time – it is hard to say. He played for Levski when the club had its best ever players, all strikers, which made it difficult for a defensemen to be noticed. But I don’t remember the fans were enchanted with Vutzov – other defense players were much better liked, commented, and remembered. Not exactly ‘also run’, but not a star either, Vutzov. Somewhat controversial too – a national player, with ill fame because of England 1966; often photographed among the stars of Levski; a key player for many years; yet hardly remembered for great moments on the pitch.

He became a coach after quitting playing – long, but also controversial career: never thought a genius and more often criticized, if not dismissed out of hand, he is related to some remarkable successes: the elimination of Ajax by Levski in the second half of the 70s; the highest place Spartak (Varna) ever achieved in the Bulgarian championship – third place in the early 80s; and he coached the Bulgarian national team at the World Cup qualifications and finals in 1986. Bulgaria reached 1/8 in 1986 World Cup, but it was hardly Vutzov’s coaching – it was the championship formula. The team performed poorly, so Vutzov was blamed – and rightly so – for lack of competence. During the 1990s he moved into highest echelons of the Bulgarian Football Federation, where he manipulated everything and everybody. Never really loved, he was really hated in the 1990s – nicknamed the ‘Grey Cardinal of Bulgarian football’. He was eventually removed, but still operates from the shadows. No matter that – he retired from playing in 1971, was briefly celebrated… just like most veterans were and are celebrated. The typical story of yesteryear heroes, having their brief moment of recognition, and immediately forgotten by the fans. Fans largely prefer actual players and heroes… it is a bit sad to see someone stepping down. But football is not forever. A page closed.