Monday, August 2, 2010

Speaking of Secret Political Police… let’s move to Bulgaria. Unlike the countries so far, Bulgaria was – and is – a classic duality: two clubs rule domestic football. In the Communist days of the 1970s – another classic confrontation: the Army vs the Police, with a local twist. Communist Party favoured the Army club; the Police became a power only for other political reasons – the most popular Bulgarian club Levsky had irritating fans, suspected of anti-Communism. So merge them with the antipode of freedom – the cops. Never stayed well with Levsky’s fans, but what were we able to do apart from the meek omission of the second part of the club’s new name… Politics aside, 1973-74 was good year for Levsky-Spartak – a title! And more, at least in the fall of 1973 – the club played the closest to total football kind of game it ever played. After the disaster of 1972-73 nobody expected anything and – worse – the fans stopped coming to the stadium. The club made an attempt to get some attendance by introducing free access to school students. Soon they were sorry for not charging – the team played so good, the crowds returned and free access did not last for long. The transformation was unsuspected in view of the summer transfers: Levsky-Spartak unloaded some dead meat, but got only two players – the midfielder Stefan Pavlov, not at all a new name, but he was politically disliked by the Police chiefs of the club and made to move out. Pavlov played the previous year for Slavia (Sofia) and was asked to come back. The other new boy was the burly centre-forward of Akademik (Sofia) Kiril Milanov. A typical striker of the British type, Milanov was good in the air and gave no quarter to anybody too. Good headers, goal scoring ability, menacing presence in the penalty area, Milanov was the player Levsky-Spartak was badly missing in the last 2-3 years, for traditionally the club depended on excellent centre forwards and after the death of Asparukhov there was none. But there was more – everybody was healthy at last, most importantly the fast fragile right winger Vesselinov. Between the posts previously shaky Stefan Staykov not only got confidence, but displayed fantastic form , his best ever. The team played standard 4-3-3 formation, with big effort to cover the whole field and to play in the manner of total football, with defensemen attacking and players from the vanguard lines going back to cover. The team had key reserves ready to get in and provide a change if needed, particularly the old left winger Vasil Mitkov, who was practically 12th player of the team – coming almost every match and scoring important goals. The fall everything was great – 14 wins and 1 tie, 7 points ahead of CSKA. The sweetest victory was against arch-enemy CSKA – 1-0. The goal was scored by the left back of CSKA - their new boy Tzonyo Vasilev panicked; the goalie went too far ahead asking for a back pass, but they misunderstood each other and the ball went aside from the goalie and towards the net. Vesselinov, who caused Vasilev’s panic, run after the ball, but without touching it – he only guarded it, until it crossed the goal line. It was sweet – if one is a Levsky fan indeed… Levsky lost a single point in a suspect to me match: Spartak (Pleven) had a very bad season and feared relegation, but they belonged to the Police too and were affiliated in a way with Levsky-Spartak. To my mind, Levsky gave them a point to survive (they did) – and this was the biggest difference between Levsky and CSKA: the Army boys never gave anything to their satellites. If a satellite was in bad situation, CSKA just beat them to a pulp to improve their goal difference. They never showed mercy and were better for that – they never suffered against lowly opponents. Levsky, on the other hand, often underestimated lower clubs, played sluggishly, and often lost vital points. CSKA were just better overall fighters without any sentiments. Which showed in the spring half of the season – Levsky played terrible football, apparently sure of the title and relaxing or collapsing. Vesselinov was injured again, this time for good, but it was the sluggish uninspired game the Blues played. They struggled every match, the first team obviously out of form and the juniors introduced with the hope of change were even worse. The advantage from the fall dwindled, but was big enough to assure the championship. A title is a title, but the national team was affected badly to a point – champions are natural choice for national teams, and there were plenty of Levsky players in the Bulgarian World Cup squad. Suffice to say they contributed exactly nothing at the finals in West Germany. But I cherish Levsky played in the fall of 1973 to this very day. And a curious note: Kiril Milanov played with number 14 this season – the first Bulgarian player to use unorthodox number. At the time everybody thought that Milanov copied Cruiff. Recently he said that he used number 14 by chance – he felt that he was not equal to the great Asparukhov and out of respect and shame refused to wear number 9 shirt, taking randomly one of the reserve shirts. It turned out to be number 14 and he used it the whole season. But only this season – either forced, or by own choice, Milanov returned to number 9 the next and to the end of his career.
Top, left to right: Zh. Traykov – assistant coach, St. Staykov, K. Milanov, M. Gaydarsky, T. Dzhefersky, D. Zhechev, D. Doychinov – coach, K. Ivkov, P. Panov, I. Tronkov, G. Tzvetkov, B. Mikhaylov, Al. Kostov – assistant coach.Bottom: Tzv. Vesselinov, St. Pavlov, Iv. Stoyanov, G. Dobrev, G. Kamensky, Ch. Trifonov, G. Todorov, St. Aladzhov, V. Voynov, V. Mitkov.
Levsky-Spartak posing with the trophy – their 12th title. The strength of the team was its constancy: Staykov last; Gaydarsky – Zhechev – Ivkov – Aladzov in defnce; Stoyanov – Pavlov – Panov in midfield; and Vesselinov – Milanov – Voynov in attack. The left winger Mitkov normally came in the second half, providing variety, for Voynov moved to his usual right wing position when Mitkov stepped in. The reserves were experienced and strong players – Biser Mikhaylov (goalkeeper), Todorov (defense), Tzvetkov (centre forward). At least that was the case in the fall. The rest of the squad was rarely used and mostly in the spring. With the exception of Todorov everybody else of the above played at one or another time for the national team.
The Cup final was played unusually late – in August, just before the beginning of the new season – because of the World Cup. Thus, the selections were those for 1974-75 season, CSKA particularly introducing new players. CSKA and Levsky-Spartak met and CSKA won 2-1 in extra time. The regular time produced 1-1 tie. It was small consolation for CSKA – the ‘silver’ generation was over the hill and the so far cosmetic changes of the squad did not hide the problems of an aging team.