BY CRAIG STEPHEN
One spring Monday morning, Lokomotiv Plovdiv president, Alexander Tasev, like most football bosses around Europe, sat in his expensive car about to head off to work. Seconds later he was shot dead by someone in a passing car, two bullets piercing his head.
Since that day in May 2007, at least 12 more football bosses have been killed in the Balkan country. Tasev was the third Lokomotiv president to be killed in just two years.
Bulgaria has become the football murder capital of the world. The cause of this outbreak of violence is related to widespread corruption and gang influence in the game. So it is no surprise to learn that Bulgarian football has suffered the kind of decline that any country would be ashamed of.
The 1994 semi-finalists haven’t qualified for the World Cup since 1998, and last appeared in the European Championships in 2004.
Few nations have had a player to better Hristo Stoichkov, one of the game’s true superstars; nor anyone, in the last two decades, of the quality of Krasimir Balakov, Yordan Lechkov, Dimitar Berbatov, Lubo Penev or Stiliyan Petrov.
A BBC Radio 4 investigation found that Bulgarian football is riddled with corruption, with mafia-led match-fixing and money-laundering.
One international U-21 player told how he was beaten without warning by two men who said nothing to him. The next day the penny dropped when he was offered 20,000 euros to throw an international match. He refused.
A cable from the American embassy in Sofia and posted on WikiLeaks provides some further insights to how invasive crime now is in the national sport.
"Bulgarian soccer clubs are widely believed to be directly or indirectly controlled by organised crime figures who use their teams as a way to legitimise themselves, launder money, or make a fast buck," the communication said.
An alleged arms dealer, a proxy to a notorious Russian businessman, and crime bosses were among the team owners listed in the communication.
Action has been limited, if non-existent but in February this year, the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) outlined an education strategy that would see 32 workshops per season covering referees, BFU officials and all football players from the top two leagues.
“We all know how important it is to have such an educational strategy in place, because we have to bring integrity issues into sharp focus for the players, coaches, referees and all the relevant football stakeholders. Needless to say, we have to clearly outline the grave consequences of taking part in the manipulation of match results and events,” said one top official.
While the move is encouraging, removing corrupt owners and actively stopping match-fixing and other nefarious activities would require making people accountable. Something that this endeavour, as well-meaning as it is, doesn’t appear to be willing to tackle.
Not surprisingly, attendances have fallen with reports of little more than dozens at some top-flight games.
Suspicions are rife that the current top side, Ludogorets Razgrad, are the establishment’s favourite team, just like the army teams throughout eastern Europe were under communism. While the once-dominant duo of CSKA and Levski Sofia now struggle in Europe, Ludogorets have reached the group stages of the Champions League twice in the past five seasons and beat Lazio in 2014 to reach the last 16 of the Europa League.
Once, those two Sofia clubs held a Glasgow-style hegemony, winning, so far, 57 league titles and 43 national cups between them and providing the heart of the national team. CSKA has participated in three European semi-finals, while Levski was the first Bulgarian team to reach the group stage of the Champions League. But they’ve both had to watch on as Ludogorets, with its array of foreign players, have won the past seven league titles.
Like most post-Warsaw pact countries, the fall of socialism and the patronage of certain clubs, and the establishment of teams outside the capital run by ambitious, local businessmen have usurped the natural order.
World Cup regulars
Bulgaria has a proud record in international competition and for decades punched above its weight, enjoying success relative to other medium-sized countries such as Sweden.
A Bulgarian national team was established in 1922, and after a crushing 6-0 drubbing by Austria, the national federation brought in some Austrian coaches and in the 1930s looked to Hungary to bring some of the silky skills of that nation to the southern Balkans. Like many European teams they declined an invitation to compete in the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay.
The 1960s and 70s were a golden period for Bulgarian football, with four successive appearances in the World Cup beginning in 1962 in Chile, where, after defeats to Argentina and Hungary, the Bulgarians held England to a scoreless draw.
It was, The Times reported, a feeble, insipid match, in which "...England lapsed into their old faults – inaccurate passing and, finally, aimless running with the ball.” Regardless, England qualified for the knockout stages on goal difference.
Bulgaria qualified for England in 1966 but were paired with Brazil, Portugal and Hungary, inevitably losing all three matches.
The 1970 extravaganza in Mexico – two years after the ostensibly amateur squad had gained silver in the Olympic Games – gave Bulgaria its best chance of progressing with West Germany, Peru and Morocco in their group. In a famously sizzling World Cup, full of magnificent matches, Bulgaria played a small part in this extravaganza of football, by opening up a 2-0 lead against Peru in their opening match, before three quick-fire goals shocked the Bulgarians, and scuppered their hopes.
The West German festival of 1974 saw Bulgaria give themselves a glimpse of qualification to the next round for the first time, following a scoreless draw against Sweden and a 1-1 stalemate with Uruguay, but defeat to the Netherlands consigned them to another early exit.
A similar cycle followed in 1986 in a return to Mexico: score draws against Italy and South Korea was followed by defeat to Argentina.
But then came 1994 and one of the unheralded success stories in the competition’s fabled history. Qualification for the United States came in the infamous match in Paris, when the French were victims of sloppiness, allowing Emil Kostadinov to score twice for a comeback win. Even now the French ask the question: why did David Ginola loop a hopeful ball towards the box in injury time when he should have been running the clock down? Dispossession led to the counter-attack that resulted in the unlikely late winner.
Having failed to win a game, never mind qualify in five previous finals, Groundhog Day was replayed with a 3-0 defeat to Nigeria. The 32-year rot was reversed by a 4-0 win over a poor Greece side and then an extraordinary 2-0 win over Argentina to secure a tie against Mexico in the last 16. After a 1-1 draw after extra time, the eastern Europeans progressed in a penalty shoot-out.
Facing Germany, there was no doubt about who the favourites were. But the reigning champions were facing a team full of talented misfits: Stoichkov, a brilliant player but a moody sort with a short fuse; Letchkov, a 27-year old who was bald save for a tiny tuft of hair and said to be ‘difficult’; Trifan Ivanov, who sported a wild mane, beard, monobrow and sunken eyes; wig-wearing keeper Borislav Mikhailov; and Ilian Kiriakov a 5’5” ginger-haired right-back.
Letchkov conceded an early penalty – though, of course, Kilsmannn fell down at the slightest touch – and it looked like curtains for the Bulgarians. Voller scored but the goal was ruled offside.
And then something extraordinary happened. First, Stoichkov scored a stunning free-kick from 30 yards.
The Bulgarians were then awarded another free-kick. Zlatko Yankov spotted the diminutive Thomas Haessler marking the towering Letchkov alone. The striker rose to meet the ball and headed it past the despairing grasp of Bodo Illgner.
Afterwards, Stoichkov described it as an easy win.
This would be the high point. Italy won 2-1 in the semi-final and the Bulgarians were aggrieved at some of referee Joel Quiniou’s decisions, which could have taken the tie to extra time. The Bulgarians were quick to point out that Quiniou was French.
"I don't think it was a mere coincidence that this referee was chosen," a bitter Stoichkov said later. He had the consolation of taking home the Golden Boot with six goals.
Despite beating Romania, they couldn’t progress from the group in their first European Championships, in England, and endured more misery in the 1998 World Cup, their draw against Paraguay being the only point gained.
That 6-1 hammering by Spain is Bulgaria’s last game in a World Cup finals; and most Bulgarians would rather forget their qualification to the 2004 Euros, where they were beaten by Sweden, Denmark and Italy.
After finishing fifth in their group for the 2012 Euros, Bulgaria slumped to 96th in the FIFA rankings.
Under coach Lubo Penev there were signs of a revival: beating the Netherlands in Amsterdam, to be in contention for the 2014 World Cup. But they lost three of their final four games, including a humiliating reverse to Armenia.
And on it goes with some surprise successes (victories over Holland and Sweden in the battle for Russia ’18) offset by shockers (drawing with Luxembourg).
Nevertheless, they have made an encouraging start to the Nations’ Cup, beating both Slovenia and Norway in their two games so far and are ranked 44th by FIFA.
The current squad is bereft of any stars playing for the likes of Barcelona, and is dominated by those from CSKA, Levski, Lokomotiv and other domestic sides, with a smattering of players signed to Serie B clubs and others scattered around the continent from Azerbaijan to Denmark.
Among the national side’s core are captain Ivelin Popov, who has 76 caps, and plays for Spartak Moscow. Centre-back Nikolay Bodurov played 41 times between 2014 and 2016 for Fulham before being offloaded; right-back Stanislav Manolev was also at Fulham, albeit briefly and on loan, but is more familiar for a five-year spell with PSV Eindhoven and for his starring roles with Kuban Krasnodar. Alexander Tonev had a disappointing spell with Aston Villa and a disastrous loan spell with Celtic after being spotted playing at Lech Poznan.