Saturday, December 17, 2011

North of Greece things were going in the opposite direction – Bulgarian football was shaky: stuck in stupor at best; going steadily downhill at worst. The only promising teams – Slavia and Akademik, both from Sofia – stood no chance: political interest vested in CSKA and Levski-Spartak did not permit anybody else to become real contender. The whole body of Bulgarian football suffered because of that – the main result was lack of talent. At the end the big clubs suffered as well, for there was nobody to replace their aging stars. Which did not stop the big clubs from grabbing whoever seemed able of kicking the ball… lowly Akademik was constantly plundered, as well as the provincial clubs. Slavia was rather stifled – no players were stolen from the oldest Bulgarian club, but referees made sure that champions will not wear white. And it was the same old, same old CSKA and Levski duel… Perhaps the most significant feature of this season was that CSKA and Levski-Spartak appeared in ‘modern’ kit: CSKA dressed in Adidas, and Levski – in West German-made kit, believed to be Puma, but not looking like Puma. It changed the look of the team: no longer entirely blue, but blue and white shirts. Eventually, this kit became iconic and was repeated in later years. As kits go, East European countries were slow to catch up with fashion, mainly for political reasons. Since CSKA and Levski belonged to arch-political institutions – the Army and the Police – it was unbecoming for them to use ‘capitalist’ gear (did not apply to training sweats and boots, though). Thus, the most powerful Bulgarian clubs were not the first dressed in Western kit – Slavia claims to be the first club purchasing Adidas, although I think lowly Minyor (Pernik) used Adidas before Slavia. Finally the big boys followed the fashion – already behind most Soviet clubs, but ahead of East Germany. As for real football…
CSKA continued to stumble in its attempts rebuild the aging squad – in the ‘normal’ way of the club, ruthless plundering of other clubs was the method. 6 new players arrived: the top scorer of the 1974-75 season Ivan Pritargov (Trakia Plovdiv), Milen Goranov, the key striker of Akademik (Sofia), the very promising left winger Tzvetan Yonchev (Botev Vratza), the occasional national player Dimitar Dimitrov (Beroe Stara Zagora), Angel Rangelov, who had great 1974-75 season (Sliven), and entirely unknown youngster Plamen Markov (Rakovski Sevleivo). All of them came from traditional hunting fields of CSKA, but only two players passed the usual cover – that they were ‘called for regular army service’: Yonchev and Markov. Two clubs belonged to the army ‘family’ – or satellites – Trakia and Sliven, so they had no say whatsoever in the matter. One transfer was particularly interesting: Rangelov came from CSKA’s youth system, but, as almost every homegrown youth of CSKA, was not invited at all to the first team. He had strong season with Sliven, though, and now the ‘mother club’ suddenly became interested – it was a new practice, of which Sliven was to suffer in the next few years. Trakia – curiously, for this was new as well – was actually compensated: CSKA gave them three players for Pritargov! Sounds great… except those three were dead meat. Yet, there was no improvement… with the new boys CSKA continued to play shaky, unconvincing football.
Levski-Spartak acquired three new guys: the attacking midfielder Yordan Yordanov (Minyor Pernik), the tough central defender Ivan Tishanski (Akademik Sofia), and another toughie, the right full back Nikolay Grancharov (Cherno more Varna). Curiously, the new boys came because of the already mentioned stupid policy of CSKA: Tishanski and Grancharov were products of CSKA’s youth system, but just like Rangelov, the Army was not interested in them (Tishanski did polish the reserves bench for two seasons, but Grancharov was never included in the first team). Unlike CSKA’s recruits, the newcomers settled quickly in Levski and with Krassimir Borisov finally fitting in the team, Levski was in much better shape than CSKA in the first half of the 1975-76 season. The moment of truth came at the derby with the arch-enemy: Levski annihilated CSKA 4-1. CSKA was pale shadow of itself; Levski was in great form; the winter break find them leading by 5 points. Title was in the bag!
It was different picture in the spring – a repetition of 1973-74, when great fall was followed by mediocre spring and Levski won the title thanks to the points collected in the fall. It was exactly the same in 1976… the lead gradually dwindled to only 2 points before the spring derby with CSKA. Meantime CSKA made desperate last change midseason: their coach Manol Manolov was sacked and replaced by another former CSKA player Sergy Yotzov, who built strong squad in the satellite Sliven. Yotzov tried to reshape the team somewhat – moved Denev ahead as a striker, and moved Milen Goranov back to midfield, but it was largely cosmetic change. The team did not really improve, but it was still strong enough the small fry in the league. Derbies have life of their own, regardless the form of the opponents – given the condition of both teams, it should have been lackluster draw… the match wasn’t much, but it was not a draw: CSKA won 3-1, tied points with Levski and suddenly was leading on better goal difference. Observers still point out missed penalty as the crucial moment of the season: Levski got a penalty when the result was 1-0 for CSKA. The army goalie Stoyan Yordanov saved the penalty, crashing Levski’s spirit. I don’t think so: Levski was not outplayed per se, but was in bad enough form to be likely looser. It was mental… somehow the team did not seem ready to clinch even a tie. Curiously, ‘red’ folklore still remembers this otherwise unimpressive match – as a prime example of ‘systematic atrocities against CSKA’. The ‘wrongness’ is… the missed penalty. It was protested by the players even after their goalie saved it, so the referee showed two yellow cards (another crime committed against noble CSKA). Well, it was particularly disputable penalty: Levski’s striker flipped the ball above reach of CSKA’s goalie and Rangelov cleared the ball from crossing the goal line with his hand. A ‘natural right’ was seemingly violated: one simply does not call penalties against CSKA, period!
Levski never shook up its sluggishness – at the final table they were 2 points behind CSKA. Fanship apart, the season was meager – CSKA was hardly convincing winner; Levski lost form with meteoric speed; Lokomotiv Plovdiv, very strong in the last 4-5 years, gave signs of aging and loosing steam; Slavia, already without Isakidis, was unstable and not exactly up the football they played the previous year; Sliven was weakened; the rest of the other clubs were in decline. The relegated teams were interesting in this light: satellites of CSKA and Levski were never relegated together before, as far as I remember. Cherno more (Varna, belonging to the Navy) was strong team just a few years ago and constant first division club. The weakness of the ‘mother’ clubs relegated the satellites, I suspect – neither Cherno more, nor Spartak (Plaven, belonging to the Police) had worse squads than the other smaller clubs in the league. Donating points to Levski or CSKA, plus other schemes helping the struggling ‘grands’ perhaps cost them heavily.

One more title for CSKA, but one of the least convincing in their history – a transitional team at best. Back row, from left: Filipov, Rangelov, Denev, Vassilev, Yotzov-coach, Marashliev, Zafirov, Penev, Yordanov.
Sitting: Atanassov, Stankov, Sredkov, M. Goranov, Pritargov, Kolev, D. Dimitrov, Pl. Markov, Yonchev, Yankov.
Still too many players clearly over the hill, but with too big reputations to be replaced easily. The ‘cleaning of the house’ continued a few more years – the young recruits were not significantly better than the veterans yet. As a curiosity, entirely unpredictable in 1976, two future coaches of the Bulgarian national team played together this season: Dimitar Penev, who led Bulgaria to 4th place at the 1994 World Cup and Plamen Markov – the last coach to qualify Bulgaria to major finals: the 2000 European Championship.