The money-fuelled rise of PFC Ludogorets Razgrad.

It’s probably an incontrovertible truism that, in modern football, money talks. Some may argue that rather than talk, money actually screams out in uncontrolled profanity, but whatever your viewpoint on that, there’s little doubt that within the modern game, success and money tend to go hand in hand.

In England, Roman Abramovich became the first mega-money arrival to shake up the Ancien Régime when, as David Dein put it, he “parked his Russian tanks on our lawn…firing £50 notes at us.” This was then advanced another notch or three when Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan took control of Manchester City. In France the largesse of Qatar Sports Investments has endowed PSG with the money to dominate the domestic game merely as a prelude to chasing that elusive Champions League trophy. In Spain, the income of Real Madrid and Barcelona dwarfs all other clubs in the country and in Italy, via the EXOR organisation, the Agnelli family‎ fund Juventus, whilst Berlusconi fed the Rossoneri and after Massimo Moratti passed on the baton, Zhang Jindong’s Suning Commerce Group took over control of the Nerazzurri from Eric Tohir.

There are surely many more examples. It is not however only in Western Europe that money has bulldozed its way into the ‘beautiful game.’ Across the old Soviet-controlled east, big money is making its presence felt, and the Bulgarian club, PFC Ludogorets Razgrad, more popularly known as ‘Ludogorets’ is a good example. Razgrad is a town situated in the northeast Bulgaria, in the region known as Ludogrie, which refers to the wild forests around the area and is the home where Ludogrets were formed in 2001.

At the time, another club existed in the town called Razgrad 2000 but, wracked with debt and lack of facilities, it eventually succumbed to the inevitable financial collapse in 2006, leaving Ludogrets as the town’s only major sports club. Although, at that stage of its development, calling it a ‘major’ club was probably something of an exaggeration. For the first seven or eight seasons of its existence, Ludogrets pottered around the lower reaches of the Bulgarian league structure, barely causing a ripple. All that would change though after the club achieved promotion to the second tier B Group after the 2009-10 season, when they finished as runners-up in the V Group section. Their progress attracted the attention of Bulgarian entrepreneur Kiril Domuschiev.

At the time, Domuschiev was a forty-year-old multimillionaire, whose path to riches had begun when he organised a privatisation fund called ‘Napredak Holding AD’ as a vehicle to buy up shares in a number of companies, taking advantage of the newly liberated commercial environment following the collapse of the communist system. Building on his success, by 2013, he had an estimated wealth totalling over half a billion dollars. It was certainly enough money to make a difference to a newly promoted second tier Bulgarian football club. Domuschiev acquired Ludogrets and set it on a steep upward curve of achievement.

One of the first moves was to appoint 35-year-old Ivaylo Petev as head coach in May 2011. The former midfielder had served very briefly as player-manager of Lyubimets, but the offer from Domuschiev was clearly too good to ignore and was an astute move by the new club owner.

The first season under new ownership with Petev in charge and new signings pointing the way forward, Ludogrets secured promotion to A Group, the top tier of Bulgarian domestic football, for the first time in the club’s history. The season was hardly a canter though and across the 24-game programme, they won half of their games, drawing eight, but only suffering four defeats. That the team would need serious rebuilding if it was to be anything like competitive in the top league was illustrated by the fact that they only scored 38 goals, averaging slightly more than 1.5 per game. Fortunately for the club, the man in charge had the financial muscle and the willingness to address the shortcomings. The B Group league title would be followed six consecutive championships in the top tier. Ludogrets were about to take control of domestic Bulgarian football.

In the two seasons previous to Ludogrets taking their bow in Group A, the championship had been won by Litex Lovech. With a team built on a scroogle-like defence, the 2010-11 title was secured by three clear points from Levski Sofia. Ironically coached by former Bulgarian international striker Lyuboslav Penev, the Levski defence conceded a mere 13 goals across a 30-game league season, meaning that they only lost a single match in the entire campaign, topping the table from game week 11 to the end of the season.

Taking careful note of how two successive league titles had been built on a solid defence, Domuschiev would not only follow the old maxim of building his team from the back, he would also raid the reigning champions for players. Ther Yugoslav goalkeeper, Uroš Golubović, who had been the Litex custodian for both of their championship seasons was signed and Ludogrets also secured the services of the Litex French centre back, Alexandre Barthe, both on two-year contracts. To compliment the Frenchjman at the heart of the Ludogrets defence, Domuschiev also signed Ľubomír Guldan from Žilina. The two would form a hugely effective partnership as the promoted team took the top tier by overwhelming force.

Other stars would also join the party. Central midfielder Stanislav Genchev would arrive from Vaslui, and he would be joined in the team’s engine room by Svetoslav Dyakov, secured on a free transfer from Lokomotiv Sofia. Despite the lack of fee, Dyakov was an outstanding capture and enjoyed a hugely successful first season at the club. Although only initially secured on a two-year contract in June 2011, he remains with the club at the time of writing.

With the defence and midfield strengthened, there was little chance that Domuschiev would forsake the forward line, and three major signings were brought in. Attacking midfielder Emil Gargorov was signed from CSKA Sofia. He would go on to win just short of a half-century of caps for Bulgaria, netting 19 goals. Marcelinho, the 27-year-old Brazilian attacking midfielder was brought to the club from Portuguese side Bragantino, on an initial three-year deal. To the end of the 2016-17 season, the South American had played 185 league games for the club, scoring 62 goals, and remains an important member of the squad at the time writing. Finally, forward, Ivan Stoyanov completed the package of new arrivals, joining from Alania Vladikavkaz. In just over two years with Ludogrets, he would play 65 games for the club scoring 25 times, before a decreasing amount of first team action saw him move on to CSKA Sofia. Now replete with the new signings, Ludogrets were ready for the new season.

With new goalkeeper Golubović between the sticks, guarded by Barthe and Guldan. Ludogrets took on the air of invulnerability previously held by Litex Lovech, who plummeted down the table, finishing in fifth spot and, without the two players sold to the upcoming Ludogrets, conceding more than double the amount of goals as in the previous term. The loss of their goalkeeper and star defender was a serious blow to Litex and the steady decline from back-to-back champions would be completed at the end of the 2015-16 season, when the club were relegated to B Group. As Litex withered though, Ludogrets flourished. The two players acquired from the ex-champions were not the only successes amongst the newcomers.

Marcelinho scored his first meaningful goal for the club on 20 August as Ludogrets thumped Vidima-Rakovski 4-0. There would be many more to follow from the Brazilian. Stoyanov took his first team bow on 11 September during the comprehensive 6-0 victory over Slavia Sofia and a couple of weeks later netted the last-minute goal against Botev Vratsa that took Ludogrets to the top of the A Group table. It was the first time in their history that they had sat atop the domestic league structure, in their first year in the top tier. The club was on a rapid rise. In late November, it was another late goal from Stoyanov – this time against his former team CSKA Sofia, whom he would rejoin a couple of years later – that secured a 2-2 draw and meant that Ludogrets were in top spot at the end of the first half of the season. Even accounting for Domuschiev’s spending, it was a magnificent achievement and painted a road map for further success.

As the season progressed it became clear that this was no flash in the pan sort of display from the newly promoted club. Results continued to run their way, in the domestic cup competition as well as the league, and as the season drew towards its climax, and aspirations grew, what had been merely hopes, took on a sense of reality. A ‘double’ was even on the cards.

As winter turned to early spring, Ludogrets had suffered a slump, losing three games in a run of poor form. With a big away game coming up against Levski Sofia, it looked like the upstart team had been found out. Lose again and chances of the league title would be slipping through their fingers. In a tight game though, Stoyanov netted the only goal of the game to put the club’s aspirations back on the straight and narrow. On the day following All Fools Day, Ludogrets had passed a big test.

It was a title race that would go down to the wire though. The final fixture of the season pitted Ludogrets against CSKA Sofia. It was, in effect, a head-to-head game for the championship, with Ludogrets trailing the club from the capital by two points, but a 1-0 victory – ironically secured with a goal from former CSKA midfielder Miroslav Ivanov – saw them over the line. Stoyanov would go on to finish as the league’s joint top marksman, alongside Júnior Moraes of CSKA Sofia.

The Bulgarian Cup Final was played out on 16 May 2012, with Ludogrets facing Lokomotiv Plovdiv. With their pursuit of the league crown still in the balance, Ludogrets seemed strangely out of sorts for much of the game and entering the final phase, Lokomotiv were ahead thanks to an early goal by their Brazilian player, Dakson. Eventually though it was Ludogrets’ own South American who would be the match winner, netting a rapid brace atger 72 and 79 minutes to hand Kiril Domuschiev the first silverware dividend on his investment. Three days later, Dyakov scored his first goal for the club, with a penalty, during a 4-0 victory over Kaliakra Kavarna. It was a result that would set up the last day drama fin the race for the title when Ludogrets secured the ‘double,’ winning the league by a point from CSKA Sofia.

In their first season in A Group, the newly promoted team had bustled their way through the pack to finish top of the pile with a domestic double. Being the New Kids on the Block, and ripping through a league is one thing of course, but to truly establish yourself as the top club in the country, repeat performances are required. Could Ludogrets prove that their success was not merely a one season wonder?

Ahead of the new term, the signs were positive that they could repeat the trick when they lifted the Bulgarian Super Cup, defeating Lokomotiv Plovdiv 3-1, with Marcelinho again on the scoresheet. It was a sign of things to come. Just seven days later, taking their bow in the continental competition, he scored his first-ever Champions League goal, opening the scoring in a 1–1 home draw against Dinamo Zagreb in their 2nd Qualifying Round first leg tie. It would turn out to be a heart-breaking tie for the Bulgarian club though, when after seemingly on the brink of qualification, a penalty, eight minutes into injury time saw them eliminated. If they had dominated in domestic competition, anything resembling success in Europe was still a sway off.

On 18 November 2012, Genchev scored two of his season’s tally of five goals against Levski Sofia to send Ludogrets top of the pile again. They would see out the remainder of the season in top spot, again pushing CSKSA Sofia down to second by as single point. As with the previous season however, it would be a championship only secured on the last day of competition.

Although defending champions Ludogrets would go into the season’s fianle with the title very much up for grabs. They would be up against already-relegated Montana in a game they would be fully expected to win, but to swing things in their favour, they would also need rivals Levski Sofia not to match the victory if they were to lift the title. Playing local rivals Slavia Sofia, Levski were a goal ahead and on course to win the league, but an own goal squared the scores and Ludogrets retained the title. With the second successive league title in the bag – the fourth in a row for both Golubović and Barthe – the present was secured, and the future promised more of the same. In early 2013, clearly encouraged by the success of the club, plus of course the financial rewards it brought, Barthe had signed a new contract keeping him at the club until 2015.

The new season suggested a different challenge though. A restructuring of the format of the league would mean that Ludogrets would need to overcome a new set of challenges to maintain their position as the country’s top club. The existing – straightforward league programme – had been in force since the 2001-02 season, but moving forward, this would be replaced by a system fairly widely used across East European countries, and similar to the one in force in Scotland. The league would be cut to 14 teams, with each club playing home and away against the remainder for the initial 26 games. This would constitute the First Phase of the championship. The table would then be split into the top seven clubs who would play each other again, home and away, to decide the title in the Championship Group, and the lower seven who would follow a similar format to decide the relegation issue.

Ahead of the new season, Svetoslav Dyakov, who despite arriving at the club on a free transfer had become an integral part of the team, was appointed captain of Ludogrets. Now with back-to-back titles safely stored in their compact Ludogorets Arena, there was another opportunity for the club to venture into Europe. On 24 July, 2013, Stoyanov, in his last term with the club, opened the scoring in a 2nd Qualifying Round of the Champions League game at home to Slovan Bratislava. Ludogrets were already trailing from the first league in Slovakia when, despite a goal from Finnish centre-back Tero Mäntylä, giving them an away goal and the lead, two late goals – the first after 87 minutes and the second, a penalty, three minutes into injury time – by Juraj Halenár gave the Slovaks something to defend in Bulgaria. After Stoyanov’s opener though, Spanish winger Dani Abalo, a recent addition to the squad netted twice to make the tie safe for Ludogrets and progress them to the 3rd Qualifying Round.

Kiril Domuschiev was not the most patient man in the world though and despite progress being gained, he deemed it time to change the coach if more progress was to be assured. Ludogrets had lost their opening game of the domestic season 0-1 to Lyubimets. On the back of the performance against Slovan, Petev was removed from his position and replaced by former Bulgaria international forward, Stoycho Stoev.

A week later they faced Partizan Belgrade for a place in the Play-Off Round for the group stages of the Champions League. Playing at home in the first leg, they conceded be an all-important away goal when Saša Marković put the Serbian club ahead. Goals from Marcelinho and Mihail Aleksandrov gave Ludogrets a win, but in the return leg, a single goal victory would see Partizan progress. A well-marshalled defensive display though, capped by a penalty from another new signing, Hristo Zlatinski, after 88 minutes saw Ludogrets come through a difficult test and were now a single tie away from being in the Champions League Group Stage. A difficult draw pitted them against Swiss champions Basle and despite an early goal from Stoyanov giving them a lead in the first leg, defeats both home and away saw them drop into the Europa League instead.

Although to the elite clubs in Europe, the Europa League is often taken as something less than worthy of full effort, for Ludogrets, this was just a continuation of their European education. They were placed into Group B alongside Chornomorets Odesa, PSV Eindhoven and Dinamo Zagreb. For a team still wet behind the ears in European terms, it was anything but a ‘gimme’ group, but Ludogrets skated through it with flying colours, the only game they Filed to win was a 0-0 draw away to the Ukrainians.

In the first knockout round they were given their sternest European test to date when paired with Italian club, Lazio. In February 2014 though they travelled to Rome’s Stadio Olimpico and returned with an impressive 0-1 victory thanks to a goal by Yugoslav striker Roman Bezjak, who had joined in 2012. Back in Bulgaria, Lazio struck twice to apparently take control of the tie with goals from Keita in the first minute and Perea, ten minutes after the break. With 20 minutes remaining though, Ludogrets had demonstrated their fighting spirit, squaring the game with goals from Bezjak and Zlatinski. With just eight minutes left German striker, Miroslav Klose, seemed to have swung the tie decisively in the Italian club’s favour when he scored their third goal, but with two minutes remaining on the clock, Brazilian forward Juninho Quixadá, scored the equaliser to send Ludogrets into the last 16 of the competition. Unfortunately, in the next round, Spanish club Valencia were too strong and they were eliminated after losing both home and away. A further concern was an injury to Barthe sustained in the game against the Spaniards, but although he was tow miss two months of action, he was able to return to the fray as the domestic season reached its climax.

Back in domestic matters, things were moving along nicely. On 19 December, Marcelinho was named as the best foreign player in the Bulgarian league and Dyakov’s outstanding performances were rewarded with the title of best midfield player. In the league, Ludogrets had finished top of the pile in the First Phase, a point clear from an apparently – but only briefly – revitalised Litex Lovech, but they cantered clear in the Championship Group, without losing a single game, and winning the title by eight clear points for their third championship in a row. Another double was also secured by lifting the Bulgarian cup.

If Stoycho Stoev thought that such domestic dominance would secure his position however, he had reckoned without the attitude of an owner who apparently now considered such things as less than a basic staple requirement, hardly worthy of any particular credit to the coach.

In the Champions League 2nd Round Qualifying game, things looked bright for the coach as a 5-1 aggregate victory over Luxembourg’s F91 Dudelange suggested another decent run at the getting to the Group stage may be on the cards.

In the 3rd Qualifying round though, a 0-0 draw at home against Partizan Belgrade suggested an abrupt end, and Domuschiev wearied of Stoev, removing him and promoting Georgi Dermendzhiev, who had worked with both Petev and Stoev as an assistant. Although such apparent knee-jerk sackings often solve little, on this occasion Domuschiev’s decision would prove to be warranted.

Travelling to Belgrade for the return the following week, a brace by Marcelinho inside the first 20 minutes put Ludogrets two goals clear. It meant that Partizan would now need to score three times to qualify.  Despite two goals by Petar Škuletić before the break, the third didn’t come, and Ludogrets moved into the Play-Off Round, where they would meet Steaua București. The Romanian club were casehardened in this sort of stage of European competition and would be a hard nut to crack. A 1-0 defeat in Bucharest only underscored the point, but in the return, played at the Vasil Levski National Stadium, Sofia, on 27 August, a last-minute goal by another Brazilian signing, Wanderson, who had only joined the club that summer, squared things up, and the game went to penalties. Ludogrets triumphed 6-5.  Dermendzhiev became only the second manager to qualify a Bulgarian team for the group stages of Europe’s premier club competition. Domuschiev, and his financing of the club, had lifted Ludogrets from the second tier of Bulgarian domestic football to a seat at Europe’s top table.

As if to illustrate the point, their reward was a place in Group B alongside Real Madrid, Liverpool and Basel. Although pitted against daunting opposition, things didn’t start off overly badly. Later though, the experience turned out to be a sobering lesson of how far away a dominance of Bulgarian domestic football was from being able to compete effectively against the biggest clubs on the continent.

The first game was away to Liverpool and for most of the game, Dermendzhiev’s tactics kept the Reds at bay. Eventually, a Mario Balotelli goal put the home team ahead with just eight minutes remaining, but then Ludogrets equalised a minute into injury time from Abalo, and it seemed that they would secure of the draw that had seemed so likely for most of the game. A penalty by Gerrard two minutes later though merely dropped Ludogrets into the perceived ‘unlucky loser’ column, but perhaps left them a little wiser, if somewhat chastened.

Next came the cream of the group games when they entertained Real Madrid. Again, switching their home games to the national stadium in the Bulgarian capital, more than 41,000 fans were probably in dreamland when Marcelinho put Ludogrets ahead after just six minutes. A corner from the left was headed on and from no more than a yard out, the Brazilian fired into the roof of the net. He would sign an extension to his contract with the club a few days later. Reality was delivered when Ronaldo equalised from a penalty midway through the first period and then Benezma scored the winner in the second period. Nevertheless, after two games against teams that had lifted the continent’s ultimate club trophy on multiple occasions, Ludogrets had been far from shamed.

The next game would be the highlight of the programme though. Facing Basel at home on 22 October, a goal from defender Yordan Minev two minutes into injury time after another resolutely defensive display gave Ludogets their maiden victory in the Champions League proper. It was the first time a Bulgarian team had achieved such a feat and now Domuschiev’s money as pushing the club into uncharted territory. Inevitably, the remainder of the group games were an anti-climax. A 4-0 defeat in Switzerland was followed by an honourable 2-2 home draw with Liverpool before another 4-0 defeat, this time in Madrid, meant last place in the group and elimination.

Back at home, the First Phase of A Group was again topped by Ludogrets, who then also went on to top the Championship Stage by eight points from Beroe. It was their fourth title in as many years, and Barthe’s sixth successive championship, but also his final one with the club. On 12 June 2015, he moved to Grasshopper Club Zürich in Switzerland signing a three-year deal. The club’s seemingly inexorable march suffered a stumble though when Dermendzhiev resigned on 31 May 2015.

Whilst the Frenchman’s departure would be permanent, that was less the case with the manager. Dermendzhiev’s absence would be a mere temporary hiatus, as replacements Bruno Ribeiro and then Eduard Eranosyan failed to impress – a 1-3 aggregate defeat to Moldovan club FC Milsami Orhei in the 2nd Qualifying Round of the Champions League hardly being the level of performance expected. On 6 November, Dermendzhiev was back at the helm. Too late to rescue the club’s European excursion, the returning coach duly delivered the domestic title for the fifth time; this time by some 14 points clear of Levski Sofia. The following year he repeated the feat, claiming the 2016-17 title by 16 points from Levski Sofia.

In the same season, he also took Ludogrets into the Group Stage of the Champions League for the second time. Victories over FK Mladost Podgorica of Montenegro 5-0 on aggregate, followed by a 6-4 triumph against Red Star Belgrade and then winning 4-2 on aggregate against FC Viktoria Plzeň put them into the competition proper in a section alongside Arsenal, PSG and old rivals Basel.

A 1-1 draw away in Switzerland thanks to a goal by another Brazilian signing Jonathan Cafu started things off on a positive note, but then a 1-3 defeat at home to PSG and a 6-0 thrashing by Arsenal in North London, followed by a home 2-3 loss to Wenger’s team suggested Ludogrets’ journey would again end at this stage. A home draw with Basel and a 2-2 sharing of the spoils in Paris though meant a move to the Europa League knockout stage, where they were eliminated by FC Copenhagen, 2-1 on aggregate. Early in the 2016-17 season, following Ludogrets failure to win the Bulgarian Supercup, Dermendzhiev again took his leave of the club, being replaced by Dimitar Dimitrov. Perhaps the coach had realised that Ludogrets had travelled the road to success as far as possible. Everything from there on, may well have been anti-climatic. In 2018, he moved to Kazakhstan to take on a new challenge at FC Ordabasy.

Would such an assessment be valid? How far Kiril Domuschiev’s largesse can drive Ludogrets remains to be seen. The 2018 title was recently secured to keep their hegemony in place, but the last few seasons have suggested that whilst domination of the Bulgarian domestic scene remains in their sphere, beyond that any aspiration of integration into the elite of European clubs is not only a distant dream, but also one that may well require much more than the club’s owner is willing to offer. At the start of this examination of the fortunes of PFC Ludogrets Razgrad, it was suggested that money talks – and even shouts. If however in Bulgaria, that voice is heard in clear and distinct tones, in the upper reaches of European club competition, it may seem more like a distant whisper.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘Footy Analyst’ website).

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