Friday, April 1, 2011

If there was some light in the darkness, it came from too clubs – Akademik and Slavia, both from Sofia. Akademik finished 5th and their best performance was still to come, but it was a steady climb year after year, playing technical and pleasant to watch football. This club deserves a few words, because of its strangeness.

Found in 1947, Akademik was one of Communist concoctions, envisioned to represent the ‘new world’. Whatever the grand Communist vision was, it had a major defect: roughly, it was based on the concept of ‘people’s representation and participation’ and it was to be ‘amateur’. Clubs were attached – and theoretically represented – various industries and social groups. On one hand, it was financing of the clubs and on the other – the pretence that ‘real’ workers were playing the game, not professionals. After the Soviet model, the most powerful clubs were those belonging to the Army and the Police – CSKA and Spartak (Sofia), the latter until fused with Levski in the winter break of 1968-69 season. Those clubs were really pyramids – central club and various lower members in provincial towns. How fair would be a championship, where a whole lot of satellites play was question never raised, but it was clear enough: when CSKA was to play against, say, Sliven, the result was known in advance… after all, colonels are subordinate to generals. Not everything was that ‘subordinated’, though – the clubs belonging to the Ministry of Transportation – to the railways branch, in reality – meaning all clubs named ‘Lokomotiv’ – were independent from each other. The whole system was quite foggy – most provincial clubs belonged – or were financed at least – by various local factories and businesses. Thus, Minyor (Pernik) belonged to the Pernik’s coal mines, and the other club of the city – Metallurg – belonged to giant metallurgical plant. Yet, in some cities the local Communist Party rulers kept a club afloat (normally, by forcing local industries to finance it, but not governing it.) This concept worked better in smaller provincial towns, where there was only one club and fans rallied to support it. In big cities it was not so and the problem was embedded in the original ‘branch’ concept – somehow, the original idea was loyalty to the club representing ‘you’. A miner was envisioned supporting the club of his mine. Which means that: if the said miner changes profession and becomes metallurgical worker, he was to change his support accordingly. But fans do not change their clubs… and as a result Spartak (Sofia) never had any fans: Sofianites either were fans of pre-Communist clubs (Levski, Slavia, Lokomotiv), or became supporters of the heavily promoted as the ‘true club of the people’ CSKA. Akademik was in even worse way, for it was to represent the ‘students’ and, more specifically, the university students. A temporary social group by definition: one is a student for about 4 years and after that is something else, according to his newly acquired profession. The first result was that Akademik never had fans – and still does not. The second result was power: it was poor and not influential club, in fact in the ranking of Sofia’s clubs it came 5th. Money the club had not – it offered education (easy education, normally in the Highest Institute of Sport. Players were to have easy student life and degree for their services on the pitch. All ‘student’ clubs in Bulgaria offered the same.) But Akademik were not the sole holders of academic degrees: more powerful clubs were able to arrange higher education for willing players as well, with additional much better pay. What remained for Akademik was that it was perhaps the only club close to the original Communist vision of sports: by structural definition, it was impossible for the club to have other players than students. Which meant that immediately after graduation a player would no longer play for the club – the Army, the Police, the mines, and the metallurgical plants can ‘employ’ people indefinitely, but ‘university student’ is short and fixed occupation. In the whole history of Akademik there were only handful of players who stayed longer than 4 years and it is not their names interesting, but how such thing was arranged at all. Normally, Akademik was a constant flux and attracted lesser players: those, who really wanted to get degree; some, who preferred to move to the capital of the country, or Sofianites wanting to stay in the capital instead of going to play for a provincial club. During the Communist years, Akademik never had a single player coming from its own youth system (by regulations, every club had to have children and youth teams – Akademik’s was a dead end: after finishing high school a kid had to apply for university and become a student, if getting high marks at the entry exams. But he was not to begin studying even if accepted, for he was to serve two years in the army first. Because of that it was meaningless for Akademik to look at its own youth system: football players are rarely good students on one hand, and even if there was somebody, the army was surely taking him away.) Although Akademik played First Division in the 1950s , and even finished 3rd once, the foundational handicaps took hold and in the 1960s the club had more or less sedated life in the Second Division. The forced mergers in the beginning of 1969 changed the picture: four First Division clubs ‘amalgamated’ in mid-season left the league short of teams, but there were ‘homeless’ extra players.

Akademik was administratively moved to First Division, taking the record of one of the perished clubs. The superfluous players from the destroyed clubs were given to Akademik as well. It was all crazy, but boosted the declining club. At the beginning of the 1970s Akademik got a good coach – Danko Roev – and under his guidance the team improved both selection and performance. Big stars did not come, but a string of reliable players arrived – some youth CSKA preferred to discard; some provincial players with good reputation, willing to get a coaching degree. The team improved and was able to replace outgoing players with sufficient talent. It was still second-rated talent, players the big clubs overlooked or were not interested in at all, but it was good for the small Akademik – except for one thing: they were easy prey for the mighty. If there was really remarkable player, CSKA or Levski swallowed him, student or not. Because of that Akademik was not to become a candidate for championship title, but third placed club at the most. Natural high turn-over of players was embedded handicap even without big sharks lurking near. In the summer of the 1975 they finished 5th.

Akademik missed the spot allowing competing in the UEFA Cup just on goal difference, but they won the Balkans Club Cup in 1974, the reason they wear medals. Bottom, left to right: Tishansky, Angelov, Zhelyazkov, Lozanov, Vassilev, Milen Goranov, Simov, Parvanov.

Middle row: Danko Roev – coach, Nedelchev, Chalev, Nikolov, Paunov, Krassimir Goranov, Yankov, P. Petkov – assistant coach.

Third row: Roev, Radev, Gologanov, Tikhanov, Ivanov, Stankov, Gyorev, Lyudmil Goranov.

None was a product of Akademik – all players came from other clubs. Some were juniors of CSKA (Tishansky, Chalev) and some products of Levski’s youth system (Nedelcho Radev), discarded by their clubs. Some were established players before joining Akademik – Todor Paunov, for instance, in Lokomotiv (Plovdiv). Some were promising youngsters from provincial clubs – Bogomil Simov (Minyor). Some were unknowns who really developed when playing for Akademik, like Mladen Vassilev and Angelov. And soon enough most either retired or went to play elsewhere (Milen Goranov and Krassimir Goranov for CSKA; Ivan Tishansky and Angel Stankov for Levski). By the end of the 1970s only the ‘deep’ reserves of this squad were still donning sky-blue jerseys: Parvanov, Gologanov, and Gyorev. Many played for the national team as well (although not at the same time and not always during their days with Akademik) – Mladen Vassilev, Milen Goranov, Simov, Tishansky, Angelov. Good team, fun to watch, but structurally doomed never to be a champion…