The Fall of the Bulgarian Giants

Their players once held ranks within the communist government’s most powerful ministries, only to be banned from football for “violations of the socialist morale”. In the post-communist period, individuals at the top of the clubs’ hierarchy have been linked to shady privatization deals and the mafia, while the teams themselves have experienced little success on the pitch. Now their fans are trying to change all of that. Teodor Borisov charts the rise and fall of Bulgaria’s two football giants, Levski and CSKA.

In his famous book, Behind the Iron Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football, Jonathan Wilson titled the chapter on Bulgaria “Chaos Theory”. Bulgarian football functionaries have indeed amazed the world with many strange decisions through the decades. For instance, before the 1985-86 season, they decided not to award points for a 0:0 draw — a unique episode in world football history, described in the German football encyclopedia “Lexicon Fussball” as “bulgarisches modell (the Bulgarian model). In 1969, the team of railway workers, Lokomotiv Sofia, was united with their main rival in the capital, Slavia, as ZSK Slavia. The collaboration lasted just two years — opposing fans called the united team “the white ashes” (on account of Slavia‘s colours and the railway origins of Lokomotiv).

Despite these absurdities, the main show in Bulgarian football is the same as in other Balkan countries: in Serbia you have “Večiti derbi” (Crvena zvezda-Partizan), in Greece “Metera ton mahon (Olympiakos-Panathinaikos), in Turkey – “Kıtalararası Derbi” (Fenerbahce-Galatasaray), and in Romania – “Eternul Derbi (Steaua-Dinamo Bucharest). The Bulgarian derby, “Vechnoto derbi, is between Levski and CSKA Sofia. Both clubs won a total of 57 titles and 43 national cups and players of both sides are an essential part of the national team. CSKA has participated in three European semifinals, while Levski was the first Bulgarian team involved in the group stage of the Champions League. But for the last four years, these Bulgarian football giants have been in a deep crisis. The Bulgarian Supercup is the most recently acquired trophy on display in the club museums of both teams (Levski won it in 2009; CSKA in 2011). What are the reasons for this frustrating performance?85-1973-1

First, we have to explain the reason for their feud. In the world of football you have derbies fought on a variety of bases: religious (Celtic-Rangers in Scotland), regional (Napoli against clubs from North Italy), and social (Boca Juniors-River Plate in Argentina). During the years of communist dominance in Eastern Europe, the main antagonists were the army clubs of the interior ministries. The Soviet model of departmental clubs was prominent in all countries behind the Iron Curtain, with different variations. In Yugoslavia and Romania, the local football giants were created in the place of the traditional capital teams before the war. Partizan and Crvena zvezda replaced BSK and Yugoslavia respectively, while Dinamo Zagreb assumed the places of HAŠK Gradjanski and Concordia. The only surviving major team in Bucharest is Rapid, who were marginalized during the communist period.

The Bulgarian case is unique; the main capital clubs — Levski, Slavia, and ZSK (renamed to Lokomotiv) — all survived. They retained their fan base over the years until the emergence of the Central Sports Club of the Army (CSKA). This club was founded on 5 May 1948 after an agreement between Centralen dom na voiskata (CDV, Central House of the Troops) and Septemvri. Under the name Septemvri pri CDV, they won the championship title in the first year of its foundation to a final score of 4:3 against Levski. In the next two decades, the army’s team dominated the Bulgarian first division (A grupa) and won nine consecutive titles between 1954 and 1962. During this period, the Bulgarian National Football Team won the bronze medal in the 1956 Olympic games in Melbourne, with 11 players from CSKA on the list (most of them part of the starting line-up).

Such domination was typical all over Eastern Europe: CDKA (now CSKA) Moscow in the USSR, ASA (now Steaua) in Romania, Honved in Hungary, and Partizan in Yugoslavia had hegemony in their local football and national teams. The army teams had an advantage over other teams because they recruited the country’s best players from military service. In the first years after the war in Bulgaria, newly created Spartak Sofia was the team of the Interior Ministry. Claiming second place twice consecutively — in 1951 and 1952 (in the first case without defeat) — was the major success of their history, which is pretty unimpressive for a club of the leading ministry. At the same time, Levski (known as Dinamo between 1949 and 1957) was very far from posing a true threat to their rival, but enjoyed strong support from their fans. In the book In Absentia: Reports about Bulgaria, Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov, who was killed by a poisoned umbrella in London on 11 September 1978, described the situation well:

“Football was a well-hidden opportunity for every person to express their hatred for the regime. Having the power to do whatever they wanted, comrades created a team, CSKA, which was supposed to be a symbol of the invincibility of the party. This naturally pushed the mass of football spectators to Levski, which logically has become a symbol of old Bulgaria. The games between these two teams were real wars. Years later, the popularity of Levski was eradicated in the most harmless way — they made it the team of State Security”.

The view expressed by Markov, a big Levski fan, also explains the mentality of Blues supporters and their clashes with the police. The culmination of these tensions came during the funeral of Georgi Asparuhov and Nikola Kotkov — leading strikers of the club, who died in a car crash in 1971. A funeral procession was attended by 150,000 people (according to official documents), to the great disturbance of the authorities. Many Levski supporters were arrested in the coming days; some were even exiled from Sofia. Meanwhile, the footballers benefitted from their new club status. Levski was merged with Spartak Sofia in 1969 under the auspices of the interior ministry. Their name was changed to Levski-Spartak. The new status of the club improved the players’ material conditions, who each received different ranks within the Ministry of the Interior — just as their counterparts from CSKA had with the Ministry of Defense. In the coming decades, the rivalry between these two teams reached new heights. The pinnacle was the 1985 National Cup final: a controversial victory of 2:1 for CSKA, after a massive brawl between players during the second half. The fight can be seen below at 7:00-7:30:

The following day, the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party discussed the future of Levski-Spartak and CSKA. The final decision was published in the official party newspaper “Rabotnichesko delo” under the headline, “Let’s Eradicate Unacceptable Actions in Bulgarian Football”. The two clubs were effectively dissolved, losing their status as teams of the army and the Ministry of the Interior. Both were renamed: CSKA as CFKA Sredets and Levski-Spartak as Vitosha. CSKA were stripped of the Cup, and both clubs were disqualified from the league, meaning that Trakia Plovdiv (now Botev), who had finished third, were declared the champions. For “violations of the socialist morale and football hooliganism”, four Levski players — goalkeeper Borislav Michaylov, defenders Emil Velev and Plamen Nikolov, and striker Emil Spasov — along with CSKA’s Hristo Stoichkov (future Barcelona superstar, “Golden ball” winner for 1994, and top goal scorer in the 1994 World Cup in the US) were banned for life. Four other players received suspensions of three months to a year.

The decision was influenced by the Communist Party’s program from February of the same year, “For the Turning Point in the Development of Bulgarian Football”. Bulgaria’s two leading clubs were held responsible for the situation in national football, including corruption, match fixing, and illegal payments. Several months later, the players’ suspension was canceled so they could play with the national team in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Fans never chanted the new names of their favorite teams, continuing to shout for Levski and CSKA. The former names, which survived unofficially, were reinstated after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

CSKA's logo: "lions playing football".
CSKA’s logo: “lions playing football”.

In the first years of transition, Bulgarian football clubs found their new sponsors and presidents among newly-created business groups — many of them part of the Bulgarian mafia. On 1 June 1994, the owner of the Multigroup conglomerate, Iliya Pavlov, took over as president of CSKA. Club funds were secured by trading the famous trio (Hristo Stoichkov, Luyboslav Penev, and Emil Kostadinov) in Western Europe; but poor management led to the club winning just three titles between 1990 and 2000. Former president Valentin Mihov tried to change the name of the Central Sports Club of the Army to Central Sports Club Atlantic in an attempt to link the team with the application for Bulgarian membership in NATO. Their five-pointed star logo was changed to a symbol the fans call “lions playing volleyball”. Levski had its own problems with their name and club logo. In 1991, a notorious fan and the lawyer Zlatin Tepsiev registered Levski 1991, using the original Levski logo.

Levski 1914's logo: "the shovel".
Levski 1914’s logo: “the shovel”.

The new club didn’t receive a license for any competition from the Bulgarian Football Union and existed only on paper. Vitosha was renamed Levski 1914 and used a different logo between 1998 and 2000, known as “the shovel”.

Due to the financial setbacks that characterized the first decade after communism, a security and insurance company called VIS-2 became the main sponsor of the club in 1996. Just a year earlier, the founder of the company, Vasil Iliev, was assassinated in Sofia; he was succeeded by his brother, Georgi. Unfortunately for their fans, Levski didn’t win the championship with the support of their new sponsor, and wouldn’t until 2000.

That success was achieved with the help of Israeli entrepreneur and industrialist Michael Cherney, who owned a 20 percent stake in the club until 2009. He was also the owner of leading mobile operator and club sponsor Mobiltel. During this period, Levski was the team with the strongest financial backing in Bulgaria and won three titles in a row. Then in August 2000, the Bulgarian authorities denounced what they described as Cherney’s ties to foreign criminal rackets and expelled him from the country, denying him entry for 10 years. The new chairman of the club was the lawyer Todor Batkov, who continues to lead the club today.

A notorious gambling boss and one of the richest men in Bulgaria, Vassil Bozhkov, was president of CSKA between 1999 and 2006. Bozhkov is also the owner of the largest Bulgarian betting company, Evrofutbol — all subsequent favorable results of an improbable nature are likely explained by this fact. His successor was Indian businessman Pramod Mittal, the chairman of Ispat Industries Limited and co-owner of Global Steel Holding LTD, the world’s largest steel producer. Mittal’s arrival was directly linked to the acquisition of 71 percent of the Bulgarian steel company Kremikovtsi — one of the many giants of the socialist economy. His representative in Bulgaria is Aleksandar Tomov, vice prime minister in Dimitar Popov’s government, the first after the collapse of the communist system in 1989. Tomov also controls the club on Mittal’s behalf.

In June 2008, only days after CSKA won its 31st title, UEFA notified the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) that the club would not receive a license to participate in the UEFA Champions League due to unpaid obligations. The BFU then speculated that this could also result in CSKA not being able to take part in the domestic championship, effectively turning it into an amateur club. Attempts to arrange a settlement with UEFA proved unsuccessful, and CSKA lost its right to compete in the UEFA Champions League in favor of runners-up Levski Sofia. The person widely blamed for the crisis was Alexander Tomov, who resigned shortly thereafter and was subsequently arrested for embezzling millions of levs from CSKA and Kremikovtzi AD.

The period of his successor Titan Sport’s reign is known as “the dark years”. Controversial owners Dimitar Borisov and Ivo Ivanov changed coaches 11 times between 2008 and 2013 and essentially went to war with the fans. In Sektor “G”, the tribune with the most avid supporters, they were called “Pernik junk”, in reference to their hometown. The club almost went bankrupt in June 2013 due to their debts to players and various institutions, but was saved at the last minute by Tomov, who returned to the helm.

The situation over at Levski hasn’t been much better. The Blues have made 16 coaching changes since winning their last trophy in 2009. Levski lost the title in the last round of the 2012-13 season and finished fifth place in the year of their centenary. The chaos at the club became world famous after the unforgettable Kazan affair and the (literal) stripping of coach Ivaylo Petev. After the first half of the 2014-15 season, Levski is currently at sixth place, while their eternal rival is first with a three-point lead over Champions League participant Ludogorets.



The following can be identified as the main reasons for the current condition of Levski and CSKA:

1. After the fall of the communist regime, state support of these teams ceased to exist, requiring them to seek private funding. The inefficient management didn’t benefit either club, even during their financial boom periods (selling of Stoichkov, Penev, and Kostadinov from CSKA; and the participation in the Champions League for Levski).

2. The most successful business projects in Bulgarian football were created outside of the capital, where successful businessmen prefer to invest in teams with little impact on football history. There are two clear examples. Grisha Ganchev created Litex Lovech and won four titles, four cups and one Supercup before reorienting the club and developing their own academy. Kiril Domuschiev surpassed his success with three titles, two cups, two Supercups, participation in the Last 16 of the European League, and reaching the group stage of the Champions League only four years after his start in the then third division team. Both of them were associated with CSKA (Ganchev was a candidate for president, while Domuschiev was a part of club management), but each preferred their own project, out of the touch of media and fan pressures.

3. Just like Crvena zvezda’s Delije and Partizan’s Alkatraz, the fans of Levski and CSKA exert serious pressure on the club management and players alike. In 1998, after a loss of 0:8 to Litex, CSKA fans cut the bars of their own stadium. Three years later they raised a banner reading “Blacks out of CSKA” during a match against the same opponent. Levski’s supporters are almost anarchic; the club was again punished several times this season for the behavior of their fans. Groups like Sofia Zapad receive money from the club for their own stewards, but to many observers, this is just a “calm” tax meant to prevent action against the club itself. In this situation, it’s difficult for any club to fight for higher goals.

However, these same fans are the last hope of salvation for both teams. Levski’s supporters trust Blue Bulgaria, led by journalist Vassil Kolev. After the club’s last board meeting, the organization owns 15 percent of the team’s shares and has a secure place on the board. Meanwhile, CSKA fans have created CSKA shareholders. They implemented two successful campaigns as part of an ongoing project to collect donations for the team and the club academy. Such ambitions show that CSKA and Levski are much more than just football teams for Bulgarian fans who want to help them reascend to the heights of national football.

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Teodor Borisov

Teodor Borisov is a PhD candidate in Modern Bulgarian History at Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski" working on the topic of sports policy and propaganda in socialist Bulgaria. His main area of interest is the relationship between football and policy in Eastern Europe. He's also a reporter for the biggest Bulgarian sports daily, Meridian Match. You can follow him on Twitter: @teoborisov.