Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sweet is hardly the word coming to mind when thinking of East German football. Boring would be the natural choice. Unlike the West German cousins, the East Germans inhabited the lower regions of European football – even among the countries behind the Iron Curtain they ranked low – only Albania was considered below them. Apparently, the East Germans thought their football lowly too – they run small 14-team league, as every other country at the bottom of European football: the Scandinavians, Malta, Albania, Cyprus, Luxembourg, you get the picture. Even by East European standards, East German clubs sounded extremely industrial and serving not the game, but Communist propaganda – various Dynamos, Motors, Chemie-s (Chemists), Lokomotives, Turbines, Stahls (Steel), Energie, with additional Vorwarts (Forward!) and bested by Second Division club named ‘Aktivist Schwarze Pumpe’, which does not need translation in my opinion. All of it bringing imagery of mechanic puppets.
Lowly football, but unlike most East European countries East Germany was not dominated by two big clubs – rather, everybody was equally lowly. Carl Zeiss (Jena), Dynamo (Dresden), Lokomotive (Leipzig), and 1.FC Magdeburg (Magdeburg) were consistently at the front of the table, but champions varied – until 1979, when the Secret Police – the Stasi - decided to really step in and established the hegemony of their own club Dynamo (Berlin) pretty much until the Berlin Wall fell down. As a whole, East German football was not glorious, yet it had golden years – beginning in 1973, reaching the peak in 1974, and fading away after that. Dynamo (Dresden) won their third title in 1973.

Sitting, left to right: Heidler, Richter, Hafner, Sachse, Boden, Fritsche, Urbanek, Dorner, Riedel, Watzlich, Sammer.Standing: Meyer – administrator, Seidel – accountant, Hanel – president, Geyer, Schmuck, Rau, Kreische, Ganzera, Kern, Schade, Helm, Lichtenberger, Muller, Fritsch – coach, Prautsch – assistant coach, Gumz – administrator.

This squad is curiously anonymous for champion team: apart from two high-ranked East German players, Dorner and Kreische, the rest consists of journeymen, although few were occasionally included in the national team. Hans-Jurgen Kreische was the League’s top scorer for third consecutive year with 26 goals. The squad of the champion does not suggest sudden rise of the East German football, but this is misleading. However, Dynamo (Dresden) is interesting in another aspect – their intricate relation to Dynamo (Berlin) and Secret Police, and their eventual good luck after 1989.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Croatians were miserable, but one Belgrade club was happy – OFK Beograd finished third. Forever in the shadows of giant Crvena zvezda and Partizan, OFK Beograd were much older club and, as almost every old club in Eastern Europe, felt oppressed by the Communist regime. Football folklore is often based on facts, unfortunately: originally founded as BSK (Belgrade Sport Club) in 1911, they were more or less the biggest club in the Yugoslavian capital until 1945, collecting 5 championships in the 1930s – the first title in 1931 and the last in 1939. Soon after came the German invasion and after Nazi Germany lost the Second World War Tito-led Communists took the power. In the domain of sports the presence of the new rulers was quickly felt – Crvena zvezda and Partizan were founded and as everywhere in Eastern Europe the pure Communist clubs were to dominate. Old clubs were destroyed either literally or by renaming and forced mergers. In 1945 BSK got new name – Metalac, supposedly representing some branch of industrial working class, as the name – Metal Worker – suggests. Metalac achieved alarming results: the old BSK fans refused to support it and the industrial working class was urged to support the ‘proper’ clubs, so by 1950 there was sufficient concern about the empty stands and the club was reverted to its original name. But already BSK meant nothing and new attempt to attract supporters was made in 1957 – a new name again: OFK Beograd. The name means Youth Football Club Belgrade and the idea was to attract especially young spectators. These preferred Crvena zvezda and Partizan, so OFK Beograd remained the third Belgrade’s club in term of popularity and success. They achieved some success in the Cup tournaments, but otherwise occupied the middle of the table, the upper half more often than not, but no more than that. OFK Beograd always had famous players – Sekularac in the 50s and Skoblar in the 60s – but never really strong squad. Unfortunately, this is the typical fate of smallish club coexisting with big ones: never able to recruit strong squad and never able to keep talent for long. Occasional success is often deadly for such clubs – and for OFK Beograd 1973 was followed by long years of struggling in obscurity: they lost their top players almost immediately and sunk down the table playing hide and seek with relegation. At the end, the most representative feature of the club is its nickname: ‘the Romantics’. It was coined in the 1950s for their pleasant technical football , but it was befitting on a larger scale – the very courage of this club to exist and try again and again against the odds.
The team going for bronze featured four noticeable players: the striker Slobodan Santrac ( 8 matches and 1 goal for the Yugoslavian national team), the full back Dragoslav Stepanovic (34 matches and 1 goal), the young and promising goalkeeper Petar Borota (4 matches), and the best right winger in the country at the time – Ilija Petkovic (43 matches and 6 goals). The success of OFK Beograd depended on them, but soon they were all gone – Petkovic to France and the rest – to the big Belgrade clubs at first and to professional European clubs later. Much, much later Santrac and Petkovic coached the national team of Serbia, when Yugoslavia was no more. However, the most interesting story belongs to Borota. He moved to Partizan (Belgrade) and got his miserable 4 caps as Partizan player – like Santrac and Stepanovic he faced stiff competition for the national jersey and was rarely called. In 1979 Chelsea got him and although he even captained the Londoners, he is not remembered fondly: Chelsea fans usually include him in the all-time worst Chelsea selection and vote him the all-time worst goalie. This is rather unfair verdict, but could not be otherwise – Borota was part of the unlucky ‘first wave’ of foreign players in England, who were judged harshly and with bias – ‘continentals’ were presumed incapable of grasping the English brand of football and every microscopic mistake served to prove beyond doubt exactly this imagined inferiority. Borota was particularly easy target because of his unusual and risky style: he played often outside the penalty area, as a sweeper, clearing and dribbling – that is, the way goalies are expected to play today, but in the late 1970s it was viewed as dangerous eccentricity. Perhaps Borota was able to correct his style, but something much more important was beyond his powers: Chelsea was in deep financial troubles and heading rapidly toward bankruptcy. As a result, the team was weak and plummeting down the table, eventually ending in the Second Division. No wonder fans did not and do not appreciate players of those dark years.
All of the above was still unimaginable in 1973 – back then OFK Beograd were bunch of happy boys. How sweet it was finishing ahead of Partizan, ahead of the Croatian clubs, ahead of 1972 champions Zeljeznicar (Sarajevo).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Up the European scale, Yugoslavia played her usually competitive championship, won once again by Crvena zvezda (Belgrade). It was disastrous season for the Croatian clubs, though – they finished in the middle of the table, Dynamo (Zagred) one place higher – they were 8th - than their local rivals Hajduk (Split). Those were lean years for Dynamo…

Bottom, left to right: Drago Vabec, Mario Bonic, Zdenko Kafka, Josip Razic, Damir Valec.
Top: Mladen Ramljak, Zeljko Stincic, Mladen Repalust, Ivica Miljkovic, Ivica Car, Josip Lalic. A plain team, becoming even plainer… their captain and former national player Ramljak moved to Feyenoord (Rotterdam) after the season. Only one player donned the Yugoslavian national jersey – Vabec – but two years later. The rest were run of the mill. To the fans, only memories of the glorious 1960s, when Dynamo won European cup, remained for comfort.

Monday, December 21, 2009

If Turkey maintained same champions, their Greek neighbours produced a change – Panathinaikos, contrary to ambitions and boasting, lost the title to their archenemies Olympiakos. Hardly a new name – the club from Piraeus knew many victories before, but how sweet for the ‘working class’ team to beat the ‘bourgeoisie’. It was laughable already to use such terms, considering ownership and fan support of either club, but the rivalry and the corresponding vicious hatred remains to this very day. It was not that violent yet, but a derby is a derby… usually based on some ancient notions of which fans are very fond.

Bottom, left to right: Lossanta, Gioutsos, Delikaris, Papadimitriou, Triantafilos.
Top: Glezos, Kelessidis, Siokos, Synetopoulos, Angelis, Gaitadzis. Having some national players – Delikaris, Glezos, Siokos, and Synetopoulos – Olympiakis succeeded most likely because it had better performing imports than Panathinaikos. The Uruguayan Losada, called Lossanta here, and the French Triantafilos played strongly and regularly unlike the erratic foreigners of Panathinaikos. At the end of the season Triantafilos returned to France and his previous club – Saint Etienne. Losada kept the red and white stripes for few more years.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Down in the lower regions of European football Galatasaray added one more title to their trophy room – third in a row since 1971.
Bottom, left to right: Bulent, Tarik, Savas, Sabri, Birch – coach, Tuncay, Mehmet, Aydin, Ahmet.
Top: Muzzafer, Metin, Ayhan, Cengiz, Yildirim, Nihat, Omer, Yasin, Faruk, Suphi, Olcay, Gokmen.
Under the guidance of the English coach Birch Galatasaray dominated the Turkish league, featuring quite a few national players. But Turkish football was still lowly and the names meant nothing in Europe neither then, nor now. There was an exception, however: the goalkeeper Yasin eventually moved to New York Cosmos, hired by Ahmed Ertegun of Atlantic Records fame. The transfer happened much later in the decade, but at least for the sake of curiousity should be mentioned here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Well, here are moments from the season:
Hristo Bonev scores yet another goal, but is right to worry: he was to be neither top goalscorer, nor champion in his perhaps finest season. Splendid player and terrible person, Bonev led Lokomotiv (Plovdiv) to their best achievement – second place in the final table. However, 8 points behind CSKA… Petar Zhekov fights with Georgiev of Dunav (Rousse). The match ended in scoreless tie, as if to suggest that Zhekov’s days were coming to end: he increasingly depended on goals scored against lowly opponents. And not always anymore… but he was made top goalscorer, robbing Bonev from that. As for Dunav: they appeared strong during the season. Only to be relegated for bribery after.On top – CSKA against one of their most difficult opponents: Lokomotiv (Sofia), who traditionally played their best football against the Army. And winning too – 2-0 for Lokomotiv ended the match. Rumen Goranov, the new star goalkeeper, denies Zhekov one more time. Goranov played his best season in my opinion, somewhat never reaching the same form again.
On the bottom: Akademik – Dunav. The hosts on the rise and winning (1-0), the visitors… well, already mentioned. Their goalie Markov expects one more shot from the sturdy Akademik’s midfielder Todor Paunov.
Players making waves not only of water – the centre-defense pair Vesselin Evgeniev (left) and Evlogy Banchev are late to block the centre-forward Kiril Milanov. In the heavy rain, Akademik (in white) and Pernik (the last season to play under this name) ended in a 1-1 tie. But the three featured players had strong season and were included in the national team.

Akademik were still far from their finest moments and struggled often – here they are denied from a win by visiting Dunav: 1-1. Lyuben Markov blocks the ball while his defensemen Lyubenov and Vazharov watch anxiously.
And one more 1-1 tie of Akademik (in white) – against Lokomotiv (Sofia), which sweeper Christakiev clears the ball surrounded by white shirts – the left winger Simov in the air, and the striker Milen Goranov (10) waiting. In Sofia’s hierarchy, Akademik were on the bottom and Lokomotiv just above them – hence, this was the only real derby for Akademik, while for Lokomotiv confrontations with Slavia and CSKA mattered much more.
Bogomil Simov – the very skilful left winger of Akademik was included in the national team this year, but as a whole he was under appreciated player.
Lokomotiv (Sofia) ended in midtable – reasonably, for they played some very good matches, followed by sloppy performance, like this one against N. Laskov (Yambol), lost at home 0-2. Clumsy Lokomotiv’s left winger Patzev is tackled by clumsy Laskov’s left winger Kovachev. Contrary to the result, the visitors (with white sleeves and shorts) faired badly: they finished next to last and were relegated never to return to First Division again.
Another tie, another scoreless tie… Slavia (in their traditional white kit) unable to beat Lokomotiv (Plovdiv) at home. Slavia ended 3rd, just bellow Lokomotiv (Plovdiv), but with equal points and one match less (either not played at all, or result annulled). Tasev (Slavia) and Peev (Lokomotiv) nicely represent the equality of their clubs, shoulder to shoulder to the end.
Traditionally ‘the surprise team’, because of notorious inconsistency, Slavia was capable of disappointments followed by big wins, like this one against Cherno more (Varna) – 5-2. Here a very young striker attacks – Andrey Zhelyazkov (in white). In a few years he will be major star and in the 1980s will play with Johann Cruiff for Feyenoord (Rotherdam). Unthinkable in 1973.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

CSKA got another double, just like the year before winning both championship and cup. Same squad, same performance. Only one new player – one Stefan Mikhailov, acquired by lowly Second Division club, something unusual for the Reds, but than Mikhailov was hardly intended to be a starter. He was minded to be back up of aging Petar Zhekov, the all-time goalscorer of Bulgaria. Mikhailov eventually became a CSKA legend, for a solitary, yet tremendously important goal, but this happened in the fall of 1973. Apart from this goal, he impressed nobody and after three years of occasional playing returned to his previous obscurity – nobody heard of Mikhailov before he joined CSKA and nobody heard of him again after he left. The rest was the familiar team of the previous years, same names and same results, and perhaps a little over the peak, for they were just a year older players and nothing new in terms of playing came out of them. It was simply very well tuned team, carried on the wings of great familiarity of every player with the rest. Some weaknesses became visible as well – it was clear by 1973 that both wingers, Atanasov and Marashliev, reached their limits and were not going to be any better. Same with Denev, whose egoistic inclinations were no longer repairable, eventually becoming more of a liability than advantage. It was dominant squad in Bulgaria, easily winning everything, and this supremacy perhaps blinded CSKA’s coaches – they continued just to refine the old machine, rather than start rebuilding. But who changes a winning side anyway? Nobody, and that is how self-deception begins. Petar Zhekov scored 29 goals in 34 championship matches. Not bad? In fact, great – he collected one more European ‘Shoe’, a Bronze this year, after having already Gold and Silver. Great! What matters that the man is getting dangerously fat and slow? As long as he scores, no problem… but he was ‘given’ goals in this season: for instance, he was one goal behind Hristo Bonev before the last championship match against lowly Chernomoretz (Burgas, one of the two clubs expelled from the league for corruption soon after the season ended). Zhekov scored twice, the second goal from non-existent penalty. The first was no better – Chernomoretz’s defense was clearly making room for the guy, not even pretending playing. Corruption is one thing, self-deception another – Zhekov was over the hill, yet, with his 29 goals, CSKA thought him still irreplaceable. This Mikhailov guy was not taken to replace Zhekov, but just to substitute him now and then.

17th title for CSKA with a little help from their friends.
Top, left to right: Manol Manolov – coach, Kiril Stankov, Borislav Sredkov, Stoil Trunkov, Stoyan Yordanov, Asparoukh Nikodimov, Drazho Stoyanov, Ivan Zafirov, Boris Gaganelov, Todor Simov, Nikola Kovachev – assistant coach.Bottom: Tzvetan Atanassov, Plamen Yankov, Georgy Denev, Petar Zhekov, Dimitar Penev – captain, Bozhil Kolev, Stefan Mikhailov, Dimitar Marashliev.

Strong in Bulgaria, but on the verge of decline – the team depended largely on their aging first XI. The young reserves were not good enough: from the bunch of Trunkov, Stoyanov, Sredkov, Simov, Yankov, and Mikhailov only Sredkov managed to establish himself and to reach the national team. Yet, he never became real star. The rest are justly forgotten. The ‘silver’ CSKA never achieved the success of the ‘golden’ selection from the 1950s, but they were not to be discarded easily – this squad still had something to say.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Not everything was black, of course: Lokomotiv (Plovdiv) reached their peak, finishing 2nd - a good team, led by the biggest Bulgarian star of the 70s and one of the best ever Bulgarian players, Hristo Bonev. Akademik (Sofia), 5th at the end, played nice technical football, already on the ascent and becoming team other had to reckon with , although not reaching their peak yet.
Akademik (Sofia) played there first strong season. The 1970s were their best years.
Top left to right: D.Roev – coach, Il, Chalev, L. Goranov, V. Nedelchev, Yul. Ivanov, T. Paunov, Iv. Vasilev, N. Kolev, G. Lyubenov, G. Roev, P. Zafirov – captain, P. Petkov – assistant coach
Bottom: Iv. Tishansky, D. Gologanov, St. Parvanov, M. Goranov, Ml. Vasilev, K. Milanov, L. Lozanov, B. Simov, M. Mikhaylov, Ant. Zhivkov.
Lokomotiv (Sofia), 7th in the final table, played well as well, with strong Atanas ‘Nachko’ Mikhailov , often impossible to stop, and fantastic Rumen Goranov between the posts – now Levski-Spartak realized what they stupidly discarded the previous year, but too late…
Unstoppable Nachko Mikhailov, still young and relatively slim, in one of his typical attacks against Beroe (Stara Zagora). He continued the Lokomotiv’s tradition: to have exceptionally gifted and somewhat egoistic player, who, with extraordinary technical skills, is able alone to beat whatever opposition. After Spiro Debarsky came Nikola Kotkov, and after Kotkov – Mikhailov, and after Mikhailov – Velichkov: one player in every decade, the younger playing along established star at first.

But that was pretty much everything good and the rest was boring… Slavia finished third, but it was hardly memorable team and perhaps this picture against Levski-Spartak is misleading, for it looks better than it was – Tzvetkov strikes a header and Slavia’s goalie Tzolov clears away confidently. Yet… the ball does not seem to be on target. The match ended 1-1. Boring.

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.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Up the ladder, Second Division, and another club hailing from Blagoevgrad – not from the county, but from the very centre of it. Logically, the summit of the local football scene. Pirin (Blagoevgrad) finished first in the Southern Second Bulgarian Division and was promoted to top league football for the first time in their history.
Pirin posing during the season. It was quite mature team, which managed to establish itself in the top league. In 1973 nobody really knew the players, but most of them played for many years – well after their 30s. The goalkeeper is perhaps the most interesting player – like most of his teammates, Hristo Hristov (nicknamed ‘The Shack’ for unknown to me reason) was not a spring chicken in 1973. He reached the national team, however – about 35 years old at the time. When he finally retired, he gave amusing reason – he said he decided to quit out of shame. Ashamed of being so old among young fellows and out of touch with them – he was 42, and one of his last teammates was called Berbatov. The father of Dimitar Berbatov, currently of Manchester United. Yet, Hristov retired at strange moment – when 6 Pirin players, Berbatov-the father among them, were sentenced to prison for gang raping a foreign tourist. Hristov was not part of the crime, but his comment brings a sinister question – out of touch with what? But it is only a sinister question – by all accounts, Hristov was a decent fellow. He died miserably forgotten a few years ago. As for Berbatov, with his son’s recent fame, the old story is currently under revision: now it was not rape, but entirely unjust and frivolous sentencing to jail. The old Berbatov may even believe his newly discovered innocence – despite the stories the other participants tell.
The current star of English football also started his career in Pirin. The question is which one… for recently the old club multiplied into 4 separate clubs, every each one claiming (contrary to evidence) the history of the team above. Naturally, all new clubs are called ‘Pirin’ (with slight variations for registration purposes) and are located in the city of Blagoevgrad They are evenly spread from 4th to 1st Division, although not quite because of performance, but because of court orders. One carefully avoided reason for naming so many clubs with the same name is Dimitar Berbatov – every club hopes and claims transfer money. So far Manchester United gives a total of zero pounds. And just after the end of Autumn half of 2008-09 season the first and second division clubs merged – the nightmare continues. It was so simple in 1973… Pirin just won a trophy in Italy, in a tournament with local clubs, which provoked an outcry, for Palermo apparently played brutally against the Bulgarians. The Communist press said so at least. No matter, Pirin was going up.
Translated from Italian article criticizing Palermo and Pirin with the cup – big success for the Second Division club. And rare trophy in Pirin’s history anyway… which club has it today I wonder.
This was also the last season Pirin played in stripes (at least I am not aware of them using stripes after that) – once in First Division, they started with Ajax-inspired white and green kit, and played with plainer combination of these two colours ever since.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pirin (named after the mountain) hails from Razlog, a small town, bringing bottom football up a notch. In 1973 they played in the same 4th Division with Sokol (Zheleznitza), but they represent a fine difference: village clubs hardly ever consider promotion. Small towns are more serious – having some money, they resemble normal football club. There are some constant players, there is some training, and there may be some ambition. Usually, they are much better than the village rabble and less violent. They face less violence too, for they are not immediate longstanding enemy. As a rule, small town clubs do not last very long in a county division – unless they are very short on cash, they tend to go up. And Pirin is not typical 4th Division club – their normal habitat is 3rd Division. They even played in the Second Division – once! Currently they are in the middle of the tough 20-team strong South-Western 3rd Division.

Posing in 1973, when 3rd Division was a dream, and Sokol (Zheleznitza) – the gruesome reality. Well, if one manages to escape the village clubs, one goes out of one’s way not to return to the murderous realm. Which makes 3rd Division pretty vicious environment. Wise small town clubs stay in 3rd – the stupidest mistake is to get big ideas and move to the 2nd Division: money dry up immediately, and the club plummets straight to the barbaric villages.