Monday, April 4, 2011

Slavia (Sofia) finished third in the championship and won the Cup, but the fans of the club felt they were robbed from a title. They bitterly joked that the club is not permitted a championship because such thing would mean death. Serious death.

Slavia was considered the oldest existing Bulgarian club (today this is revised and disputed), and were very successful until 1944, when the Communists took over the state. From those long gone days their rivalry with Levski was established as the oldest derby in the country. The club was found on the model of Slavia (Prague), originally representing Pan-Slavic ideas, which in more mundane football terms were hopes that the revered club from Prague may help their ‘brothers’. However, hopes and reality proved different: relations between the two namesakes were cordial but distant at best, non-existing at the worst. Yet, both teams shared the same fate during Communism: they never won national championship (and both added titles after the fall of Communism) – which fueled fans’ lore of persecution and victimization. To a point, it was true: the mergers of early 1969 quite clearly aimed at destruction of old and popular clubs. Slavia, by then reduced to the third club of Sofia, and to the ‘smaller derby’ with the 4th club Lokomotiv, was merged exactly with the railways club. Fans of both clubs were alienated; players and club officials hated each other, depending on ‘origins’, it was cat and dogs in one bag, and soon the new amalgamation was dissolved (destruction worked well, though: many old fans never returned). And there was more: structurally, Slavia belonged to the Army – to a branch of it, peculiar to Bulgaria – the ‘working corps’. Massive number of soldiers served in this branch, created after the First World War and preserved by the Communists as well – they were to work on various public projects, road construction for instance, but by 1975 the scale was larger: soldiers worked in many big industries; in the building trade; the railroads; etc. It was cheap labour for the state, more akin to slavery than anything else, but still it was branch of the regular army – in case of war, the ‘workers’ were to be infantry (considering their utter lack of military training, one can easily guess the fate of such infantry during a war). A branch of the army, but relatively independent and, unfortunately, disliked by regular officers… the ‘workers’ had their generals and every other rank, but they were not considered equal to ‘real’ officers. Tangential relations existed with the ‘real’ army, but subordination remained and since CSKA was on top of the army’s sports pyramid, Slavia was to be bossed around when needed. This handicap was combined with others: by becoming the third club in Sofia, Slavia had difficulties with recruiting players – they were able to get leftovers after CSKA and Levski hunted down the best talent. And finally, Slavia preserved old habits… for them, the ‘real’ derby was with Levski, as it was many years ago. And because of that they played strongly against ‘the Blues’, but rarely cared much for opposing CSKA. Because of that it became largely immaterial whether CSKA ordered them to lose against the Army club and win over Levski – ‘the Whites’ had strong motivation to do exactly that anyway. The combination of relations, influence, pride, restricted abilities, etc., resulted in generally ineffective performance and weaker squads, building specific tradition: Slavia were notoriously unpredictable and uneven. They were capable of great performance in match, followed by dreadful loss from the worst team in the next. And this tradition was perhaps more important than real or imagined conspiracies against them: Slavia was losing too many points because of their inconsistency. To this very day they play exactly in accord with their tradition – and 1974-75 differed not from it. But they had young and very promising squad at the time, which played perhaps the best football in Bulgaria at the time, sharply contrasting to the general decline. Slavia came close to winning the title – they ended only 3 points behind the champions, and won the Cup. May be they were robbed from some points by orders from ‘above’, but they also failed to perform strongly in some matches, so I am inclined to blame their traditional inconsistency more than the scheming of CSKA and Levski. As for the lore… Slavia won their last title in 1943, when Bulgarian King Boris died under unclear and suspect circumstances (strong suspicion, alas, never proven, that he was poisoned by the German Nazis.) – thus, the joke was that if they win the title, Todor Zhivkov (or whoever Communist running the country) will die, and to prevent that Slavia was to never be a champion. Preserving Communism depended on keeping Slavia away from trophies, if you will.

Front row, left to right: Andonov, Yonov, Kolev, Aleksandrov, Kostov, Tzvetkov, Bonchev, Simeonov.

Middle: Parzhelov – coach, Velichkov, Issakidis, Zhelyazkov, Topuzov, Evtimov, Minchev, Kotzev, Pashoolov- assistant coach, Terziisky – assistant coach.

Top: Tzolov, Tassev, Milcho Evtimov, Georgiev, Grigorov, Iliev, Gugalov.

A very interesting squad it was: old stars were still around – Simeonov, Grigorov, Tassev, Kotzev, Yonov, but the emphasis was already on the young talent, like the central defenseman Ivan Iliev. Yet, the most promising were the midfield and the attack: the middle line Vanyo Kostov – Kostas Issakidis – Georgy Minchev, and the lethal attack Atanas Aleksandrov – Andrey Zhelyazkov – Tchavdar Tzvetkov. It was well balance squad, internally competitive, and somewhat free of poisonous rivalry (normally, old stars, having a lot of clout, playing instead of young and better players – somehow, this was not the case in Slavia at that time, thus benefiting the club with good, experienced reserves, ready to help when a youngster underperformed.) With so much old and new talent there were some difficulties too – one was not solved: with four strong goalkeepers, two hardly ever were listed even as substitutes – and they were the legendary Simeon Simeonov, who was in the 1974 World Cup squad, but did not play for Slavia practically since 1970, and Andonov, who was in the successful Under-21 Bulgarian national team, but… hardly ever played ‘adult’ football. The experienced Tzolov was usually listed as a substitute, therefore, playing very little and becoming grumpy as well. Another difficulty was successfully solved – Bozhidar Grigorov, central-forward and fans’ darling, was edged by young Zhelyazkov, and to field him as a striker became impossible – but he was moved in defense, which proved brilliant change – ‘Bobby Grig’ ended as Player of the Year! But it was midfield and attack lines considered most exciting and the future of Bulgarian football – they were still very young, and not ‘ripe’ enough yet, but in few years time… all of them were already included in the national team, but were not firm starters: they were still relatively inconsistent and moody (as a whole, 11 players of this squad played for the national team in different years, plus some more included in other national formations – Junior National team; Under-21; the Olympic team; the B National team.) The most promising of them all was Kostas Issakidis – very creative playmaker, possessing wonderful technical skills. Unfortunately, it was never fulfilled promise – moody and inconsistent they remained and Issakidis was lost… an Ethnic Greek, he was allowed to emigrate to Greece and play professionally there after 1975. Unfortunately, he already had a few matches for the Bulgarian national team and therefore would not play for Greece – as a result, he became unknown to the world, playing for smaller Greek clubs. Arrested development… without him, Slavia somehow was never the same: one player in great form, another out of form – that was the case in the following years, but, curiously enough, these guys eventually played abroad and quite well: Vanyo Kostov in Portugal; Tchavdar Tzvetkov in Austria; and Andrey Zhelyazkov, who was the most successful foreign based Bulgarian player before Christo Stoichkov. However, all of this was in the distant future – nobody even dreamed it in 1975, when the white boys were seen as the bright future of Bulgarian football.