Wednesday, December 9, 2009

First Bulgarian Division showed little quality in 1972-73. It was the second and last 18-team league, so part of the story was the scandal: two clubs were penalized with relegation at the end of the season for bribes and the league was reduced to its usual number of 16 teams. Two matches were not played at all, for unknown reason, (or annulled, according to some sources) but they did not involve culprits. Two clubs changed names – one is ill-fated club from the city of Gabrovo: to this very day changing the name is pretty much the all excitement this club produces. The other is the already mentioned (see earlier posting, covering 1972) Pernik – they returned to their original name Minyor after the season ended. Apart from that, the season was bleak. And especially bleak for Levski-Spartak… one of the worst seasons ever. It was not the disappointing 4th place at the final table, but the selection and the playing of the team. Signs of trouble were alarming the year before and one expected changes – but the changes spelled out bigger trouble: three players were recruited and two released. Only one change was relatively good: the goalkeeper Kamensky was replaced by former Spartak (Sofia) junior Stefan Staykov, who impressed playing for ZhSK Spartak (Varna). The midfielder Stefan Pavlov left too – which was a loss for the team, but apparently the new bosses from the Police did not like his family history and pushed him out. He was replaced by two relatively known players – Metody Bonchev, who used to play for old Levski without success, and Nikolay Radlev, who scored very important goal for CSKA in mid-60s – against Inter (Milan) – and was promoted in the dressing room from private to sergeant by the Minister of Defense himself. And that was the whole achievement of Radlev so far… later he went to play for Pirin (Blagoevgrad), and quite well, but he was not good enough for Levski, the same with Bonchev. Weak squad, not exactly great coach, and on top of it – injuries. Things became so bad in the winter, that Levski-Spartak had to play Zhechev, the central defenseman, in midfield, and to use – amusingly in a way, for Mikhailov was starting matches as a goalie, but was moved to attack in the second half, when Staykov replaced some half-dead player – Biser Mikhailov, the goalkeeper, as a right winger. It was during this season when the fans realized how far the Police departed from the original Levski’s tradition: having only 12 barely healthy players, the club did not include any boys from the junior team, even for the lip-service of making a full squad. Instead, goalie on the right wing and whoever can walk without crutches on the pitch. It was tragic.

Zhechev (in dark), moved to attacking position against Akademik (Sofia). In fact, Zhechev was good in midfield and attack, and often scored too. But his usual position was a sweeper, and there he was best, including his surprising attacks. Moved to more frontal position was desperate attempt to patch up holes – and left the defense weak as a result. There was not much to be done… the team had no healthy players left. As usual, the best Levski’s games were in the derby with CSKA – and in the first match, in the fall, Zhechev committed atrocious foul against the Army star Denev: for no reason at all, he just butchered Denev. I still remember vividly the casual cruelty of this foul, which was not even registered by the referee – I think, because CSKA scored and the goal outruled the yellow or red card. As every Levski’s fan, I interpreted the referee’s blindness as a deliberately staged: CSKA always had difficulties against ‘us’ and without the help of the referee… who knows. The match ended in 2-2 tie, but the very ugly foul I remember in part for its relative rarity – normally, CSKA were starting provocations, and Levski eventually retaliated. Not this time – and curiously, there were no other major problems during the match, contrary to ‘normal’ deterioration of the derby into ugliness after initial provocation.