Saturday, November 10, 2012

Inconsistent Slavia, shapeless CSKA, and provincial revelations, not quite strong for reaching the very top, like Marek, who else is left, but Levski-Spartak. The 'Blues' won the title and the Cup, a double, suggesting vast supremacy. The final table suggests so – 4 points ahead of second-placed rivals and 73 goals scored, 21 more than the second-best striking line, Slavia.

All trophies collected: sitting from left: I. Tishansky, St. Aladzhov,I. Stoyanov, T. Barzov, K. Ivkov, St. Pavlov.

Middle row: Al. Kostov – assistant coach, N. Grancharov., V. Voynov, V. Nikolchev, P. Panov, M. Gaydarsky, Zh. Filipov – team doctor.

Standing: St. Staykov, G. Tzvetkov, K. Milanov, V. Spassov – coach, Y. Yordanov, V. Chaushev, Bl. Krastanov, N. Iliev.

At a glance, formidable squad – experienced old hand at the helm – Vassil Spassov – and 15 former, current, and future national team players. Who would stop them? The results say clearly 'nobody', but it was not exactly overwhelmingly strong team in perfect form. True, Pavel Panov was at his finest, perhaps at his peak, and two newcomers, Nikolay Grancharov and Todor Barzov, not only settled nicely, but played very important role. Especially the diminutive midfielder Barzov – spirited dynamo, who played almost above his abilities. He was the playmaker of his former club, Spartak (Pleven), but Levski had so many midfielders, he was moved back as a defensive midfielder. The player not only did not complain, but played with gusto, managing to destroy opponent's attacks at their birth and yet to provide excellent passes and start dangerous attack for Levski. Soon he was the darling of the fans, and as a curious note, his also diminutive wife played the same way for the women basketball team of Levski-Spartak. Both became indispensable. Back to football, Levski had plenty of experience, but its real strength was the depth of the team – during the season, Levski never achieved stability of form, but was able quickly to replace underperformers with somebody else. Perhaps the derbies with arch-rival CSKA were the most important matches for winning the title: they came early in the season this year and were important for confidence – normally, there was no need to motivate players for the derby, but now there was additional value: Levski was able to run a few more games on the wave of enthusiasm, after beating CSKA. In June of 1976 Levski win the Cup in dramatic final with CSKA, in overtime. It was especially vicious confrontation, full of fights, and Levski prevailed. Then the enemies met in September in the first championship derby, memories of the Cup final still fresh. In the 50th minute CSKA scored a second goal, leading 2-0. Yordanov and Borissov were in bad shape and the match appeared lost... but the substitutions were timely and helpful, Levski started scoring in the remaining time and in the very last minute Voynov scored a winning third goal from a penalty. CSKA once again lost its nerve, played brutally, was yellow and red carted, and for the first time in the history of the derby a team managed to convert 0-2 loss into 3-2 victory. Levski's moral was boosted and CSKA was demoralized and further confused by its own whining against refereeing (the 'unfair' referee showed yellow card for rugby-type tackle; for physical attack of himself by CSKA player, and red cart – to a player kicking Milanov in the head, when the striker was down on the ground. Very 'prejudiced' referee indeed.) In the spring derby Levski simply destroyed CSKA 3-1, leading 3-0 in the 60th minute. Barzov excelled. On the wings of these two important victories Levski won a few more following matches, enthusiasm covering for shortcomings. And there were crucial problems... having too many midfielders inevitably reduced the attacking line, which in turn limited the use of Milanov – a classic English-type centreforward, he needed long high balls coming from the wings, and without wingers he was not efficient. But with high-scoring midfielders this was not fatal. The severe problems were in defense: Stefan Staykov between the posts reached the limit of his abilities and started showing more of his shortcomings: he was vulnerable to balls kicked from afar, often not reacting at all. It was a problem with his eyes and he was becoming a liability. The pair of central defenders – Ivkov and Tishansky – never really clicked. The trouble was peculiar: both were in great form individually, but were vulnerable as a pair. Yet, why replacing players in excellent form? Tishansky was valuable not just as a stopper: he participated dangerously in attacks, he scored, and was a free-kick master. One on one, Ivkov was unbeatable, his calmness was influencial, he was the team captain, a great reader of the game, and a player never falling out of form. There was a disciplinary problem as well – Grancharov, Tishansky, and Milanov were rough, often brutal tacklers, with fiery characters, easily inflamed and ready to fight. They missed many games because of suspensions. What really won the season for Levski was the long bench – there was always somebody ready to step in when somebody else was missing or underperforming. Yet, the problems were real, and seemingly the club was aware of them, for at the end the title was secured by a shameful act, affecting the Cup final as well: Levski arranged the championship match with Lokomotiv (Sofia). Lokomotiv was to play 'easy' in exchange for getting the Cup – both teams were to play at the final. Levski – champions; Lokomotiv – Cup winners – 'nice' verbal agreement, initiated by Levski's brass. Lokomotiv accepted and Levski secured the title. Then the Cup final came...
'Railroad workers', 1976-77 vintage: sitting from left: R. Manolov, G. Kraeshky, B. Velichkov, R. Goranov, L. Traykov, B. Manolkov, At. Mikhaylov, V. Arsov, G. Bonev.

Standing: A. Chachevsky – coach, R. Zdravkov, V. Nedelchev, B. Dimitrov, S. Kostov, Y. Stoykov, St. Milev, A. Kolev, D. Donkov – assistant coach.

In the Sofia's pecking order Lokomotiv ranked forth,which pretty much eliminated any chance for them having really strong team. They played pleasant to the eye football, largely depending on strong defense, counter-attacks, and the virtuosity of the great Atanas 'Nachko' Mikhaylov. Not a bad team, but somewhat limited by its own predicament of club dwarfed by powerful neighbours. Yet, they had arguably the best Bulgarian goalkeeper of the 1970s, Roumen Goranov; a bunch of national team players – Boko Dimitrov, Yordan Stoykov, Georgy Bonev; solid and reliable professionals, Ventzislav Arsov and Angel Kolev; and rapidly rising to stardom youngsters – Radoslav Zdravkov, Boycho Velichkov, and, at the time at least, Borislav Manolkov. As a whole, solid upper-half of the table team, where they were this year as well: 7th, with pretty much 'well rounded' record of 9 wins, 9 losses, 12 ties, and 42-40 goal difference. Having nothing to play for in the championship, Lokomotiv easily agreed to the deal proposed by Levski and lost their championship match without anybody even noticing something out of normal. Traditionally, Lokomotiv is difficult opponent for CSKA, but easy prey for Levski, no wonder the championship loss did not raise suspicions. But it also speaks of the insecurity of Levski this year – if they were really strong, why fixing the match with their easier opponent? Anyhow, Lokomotiv did not put much resistance for the deal was suitable to them: with great difficulty they won the Cup semi-final against lowly Dunav (Rousse) after penalty shoot-out. Now, out of the blue, they were to end the season with a trophy... Football is dirty practically everywhere in the world, so what happened hardly has specific Eastern European twist: Levski decided to go for the Cup, but the brass failed to inform Lokomotiv – the news was left to be delivered at the last second. In the tunnel, both teams going to the field to start the game, Kiril Ivkov, ashamed and apologizing, told Nachko Mikhaylov that Levski is ordered to play for real. The deal was off. Naturally, Lokomotiv players were infuriated. The final was rough, although not really vicious, and Levski clinched 2-1 victory. A double for them, but the loss rubbed more salt into the wound and Yordan 'Bumbo' Stoykov went into a fight with Kiril Milanov. It was not on the pitch and actually it was nothing compared to the open fights and general menace of the Cup final in 1976 between CSKA and Levski, but this another force decided to act. A political force – and this, not fixing and back room deals, is peculiar to Communist Eastern European states. Very high placed Communist official, having nothing to do with football, except been a fan of CSKA, stepped in, pulled weight, demanded the guilty parties to be punished for their 'unbecoming of socialist sportsmen behavior', and... Bumbo was kind of penalized, but Kiril Milanov was suspended for life. Mind, nobody was penalized the previous year, when there was much bigger reason for punishment. Also mind that in the second-half of the 1970s plenty of Bulgarian players were severely suspended for various crimes, mostly irregular moves to another clubs. Nobody ever served long suspension, especially those, who were 'suspended for life' – routinely, their penalties were lifted after awhile and they came to play again. Even more incredibly, those banned from playing in the domestic league, were free to play international matches, including for national team formations. Penalties were just a joke in the whole history of Bulgarian football – but not in the case of Milanov. His career ended for good, he is the only Bulgarian player of worth to actually serve a ban. It turned out, it was a personal vendetta – the big Commie functionary hated Milanov, seeing him as big danger to the well-being of his beloved CSKA and eliminated him forever. In an ironic twist, Milanov still had to play a little – he played in European Champions Cup in the fall of 1977. Effectively, his last game was on November 2, 1977, in Amsterdam, where Ajax eliminated Levski. Milanov scored his last goal in the 1-2 loss. Murky side of football... Lokomotiv remembers the lost final with bitterness, Levski remembers the ban of Milanov with bitterness, international games were used in part for influencing speedy ending of suspensions, match fixing never stops, but it is always almost impossible to find solid evidence, lack of sportsmanship may be or may be not punished, fans don't care how exactly their clubs win, as long as they win, the loser always cry about injustice, big clubs get what they want no matter how, and small clubs don't... Levski ended the season with a double.