Football in Bulgaria has been dominated by Ludogorets Razgrad for the last five years.  With its mixture of Bulgarian and Brazilians, it is now almost 10 years since either of the traditional Sofia giants ‘Levski’ or ‘CSKA’ have won the First League title. Thanks to the success of Ludogorets and another club Litex Lovech, the once Levski/CSKA Sofia led dominance of Bulgarian football would appear to have disappeared.

In the case of Slavia Sofia, a title drought goes even further back. It is now 1996 since Sofia’s oldest club last won a Bulgarian title.

Ironically, the success of Ludogorets has come thanks to a CSKA Sofia fan called Kiril Domuschiev.  Previously a member of the club board at CSKA he left due to disagreements with the management and club direction. He eventually relocated his investments to Razgrad in 2010.

Since then the club has qualified for the UEFA Champions League on a number of occasions and have won the title every year since 2012.

However, football in Sofia is clearly not without crisis.  Recent years have seen turmoil over the club identity at CSKA and Lokomotiv Sofia dissolved.  To add to the complexity the 2017-18 season will see CSKA, Levski and Slavia joined by another Sofia club – a reformed Septemvri Sofia who have won promotion to the First Professional League of Bulgaria.

The Beginnings

Football is said to have arrived in the Black Sea city of Varna in 1894. But it was not until Sofia emerged out of the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 that it took over as the centre of Bulgarian football. Slavia Sofia was formed in 1913 and Levski Sofia celebrated 100 years on 2014.

The national team were qualifiers for four consecutive World Cups between 1962 and 1974 but a Bulgarian international football side had been slow in arriving on the international scene.  It was 1923 before a national football association was formed and the Bulgarians only found a true place at the table of world football thanks to a football reorganisation driven by the Bulgarian communist regime.

During the 1960’s the national team had been virtually impossible to defeat in Sofia.  During the 1950’s the national team was led by CSKA players but by the 60’s a new breed of the player had emerged led by the inspirational Georgi Asparuhov.

The decline of the international team may have come as a result of the sudden death of Asparuhov.    Sofia’s major club sides then dominated in the 1980’s with CSKA Sofia taking several scalps in the old European Cup including Liverpool.

A new turning point in the national team’s fortunes came when qualification was won for the 1994 World Cup in the USA.  A golden generation of players including Yordan Letchkov, Nasko Sirakov, Penev, Krasimir Balakov, Hristo Stoichkov, Ilian Kiriakov and Trifon Ivanov managed to reach the semi-finals in the USA defeating Germany in a shock quarter-final win.

Sofia Clubs

Known by the ancient name of Serdica, Sofia was an important route on the road between Istanbul and Belgrade. Invaded by the Romans in AD 29 and sacked by the Huns in 447, Bulgaria was under the Ottoman rule for five centuries.

During the Second World War, the capital of Bulgaria was significantly damaged and peace saw the arrival of a communist regime.

The capital Sofia’s landmarks reflect more than 2,000 years of history cutting across Greek, Roman, Ottoman and more recently communist Soviet-style administrations.   Today, modernity sits side by side with a complex array of architectural styles.  In Sofia it is possible to see minarets, synagogues, imposing mosques and Stalinist type high-rise buildings within a few miles of the city centre.  There are former Roman baths, Orthodox churches and Banyabashi Mosques in close proximity to the main tourist sites.

The Communist era from 1944 onwards saw the arrival of five year plans with agriculture and industrial production put under state control.  Likewise, sports were also controlled by the state and soon Soviet ornamentation decorated everything from government buildings to the football stadiums.

These days the Bulgarian capital is a typically modern Balkan capital. At first glance, the city appears similar in style, shape and infrastructure to Kiev and the Serbian capital of Belgrade.

Its most distinctive landmark is the tall Vitosha Mountain where it is possible to see snow covered peaks even during the summer months.  This is a city full of parks, fountains and a mixture of architectural styles that hint to a complex past.

State socialism had an enormous influence on the actual composition of Bulgarian football clubs.   The most remarkable transformation was at the army club CSKA that formed in 1948.  Army influence turned CSKA into national champions.   Today the club have more titles than any other club with 31 titles written into the club history.

While the other members of the big four in Sofia were all active and enjoying success pre WW2 – Levski formed in 1914, Slavia in 1913 and Lokomotiv in 1929 – CSKA embraced in the communist era as the 1960’s developed.

The city is an interesting mix of styles but the main football landmarks are dominated by memories of the 20th century.   CSKA Sofia’s Bulgarian Army Stadium sits in a public park laid out to commemorate Sofia’s liberation from Turks.

However, CSKA did not get everything its own way during the communist era.  In 1985 the rivalry between CSKA and Levski reached a low when the Bulgarian Cup Final erupted into a riot.  The game had run on high emotions fuelled by the streak of consecutive victories of Levski Sofia over CSKA. Controversial decisions of the match referee Ahmed Yasharov led to confrontations on the field between the players.

Shortly after, following a decree by the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, some of the leading players including Hristo Stoichkov were suspended from football for life. In addition, both teams were reformed under new names with CSKA becoming Sredets and Levski renamed Vitosha Sofia.

PFC Levski Sofia is traditionally a more popular club than CSKA if only for the fact that they predate CSKA as a club by 30 years and are named after the national hero Vasil Levski.   Never especially potent in Europe (the club have appeared in the UEFA Champions League), Levski’s best European campaigns took them to the Quarter-Finals of the Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup on four occasions between 1970 and 1987.

Like at CSKA Sofia club name changes have been the norm as have mergers.  Spartak Sofia and Sportist Sofia were swallowed up and the club survived its period as ‘Vitosha’ to revert to its original name Levski in 1990.

The club play at the Georgi Asparuhov Stadium a ground named after its greatest ever player although larger derby matches against CSKA are played at the national stadium.  A huge image of the player now adorns the outer façade of the new Sector A stand.  Unlike the cracked walls, racist graffiti and dusty bars that are part of the Army Stadium things are a little different at Levski Sofia. There are more plans to redevelop the stadium into a modern arena.

Slavia Sofia is the oldest Sofia club still in existence having been founded in 1913.  Located in Ovcha Kupel in the east of the city this was Sofia’s leading club before the arrival of communists and the reorganisation of the sport.  However, Sofia found it tough to challenge the communist era hegemony of CSKA and Levski. The arrival of Ludogorets Razgrad and Litex Lovech on the scene has pushed Slavia further down the ladder of prestige.

In best Sofia traditions Slavia has also seen mergers. As a result of the 1969 reorganisation of sport, the club was forced into a merger with Lokomotiv Sofia to create GKS Sofia.  But this new club did not last long and the merger was reversed after only two seasons.  Lokomotiv did live to tell the tale however the club was dissolved in 2015.  A new Lokomotiv club with the same name has emerged although they now play outside the Bulgarian top division.

Like in most of the post-Soviet block communist facades and Soviet-style team names remain.  Only ‘Spartak’ appears to have disappeared from the list of current Bulgarian team names. While many of the grounds have been redeveloped and shaped over the years some (including the national Vasil Levski Stadium) owe exteriors to Soviet-inspired designs and ideology.  The grandiose entrance to the Levski Stadium is one fit for the communist committee members who could view football while looking out to the snow capped Mountains in the distance.

It would seem that virtually every Bulgarian club and domestic football competition has been through multiple name changes over the decades.  In some cases, clubs have disappeared as quickly as they emerged only to reemerge under new complex legal ownership.  Litex Lovech (championship winners as recently as 2011) were expelled from the league and now find themselves in the third tier.

Over the decade between 2003 and 2013, a number of football club presidents or previous owners of the Bulgarian top league clubs have been killed, murdered or implicated in corruption.   Some sources state that since the end of communism allegations of illegal gambling, racism, match fixing, money laundering and tax evasion abound in Bulgarian football.  Some clubs have become a symbol of organised crime’s corrupt influence on important sporting institutions.

In the case of racism the Bulgarian league witnesses some of the worst instances of racial abuse in European football.  It is not unusual for players of African origin to be abused by fans during games.

Despite all the problems Ludogorets continue to challenge each season for a UEFA Champions League group place. Meanwhile, the national team are still hopeful of a place at the 2018 World Cup finals being held in Russia.

See original images from Sofia here