Monday, October 19, 2009

North of Greece and outside of foreign-players market, Bulgaria had her own excitement of sorts. Back in the summer of 1971, before the season started, the first of forced 1968 mergers collapsed – ZhSK Slavia split into old Slavia and Lokomotiv. Since those were relatively high profiled old clubs from Sofia, others had their hopes too – particularly Levsky’s fans. Futile hopes, as it turned out – they had to wait until the collapse of Communism for restoration of their beloved club. At least Spartak (Sofia) had no fans, so there were no frictions between different groups of supporters, but ZhSK Slavia was another matter altogether. The ill-fated merger did not go well from day one – functionaries, coaches, players, and fans of the two original clubs were at each other’s throats. Both blamed the other part and tensions were high. On the surface, the split appeared ‘democratic’, and often was seen as such by distant observers, not related to either club and not related to any other club forced into merging in 1968. But it was not so innocent affair: firstly, it was downplayed as much as possible, in hope not to provoke demands for dismantling the other merged clubs. Secondly, damage was already done – both Slavia and Lokomotiv lost old fan base during the artificial years and never recovered popularity. Thirdly, I think Lokomotiv was specifically damaged more than Slavia – Lokomotiv, in the past, played their best matches against the Communist creation CSKA. Slavia on the other hand was attached to an army branch, which was somewhat independent, yet not entirely – at the bottom, this branch was still part of the army and had to obey orders – CSKA was the army club, hence, Slavia rarely put much effort when playing against CSKA, but came strong against Levsky. Nobody can prove direct orders, yet the tradition is suspicious. Lokomotiv’s too, for that matter – they rarely opposed Levsky, saving themselves for CSKA. But in ZhSK Slavia old Slavia had the upper hand, which immediately created problem for the restored Lokomotiv – since most players were originally Slavia’s players, the split left Lokomotiv short and they pleaded for help. Characteristically, CSKA donated nothing – in the whole of their history the army club never helped anybody, always taking, never giving. Levsky-Spartak donated their third goalie Rumen Goranov. Apparently, nobody envisioned him playing for the ‘Blues’, so the short-sighted management gave him to Lokomotiv. Goranov immediately became not only top goalie of both club and national team – he is one of the best goalkeepers in Bulgarian football history, and although Levsky-Spartak got in the summer of 1972 very good keeper, who also played for the national team, Goranov was better one. However, mistakes happen often in football, so Goranov’s case is rather a historic curiosity. The most important result of the split was the increase of the First Division – since the split occurred late and out of the blue, there was only this way to deal with the situation – Lokomotiv was to be included in the league, since they were playing in it before the merger, but that made an odd number and either one more team was to be relegated or the league to be enlarged. Without early warning, relegation was out of question – instead, the lowly Chernomoretz (Burgas), who finished 15th in 1971 were allowed to stay and the league now consisted of 18 teams. This is the largest Bulgarian league ever, which lasted 2 years. This number most likely will never equaled, judging by the current state of Bulgarian football. Presently, shrinking of the league is more likely and entirely reasonable possibility.

The first restored Lokomotiv finished 5th – not bad for a club having to beg for players before the beginning of the season.