Saturday, March 22, 2014

If the championship was surprizing, the Cup tournament was sensational. In the ¼ finals lowly second division club, Chepinetz (Velingrad) faced Levski-Spartak. Nobody even cared for this fixture – at their worst, Levski were to win easily. Chepinetz were just nobodies... they were simply lucky to play against Levski and photograph themselves with the stars for posterity. The match ended in 1-1 tie and went into penalty shoot-out. Which Chepinetz won 4:2. It was unbelievable, but true. Then the draw for the semi-finals: Chepinetz vs CSKA. Miracles happen rarely and are never repeated... the match was in Sofia on top of everything. No chance for Chepinetz whatsoever. Yet, this match also ended 1-1 and went to shoot-out. Miracles are not repeated, but CSKA extracted victory by only 4:3! A tiny club, insignificant even by second division measures eliminated Levski-spartak and almost eliminated CSKA. Fantastic. But that was the end of Cinderella story... CSKA went to the final. There they were meeting Marek (Stanke Dimitrov), who eliminated Lokomotiv (Sofia) in the quarter-finals 2-1, and then had it a bit easier at the semi-finals against the worst first division team, Akademik (Svishtov). Marek won 2-0, but considering their weak season... there was no doubt who the Cup winner will be. CSKA did not have a great year, but they were always ambitious, still had strong chances for a double, and simply had classier squad. And just in case, non-CSKA fans were sure that Marek will be ordered not to put any resistance. It was a final not worth watching at all – the victory of CSKA was sure, the match was to be a mere formality, if not outrageous farce.
The farce ended after half an hour – the right full back of Marek Lyuben Sevdin scored. So far, Marek was fighting well and did not give signs of giving up, but still pessimism dominated: may be putting a resistance in the first half, so the whole affair to be covered. If the second half they will give up and the journalists will write that the team was not match for great CSKA, they got tired, and... what could you expect? The best wins. Marek still have to work a lot to improve their football. Such wisdom vanished when the underdog was suddenly leading. And they bravely fought to the end, preserving the result and winning their first trophy ever. Now, this was sensational. It was minimal victory – only 1-0 – but what a victory!
CSKA finishing empty-handed the season. They were expected to win a double – this they did in a way: twice second-best. 18 national team players (of different years, but still...) losing to mere tiny provincials. May be CSKA got consolation from the fact that in the fall of 1977 Bayern lost a UEFA match to Marek? The mighty Germans lost 0-2 – CSKA did better. May be not... second place equals disaster and shame for a club counting only trophies won.
Marek – the sensational winners. Sitting from left: Emil Kyuchukov, Dimitar Dimitrov, Ventzislav Petrov, Ivan Petrov, Aleksandar Raynov, Sasho Pargov.
Middle row: Dimitar Kukov - assistant coach, Roman Karakolev, Lyuben Kolev, Stoyan Stoyanov, Ivan Palev, Lyuben Sevdin, Yanko Dinkov – coach.
Third row: Stanke Bozhurin, Slavcho Lazov, Lyuben Brankov, Nikolay Vukov, Aleksandar Kyuchukov.
It was precisely the same squad under the same coach which surprised everybody the previous season by finishing third right after winning promotion. Yes, they played very well, but given the limitations of the squad and the vanishing of the surprise element, they were not expected to repeat their great year, let alone win a trophy. And predictions were so far right: Marek still played well, but now everybody knew them and they were at the bottom of the table, trying to avoid relegation. Reaching the Cup final was a bit surprising, but perhaps Lokomotiv (Sofia) chose to concentrate on the fight for the championship and did not care for the cup. Then Marek had been lucky, drawing a weak opponent. Luck is luck, but they won the final against CSKA. They really proved themselves. Yet, it was hard to believe, given their limited squad. Marek practically used only 14 players the previous season and it was absolutely certain that there was nobody behind the regulars. The team badly needed additions... yet, they did not recruit anybody in summer of 1977 and lost their sweeper Nikolay Krastev. Technically, he was still in the squad, but after his leg was broken in the previous season it was clear he was not going to play again. Now they had not more, but fewer good players – the photo of the Cup winning squad perfectly shows the very extend of Marek: the whole third row are reserves, with very few appearances. The back-up goalie Brankov still had to debut in official match. The field players probably had less than 15 appearances in two years each , and hardly anybody played a full match yet: the only play they got was a few minutes of occasional replacement of some regular. The reserves were clearly local boys included because there was nobody else. None of them not only was never a known player, but nobody became a starter for Marek. Marek had bigger squad on paper, but the others were not even good enough for reserves. There is one player missing, the midfielder Assen Tomov – his absence only amplifies the team's limitations: 12 players total to depend on. Tomov was practically the regular replacement, coming every match in the second half. Without him... only 11 left. Imagine one of them injured? Imagine two out of form? And something already a reality, not imagination: already three players were included in the national team. A few more were soon to be called – the regulars were suddenly taxed with too many important games: the championship, the Cup, the European torunaments, the national team matches. It was already a miracle they survived so far. But a heroic team too – despite the objective difficulties, they bested their best year. They won the first trophy for Marek! And, so far, their last... this team will stay heroic and legendary not just for the club and its fans. They truly deserved their success.
It was the season of small clubs and minimal teams – they won everything against expectations and logic. Strange similarity – both Lokomotiv and Marek depended on tiny groups of players, almost all of them home-grown. Their modest, if not entirely unknown coaches, were also closely related to the clubs – more local boys becoming famous out of the blue. An unique season, but also sad... the way they were, both winners were unlikely to stay on top. The most they were to hope for was the big teams to stay away of their players – so far, Levski and CSKA were disinterested... the winners were somewhat not the type of players needed by the big clubs. Levski did not even try to get back its former juniors, the Petrov twins. Even when they were called to the national team and even when Levski badly precisely centre-forward – the very position the twins played. At the end, only two players were taken by the mighty: CSKA took Zdravkov from Lokomotiv and two years later Levski took Lyuben Kolev from Marek. Lucky winners... they could have been robbed entirely. How pleasant it was to see modest clubs win everything, and such minimalistic teams on top of it. Pleasant and amazing, and not to be repeated...

Just because of the uniqueness of the seasonal winners, one more photo of Marek – made right after the Cup final ended and they received the Cup. Because of colour clash, Marek had to play with their second kit. White jerseys, blue shorts, red socks. Or,well... it was not to be their day: CSKA playing in their second kit against some provincial dwarfs? But it is even sweeter to win over heavily favoured opposition, in their home town, and after it is taken for granted that if anybody had to change kits, it is the small, insignificant provincial guys. In a way, Marek's victory was even a kind of symbolic revenge for the harsh and unfair suspension of Kiril Milanov – his troubles started when he was young and playing for Marek and related to CSKA and their powerful supporter in the top of the Communist Party and state leadership.