New Kids on The Eastern Block
Ludogorets – Remember the name
These last couple of years a few clubs has seen the emergence of clubs from unfashionable parts of Europe, to start to shake things about.
BATE Borisov from Belarus and APOEL Nicosia from Cyprus, are just two examples of clubs who have exceeded expectations. Could the next one be PFC Ludogorets from Razgrad in Bulgaria?
The club emerged from the ashes of Ludogorets who went bust in 2006. They’d only ever managed to compete in Bulgaria’s top division on a couple of occasions since they were formed in 1945. After the club was dissolved, the new club, PFC Ludogorets was installed in the Third tier of Bulgarian football, V Amateur Football Group (VAFG).
They took four years to get out of that division, but in 2010 a 2nd place finish meant they progressed to the B Professional Football Group (BPFG), Bulgaria’s 2nd Division. Rather than take their time to find their feet, Ludogorets won the division by 8pts. So now they were in Bulgaria’s Premier League, known as A Professional Football Group (APFG).
Bulgaria’s top division has been going for 88 years. 57 of those years, the title has been won by either CSKA Sofia (31) or Levski Sofia (26). With Slavia Sofia also winning 7 titles and Lokomotiv Sofia, 4, clubs from Sofia have won 68 of the 88 league titles. In the 10 seasons between 2000 and 2009, CSKA and Levski won every title between them, bar one when Lokomotiv Plovdiv won in 2004.
But things are changing in Bulgarian football. It is now 3 years since a club from Sofia won the league championship, Levski in 2009. CSKA last won the title in 2008. The new kids on the block has been Litex Lovech. Lovech is a town in north-central Bulgaria with a population of just over 36,000. They won back-to-back titles in 1998 and 1999, but then the Sofia giants took over.
Razgrad is a city in North East Bulgaria, in an industrial centre, about 300km from Sofia. For some leagues around Europe, any club from outside the capital city, would find it virtually impossible to break the stranglehold of the big clubs. But Ludogorets and Litex seem to be giving it a good go.
In October 2010 a businessman, Kiril Domushiev bought the club with just one aim, which was to take them into the top division of Bulgarian football. By May 2011 they had achieved that goal at their first attempt. But it is what has happened since that has grabbed the headlines.
As things stand at the halfway stage of the season, Ludogorest sit 3pts clear at the top of the table. They’re clear of three clubs, including Levski and CSKA. Litex are back in 5th place, 8pts off the pace. Ludogorets has lost just 1 match in the 16 they have played so far.
Ludogorets are coached by Ivaylo Petev, who won league championship medals with Litex in 1998 and 1999. Petev has begun to build on last season’s success with players such as French defender, Alexandre Barthe, from Litex, centre-back Lubomir Guldan and experienced midfield player, Stanislav Genchev. He has also signed Emil Gargorov, formerly a star at CSKA. These players have fitted in straight away alongside the South American talent that helped them win promotion last season. In a squad of 24 players, only 11 are from Bulgaria. Brazilians, Guilerme Choco, Marcelinho Nascimento da Costa and Juninho Quixada play alongside three Slovakians, including Guldan. Bulgarian striker, Ivan Stoyanov is also in the team. He is the nephew of former Bulgarian international Yordan Letchkov, who was key member of the Bulgarian side that reached the Semi-Finals of USA ’94.
Ludogorets first match of the season was at home to Lokomotiv Plovdiv, who’d finished 5th last season and just missed out on a place in the Europa League on goal difference. The game ended in a 0-0 draw, and many would’ve thought Ludogorets had done well to gain a point in their first match in the big time. They went onto win the next 8! This run of games included a 6-0 thrashing of Slavia Sofia, with Gargorov getting a hat-trick. People really started to take notice when, in September, they took on Levski Sofia and goals from Ivanov and Gargorov gave them a 2-1 win.
This run came to an end when they travelled to Lovech to meet the champions. Goals from Yanev and Milanov had the home side 2-0 up in 21 minutes. Marcelinho then got a goal back for Ludogorets with his 4th of the season. But the visitors couldn’t get the equaliser and Litex were satsifed they’d put the ‘young pups’ in their place.
Rather than knock them off their perch, that result seemed to strengthen Ludogorets resolve. They were unbeaten in their next 4 matches, although they dropped 4pts during that period, but that was to teams in 2nd and 3rd place. Whereas Litex have since lost to Lokomotiv Plovdiv and CSKA Sofia.
Bulgarian football is now back after its winter break and the chase is on to catch Ludogorets. Of the 4 clubs immediately below them, only CSKA have already visited the Ludogorets Arena, and as Ludogorets are unbeaten at home, they would feel confident of holding off the challenge.
Whether Ludogorets has the ability to replicate APOEL or BATE remains to be seen, but it is another example of opportunities opening up parts of Europe once considered remote, in football terms.