On July 16th, 1994, 12:30 pm, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, the third-place playoff game of the World Cup was about to start between Sweden and the surprise of the tournament, Bulgaria. Even though the Swedes would smash the Bulgarians 4-0, it was nonetheless one of the finest achievements of an Eastern European nation at the World Cup.
Bulgaria’s star player that tournament, Hristo Stoichkov, who was tearing La Liga apart alongside Romario, won the Golden Boot as the top scorer and would be awarded the Ballon d’Or a few months later. Fast forward 29 years, and Bulgaria haven’t taken part in any major tournaments since 2004 and have yet to win any games in 2023. Across 10 friendly and Euro 2024 qualifying games, Bulgaria have lost 6 and drawn four, including losses to Iran, Lithuania, Montenegro and Albania.
Meanwhile, no Bulgarian players are currently active in any of the top 5 leagues and only one team is active in European competitions this season. In order to properly take a look at what caused this marked regression, we need to examine Bulgaria’s footballing past and present to see if maybe, just maybe a better future is on the horizon.
Football was introduced to Bulgaria by two Swiss gymnasts and sports teachers Georges de Regibus and Charles Champaud in the late 19th century, and in a few decades, the locals embraced the new sport enthusiastically. During the late 19th and early 20th century, Bulgaria went through a massive upheaval in terms of its territory which culminated in the two Balkan Wars that paved the road for its entry into the Great War.
Against this backdrop, Bulgarian football was going through its infancy, with the first clubs beginning to appear like Futbol Klub, Botev Plovdiv, Slavia and Levski Sofia, and Bulgarians were even helping found clubs abroad, with one of Galatasaray’s founders being Bulgarian. A new national team was founded as well, making their debut in 1924 with a 6-0 loss against Austria in Vienna, with the first football league of the country appearing the same year.
Despite not qualifying for the early World Cup tournaments, the national team tasted its first success in the Balkan Cup, winning the 1931 and ’32 editions. Despite entering World War Two on the Axis side, Bulgaria managed to shelter most of its Jewish population from the horrors of the Germans. The country was nonetheless invaded by the Soviets in 1944 and the Bulgarian People’s Republic was established two years later.
As with many Eastern European countries, sport was incorporated into the state apparatus and a new club was on the rise, CSKA Sofia, associated with the armed forces. The new communist footballing system brought about the first golden age of the national team, with them taking part in four consecutive World Cups from 1962 to 1974. Sadly, for them, they always seemed to attract the toughest opponents in the group stages, not being able to progress any further.
On the club side, the central sports committee was merging clubs like it was going out of fashion, even combining former rivals, as in the case of Levski Sofia, which merged with Lokomotiv and CSKA, which continued absorbing clubs during the 60s. This heavy focus on the internal game meant that Bulgarian club football’s first major achievement, a semi-final loss to Inter in the 1967 European Cup was completed. Soon enough another even more golden generation was on the rise, with Bulgaria qualifying for the 1986 World Cup, losing to Mexico in the Round of 16.
In that squad was a short-tempered young striker, that was primed to set the European scene alight during the 90s. In 1990 Stoichkov moved to Barcelona and immediately proceeded to get banned for two months for stomping on a referee’s foot. Despite his hot-headedness, he could turn the magic on every time it mattered, winning four consecutive La Liga titles and the 1992 European Cup.
Just as he was fighting for the last of the aforementioned La Liga titles, he was also starring for the national team, alongside other legends of the Bulgarian game, such as Yordan Lechkov, and Krasimir Balakov in a very tough qualifying group for the upcoming 1994 FIFA World Cup. Drawn with Sweden, France and Austria, Bulgaria managed to qualify at France’s expense. Despite already beating the French in Sofia, Bulgaria needed another win at the Parc des Princes to go through.
With Cantona opening the scoring in the 31st minute Bulgaria immediately responded through Emil Kostandinov. The score remained the same for the rest of the game, until in extra time, Kostandinov completed his brace in front of the shocked French crowd. In the US, they continued their giant-killing antics, beating Argentina in the groups and defending champions Germany in the quarter-finals, before succumbing to eventual silver medalists Italy.
The success of the national team did not however reflect the internal turmoil of the country. As with many Eastern European countries, the 90s started off with a revolution and a regime change. What followed for most was around two decades of instability where each specific country was to undergo a sharp and painful transition to the capitalist model.
During these transitions, crime, corruption, poverty and political ineptitude soared, as the general population found itself without any guiding principles in a rapidly changing environment. This meant that the standard of living decreased sharply for ordinary people, as local industries and businesses failed to compete with Western products and were gobbled up by a new class of oligarchs with ties to both politics and organized crime.
Naturally, football and sport, in general, were affected, torn between the old ways, which prioritized sporting excellence sponsored by the state, and the new ones, where the sport had to make its own money to support itself. The last hurrah of Bulgarian football occurred during the mid-2000s when clubs like CSKA and Levski either reached the group stages of the Champions League or the latter stages of the UEFA Cup.
However, a clear indicator of the changing landscape of Bulgarian football was the amount of quality players leaving the country. Whilst it is true that superstars like Stoichkov moved abroad, other legends like Georgi Asparuhov or Dimitar Penev spent most of their careers in Bulgaria. During the nation’s last tournament, the 2004 Euros their three best players, Dimitar Berbatov, Stylian Petrov and Martin Petrov, were playing for Bayer Leverkusen, Celtic and Wolfsburg respectively.
The late 90s and early 2000s featured the last generations of players being scouted and initiated into football by the old system, which was still highly professional, even by Western standards. Whilst this high standard ensured that these players papered over the cracks of a broken system, the signs of decay were evident.
The best player of modern Bulgarian football, Berbatov, recounted having to practice with a basketball, for lack of a better option. Whilst this probably aided him in having one of the best first touches in football, it nonetheless shows that the lack of investment in footballing facilities was bound to cause a crash. With old, rusty and decaying facilities, underpaid staff and muddy pitches it is pretty hard to produce world-class players and many youngsters give up their footballing dreams when faced with such harsh realities.
Some people say that a fish rots from the head down, but it is very pertinent to the situation the Bulgarian League finds itself in. The league itself has been filled with rotting heads, both in a literal and a figurative sense. From the early 2000s onwards, Bulgarian football has been increasingly tied to organized crime, with clubs whose history spanned half a century now mere pawns used for money laundering and for providing ultras whose muscle is sometimes used for nefarious activities.
As one might expect from organized crime, the outcomes are bound to turn bloody, as in the case of the 15 club presidents or owners who have been murdered between 2003 and 2013. The ones who managed to remain alive aren’t really any better, as more often than not, various millionaires purchase clubs in order to extract as much capital from them as possible or gain soft power and recognition in Bulgaria.
The case of the country’s most successful club is a showcase of everything wrong with Bulgarian football and to an extent post-Communist football as well. CSKA Sofia, the nation’s army club during the communist era is also the most successful Bulgarian club. During the pre-revolution era, the club went through a series of name changes and mergers and was even dissolved and renamed alongside Levski Sofia after the 1985 Bulgarian Cup final, which was marred by violence.
The decision was somewhat reversed the following year and after the fall of the communist regime, CSKA became a private enterprise and experienced periods of instability before being taken over by businessman Vasil Bozhkov in 1999. Bozhkov is nicknamed the skull, which gives us a pretty good indication of what kinds of businesses one of the richest Bulgarians was involved in. The US State Department even described him as “the most infamous gangster in Bulgaria.”
His businesses range from gambling to privatization funds and has received numerous lucrative state contracts over the years. He sold CSKA in 2006 to Pramrod Mittal, brother of steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, who also acquired the Kremikovtzi metalworking company in Sofia. Former Bulgarian politician Aleksandar Tomov, who was also involved with Kremikovtzi, became president.
During this time, a rotating cast of local Bulgarian managers and journeymen from Western Europe were appointed and the club signed some of the best players in Bulgaria, complimented by foreign additions, usually from Brazil. This massive spending by Eastern European standards brought the club to the brink of bankruptcy, preventing them from participating in the 2009 edition of the Champions League.
Tomov stepped down from his post as president and was later revealed to have embezzled millions both from CSKA and Kremikovtzi. The club recovered somewhat in the following years, but in 2013 Tomov was back, at the head of a consortium of businessmen and former club legends. The spending resumed, with players like Rais M’Bolhi, Mamady Sidibé and Martin Petrov joining the club.
With another bankruptcy looming, another oligarch was ready to take the reins, namely Grisha Ganchev. Ganchev had been involved with fellow Bulgarian club Litex Lovech for the past years, and as CSKA were threatened with expulsion and were facing a future in the third tier, he found a very elegant solution; namely renaming Litex to PFC CSKA Sofia and continuing to play in the first tier.
Many fans did not agree with this and formed their own club FC CSKA 1948 Sofia, who are fan-owned and have a very strict ethos of relying on homegrown players. Meanwhile, arch-rivals Levski started a downward spiral of their own after Todor Batkov, their long-time president, who had once referred to English referee Mike Riley as a “British homosexual [who] broke the game!”, stepped down in 2016.
A familiar face resurfaced, ready to take over, namely Vasil Bozhkov. His reign was short lived and he later revealed that former prime minister Boyko Borisov forced him to take over the club, threatening to close his businesses. Bozhkov is currently under police protection after returning from a self-imposed exile in Dubai, waiting to testify against Borisov and facing allegations of extortion and bribery.
With his exile, a new consortium took over promising more focus on homegrown players and they have managed to stabilize the situation somewhat, with Levski winning the 2022 Bulgarian Cup. The league, however, has been dominated by Ludogorets since 2012. The heart-warming story of this club’s rise to the top is countered by the massive investment of chairman Kiril Domuschiev, in a club from a town with less than 30k inhabitants.
The pharmaceutical magnate, who has also acquired the country’s largest broadcasting group, has faced allegations of corruption and match-fixing during his tenure at Ludogorets. Whether through massive financial investment or more nefarious means Ludogorets currently has a stranglehold on the league, which combined with the corruption and fan violence has turned many fans away from the league, with last year’s average attendance in the league being around 6500 spectators.
During the 21st century, Bulgarian clubs have had a very similar way of doing things. Their managers have either been local former footballers, with clubs having a ’’jobs for the boys” attitude, or Western coaches who cannot find employment due to poor results, like Alan Pardew who managed CSKA for around 3 months in 2022 or Delio Rossi, who spent one season at Levski.
The players are a similar mix of local products, South American players like Michel Platini, who spent a good chunk of his career in Bulgaria or former top 5 league players looking for one last paycheck, like Gabriel Obertan, who spent two years with Levski. Young Bulgarian footballers playing at a grassroots level therefore face a difficult future, which often goes down one of three routes.
Many players who are sick and tired of an uncertain future in a corrupt league with antiquated facilities find a different line of work for themselves, looking for stability in a country where you cannot rely on the state to provide you with basic necessities. Like many post-Soviet countries, roads, education and healthcare are still in a process of modernization even after three decades of democracy, and many either leave the country in search for a better future, or try and enter high-paying fields like IT or medicine to ensure that when push comes to shove, they have something to fall back on.
Thus, professions like the arts and sports, which teach no true money-making skills are viewed as a risk. For those who still want to pursue a career in football a metaphorical giant slalom awaits, where they have to make sure that their talent does not go to waste through the antiquated coaching methods and the mediocre levels of football.
If they somehow make it to the top flight as a youngster they can either choose to remain in the Bulgarian league and stagnate in an uncompetitive league or be sold to line the pockets of various club owners and fend for themselves in leagues where less talented players have a head start on them due to their upbringings in a more modern footballing environment.
One of the men who is at the wheel of this nearly 20-year car crash is the former president of the Bulgarian footballing union, Borislav Mihaylov. His election in 2005 somewhat marks the steeper portion of Bulgaria’s footballing decline. During this time corruption soared and many fans nowadays maintain that he doesn’t really care about football and just wants a powerful position for himself.
Allegations of match-fixing, illegal betting, conflicts of interest and misappropriations of public funds have followed him throughout his tenure. In 2019, things came to a head when he was forced to step down after a scandal involving racist abuse from fans during a game against England. Dimitar Berbatov, who is the most vocal former legend, has spoken against Mihaylov multiple times and decided to stand against him as he tried to get re-elected in 2021.
Berbatov lost, despite being a firm fan favourite, reports of voting fraud later surfaced, prompting Berbatov to sue the federation over the result. In November of 2023, fans started to rally against Mihaylov and organized multiple protests. Bulgaria was due to play Hungary in their Euros qualifier group on November 16th and the federation decided to move the game from Sofia to Plovdiv due to security concerns, knowing full well a massive protest against Mihaylov was planned.
When the Plovdiv stadium was deemed untenable due to the fact renovations were taking place, the game was moved to an even smaller stadium in Kardzhali, which didn’t comply with UEFA regulations. Seeing no other solution, the game was finally moved back to Sofia to Levski’s stadium, but with 1600 policemen surrounding the stadium. Once the marching fans met the police, chaos ensued with the police using excessive force to disperse the crowd and causing numerous injuries.
Mihaylov was once again forced to step down in the aftermath and elections are scheduled for March 15th, 2024. Despite his horrendous record in charge of the federation, Mihaylov states that he is proud of his time in charge, showing just what a massive piece of human garbage, he is. Berbatov will once again run in the upcoming elections and fans hope that this time he will come out on top.
At this point, a man who is already rich enough to not be tempted into corruption and with a genuine love for the game and his country seems like a godsend for the beleaguered Bulgarian football, whose national team has won a grand total of 8 games since 2019. I can only think of the Luxembourg national team, which I’ve covered in a previous article, who have won 15 in that time, despite the country having a population of one-tenth of Bulgaria.
Right to the north, Romania is in a very similar situation with its football, albeit not quite so bad. They have just qualified for Euro 2024 from an admittedly easy group, which I’m sure was just to spite me for making a video on Romania’s footballing downfall. This has offered a momentary reprieve from the fan pressure brought about by the corruption and incompetence of the Romanian federation.
However, I believe that such a false dawn serves only to delay the inevitable. Bulgaria is pretty much at rock bottom but has the chance of a massive reshuffle if Berbatov is elected. When you put a corrupt federation with their backs to the wall, they will accept sweeping changes much more easily and a possible modernization of Bulgarian football might be on the horizon. And I can even end on a positive note, with Levski Sofia having just signed a partnership with Eintracht Frankfurt, which will allow them to learn from the German club’s training and academy.
By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Tottenham Hotspur FC – UEFA