Monday, March 28, 2011

Bulgaria was one of the worst teams at the 1974 World Cup and it was not just a momentary flop, but a much deeper problem. The crisis was recognized only in part: Bulgarian football was falling behind the best in the world; it needed to adopt – and quickly – the new tendencies of playing and training. As a practical measure, the national coach was sacked and there was urgent call for replacement of old players with new ones. So, far nothing new – these are traditional football practices – and in the Bulgarian case, they were not radically done either for one simple reason: there was not much talent to choose from. In general, the 1970s were perhaps the most mediocre decade in Bulgarian football, and the post-World Cup season was particularly bleak. The general crisis was best represented by the top clubs – CSKA ‘Septemvriisko zname’ and Levski-Spartak. Both teams were obviously aging and over the hill – now, in football aging team does not automatically mean old players, but a team already playing together for 4-5 years, reaching the top of its performance and slumbering downhill with predictable, inefficient, and boring game. The aging of CSKA was already detected by 1973 and now Levski joined them – in fact, the ‘Blues’ played mediocre football from the beginning on 1974, when they won the title thanks to the beautiful half-season in the Autumn of 1973. It was dangerous indication that they clinched the title only 1 point ahead of the arch-enemy and with more losses than CSKA too (6 vs 5, all matches lost in the spring!) Both clubs took ‘urgent’ measures… which means both changed coaches, but in different times. CSKA sacked their coach for many years – and club legendary player from the 1950s – Manol Manolov by the end of 1973. The fans were not entirely convinced of his change, for it came soon after CSKA eliminated mighty Ajax from the European Champions Cup. He was replaced with his assistant – and former teammate – Nikola Kovachev, whose whole coaching experience was exactly as assistant coach of Manolov. Quite predicatably, Kovachev did not improve the team and after the end of the season he was sacked and replaced with… Manol Manolov. Levski kept Dimitar Doychinov longer, for he made them champions… but when Ujpesti Dosza literally destroyed Levski in the 1/16 finals of the 1974-75 European Champions Cup and the fall half of the new season showed increasing weaknesses and lack of form and inspiration, his days were numbered. New coaches appeared in the winter break – Ivan Vutzov and Dobromir Zhechev as assistant. It was more than surprise change – to the best of my knowledge, this was the first time ever one of the leading Bulgarian clubs hired young coaches with no experience whatsoever. Now, both graduated from the Highest Institute of Sport – which was equal to regular University – and at the time a degree from this educational institution made them certified coaches, so they were formally competent. But Vutzov so far was employed as administrator and never coached any team. Zhechev started the season still as a regular player. How good or bad Vutzov and Zhechev were is hard to tell: they lacked experience certainly, but the team was just too bad anyway. CSKA, on the other hand, returned conservatively to their old coach, which only shows the poverty of Bulgarian football at the time: neither club was able to find anybody better, thus it was either return to the already known, or jump into the entirely unknown. Coaches, however, were not the full solution anyway: summer transfers showed how impoverish Bulgarian football was. CSKA got three new players – Stefan Velichkov from Etar (Veliko Tirnovo), Nikola Hristov from Dunav (Rousse), and Kevork Tahmissian from Cherno more (Varna): a full back, centre-forward, and attacking midfielder. All were already well established players, not very young, and hardly improving their game anymore. Velichkov played at the World Cup; Hristov was occasionally included in the national team, but never really played, and Tahmissian was solid provincial player. Solid, but hardly better than the players CSKA already had. Solid, but not exciting and not at all capable of leadership. In short, not players for the future and not players to build a new team around them. In the past CSKA got young and promising players, who developed into stars and leaders in the club – now there was nobody promising, and new players were got not to build new team, but to patch an old one. Levski did even worse: Krassimir Borissov from Lokomotiv (Sofia), Emil Spassov from the junior team, and Ognyan Bochev from Botev (Ihtiman), a Second Division club. Attacking midfielder and two strikers. Borissov played at the World Cup less than a full match and generally was considered problematic player. Bochev scored a lot for his old club, but it was in the lower divisions – he was never seen as a potential starter anyway. Spassov was not taught a regular player at first either. Significantly, no new defender appeared in the summer, when it was obvious that at least two regulars were over the hill and near retirement. It will suffice to say that none of the new boys shined – Velichkov was more or less stable, but, at best, roughly equal to his competitors. Hristov was uneven, Tahmissian hardly played at all – Georgy Denev, still young, was much better even with his annoying tendency to play alone. Borissov had rough time adapting to his new club and in his first season he was generally considered a big mistake. Bochev predictably was on much lower level than his new teammates even when they were out of form. Spassov started brightly, then faded… At the end, from the whole bunch only Borissov managed to establish himself, however slowly, and was with Levski few years later (Spassov too, but after a spell with ZhSK Spartak (Varna), where he was send at one point as hopeless). Everybody else was dismissed, leaving no big memories. Clearly, the country produced nothing good enough for radical change and the big clubs were so desperate that during the winter break they acted in unison – usually, the enemies pillaged other clubs individually, but not this time: they sacked Minyor (Pernik) together. Levski grabbed the right winger Filip Slavchev; CSKA – the left winger Angel Slavov. Both clubs were clearly driven by desperation, for it was highly unusual transfers to be made in mid-season (in the 1970s, it was still unusual everywhere in Europe, except England). After destroying Minyor’s attacking line, the ‘grand’ clubs got some more talent – CSKA included Ivan Metodiev and Yordan Hristov; Levski – Georgy Ganev. Metodiev was from CSKA’s junior team – and the club hardly ever used own juniors. Hristov was an enigma – he practically appeared from nowhere. Ganev was former junior of Levski, who played for obscure Second Division club before the ‘Blues’ remembered his existence. Once again, nothing much happened in terms of improvement… but some old horses retired curiously during the season: Zhechev, Vassil Mitkov, and Tzvetan Vesselinov at mid-season and officially. The great goalscorer of CSKA Petar Zhekov not that much retired than expired – he injured himself at the start of the season (it was hilarious self-injury: Zhekov clumsily missed a ball, driving his foot into the ground, falling down in pain and practically never recovering from this. There was a defender nearby, who instead of starting laughing run to the referee arguing innocence – afraid, that he will be yellow-carded, although he was metres away from Zhekov when the fat old star kicked the grass instead of the ball.) Well, tough time and dark horizons – CSKA and Levski had nobody to steal from the whole country: if this was not a deep crisis, what is? CSKA won the title a point ahead of Levski, but scored fewer goals than ‘the Blues’ and received more goals than them too. Levski was not with best attack and defense, though: third placed Slavia scored most goals – 56, and 4th placed Dunav (Rousse) had the best defense, allowing only 28 goals. Numbers are often misleading in football: Dunav hardly had strong defense – it was rather a case of weak strikers in almost every other club. Down the scale went Lokomotiv (Plovdiv), which was constantly among the top three since 1969. Their city rivals, Trakia, were even lower. Lokomotiv (Sofia) settled in mid-table, and Etar (Veliko Tirnov), which was 4th the previous season and started this one with international games in the UEFA Cup ended relegated to the Second Division. Mediocrity ruled and there was no way out…

Champions by hook and by crook – CSKA ‘Septemvriisko zname’. Bottom, left to right: Stoyan Yordanov, Bozhil Kolev, Ivan Metodiev, Dimitar Penev - captain, Georgy Denev, Kiril Stankov, Yordan Filipov. Middle: Stefan Velichkov, Todor Simov, Stefan Mikhailov, Borislav Sredkov, Angel Slavov. Top: Yordan Hristov, Plamen Yankov, Ivan Zafirov, Tzonyo Vassilev, Dimitar Marashliev.

Second, not because they were that good, but because there was not any better club – Levski-Spartak. Top, left to right: Dobromir Zhechev – assistant coach, Stefan Aladzhov, Stefan Staykov, Kiril Ivkov – captain, Milko Gaydarsky, Tony Dzhefersky, Botyo Malinov, Nikolay Iliev, Georgy Todorov, Ivan Vutzov – coach. Bottom: Filip Slavchev, Pavel Panov, Georgy Tzvetkov, Stefan Pavlov, Ivan Stoyanov, Voin Voinov, Georgy Dobrev, Emil Spassov, Georgy Ganev.