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High Life Set to Inspire Bulgaria's Chattering Classes

Date: 11.09.2006

by Amy Lawrence
The Observer

The sight of old women debating football tactics at the bus stop is not a common occurrence in Bulgaria. It has happened only once, after Yordan Lechkov's big bald head hammered his country into the 1994 World Cup semi-final. Suddenly the population as one was rapt with football. It felt blessed. As the state television commentator yelled at the time, 'God is Bulgarian!'
The footballing deities ignored Bulgaria for a good while afterwards. During the following decade there have been several false dawns, hints of reawakenings, but nothing close to inspiring bus-stop chatter. Now, however, even the sceptics are allowing themselves to admit that something is stirring.

The national team, managed by Hristo Stoichkov, the maestro of the 1994 side, have started their Euro 2008 qualification campaign buoyantly. They have a generation of technical, attacking players making an impact abroad in the shape of two of the Premiership's big signings, Tottenham's Dimitar Berbatov and Aston Villa's Stilian Petrov, plus Atletico Madrid's Martin Petrov and Juventus's starlet Valeri Bozhinov. Bulgaria also has a club in the Champions League for the first time. Levski Sofia have the most glamorous appointment in the calendar next week: where better to start than Barcelona at Camp Nou.

Levski Sofia are one of six clubs from eastern Europe in this season's competition. It is the largest contingent since the Champions League began its lucrative expanded format. The presence of two clubs from Moscow, two representatives from Ukraine and the leading lights from Romania and Bulgaria demonstrates how a part of Europe seemingly handicapped by the seeding system is building up a head of steam.

The money various millionaires from the region are eager to throw at football is beginning to have an effect. Look at the number of Brazilians who will represent eastern clubs in the Champions League. Shakhtar Donetsk have six on the payroll, Dynamo Kiev five, CSKA Moscow three and Spartak Moscow two. When CSKA Moscow stylishly won the Uefa Cup in 2005 - inspired by Brazilians Vagner Love and Daniel Carvalho - the question of whether a Russian club could land the big one became a serious one.

Everyone knows you can never have enough Brazilians. Even Levski Sofia have one. Defender Lucio Wagner is a naturalised Bulgarian and was part of the team that thumped Slovenia 3-0 last week.

Levski, like their historic rivals CSKA Sofia, are hardly newcomers to European football. In terms of the revenue, television contracts and prestige the Champions League brings, however, this is not a step to be sniffed at. 'We have written a new golden page in the history of Bulgarian football. We will need months to realise what he have achieved,' says Levski director, and another 1994 legend, Nasko Sirakov.

Stilian Petrov was equally glowing about Levski's achievement: 'We are all really proud of them.'

It is a fairy story of sorts, coming from a place two seasons ago when Levski were embarrassed by Beveren in the Uefa Cup. Subsequent hard work has paid off. 'Everybody at the club knows what to do - from the cleaner to the president. We have got the best coach in Bulgaria. We played 18 games in Europe before reaching the Champions League. Success does not come by accident,' adds Sirakov.

Levski have a young and mainly homegrown team without major stars. 'I don't think any player would get any Premiership team excited about signing them,' says John Inglis, a former St Johnstone and Aberdeen defender who went to play for Levski and enjoyed it so much he is married to a Bulgarian and has set up home there.

He has seen the football landscape change. 'Believe it or not, there was more money around when I played than now,' says Inglis. But the financing of the Bulgarian game is murkier now that clubs that used to be state-owned are run by individuals - and among them some of the richest men in the country.

In the late 1990s Russian businessman Michael Chernoy took over at Levski and the club were able to afford expensive signings.

In 2000 the then Bulgarian government refused Chernoy entrance to the country as he was considered a danger to national security. Last season the president of Lokomotiv Plovdiv, a man involved in the underworld of organised crime in the country, was murdered.

Regulating the game - and the money that goes through it - is no easy task for Borislav Mikhailov, goalkeeper of the 1994 golden generation and new president of Bulgaria's football federation. With the country due to join the European Union in January, Levski have the chance to generate some more positive PR. 'People think Levski are desperate to play in the Champions League to sell players and make money,' says journalist Danail Dimitrov. 'But it is also a big thing that people can see a Bulgarian team in the Champions League. The standard of our football is growing.'

A new era at last, then? Dimitrov smiles. 'We say that every time.'

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