In the history of Europe’s premier club competition, be it as the European Cup or, more latterly, the Champions League, only one club who have never lifted the trophy – in either guise – can claim to have eliminated reigning champions on three occasions. That club is CSKA Sofia or, to give it the full Anglicised title, the Central Sports Club of the Army, as located in Sofia. Both Juventus and Real Madrid have eliminated more champions, but CSKA’s achievement remains unique. So too are the stories and strings of apparent coincidences surrounding the story of the oft disregarded Bulgarian club that became European football’s Slayers of Champions. Continue reading →
Over the years, especially since the war, international football has seen a number of teams rise to prominence, and then be swept away by the next wave. These teams haven’t necessarily won everything, scooping the board of honours over a given period. More accurately, they have been the teams that have been widely acknowledged as the game’s leaders. The players at the forefront of the game’s development, setting new paradigms and patterns that others have copied or adapted.
Some ended their time in the sun with a hatful of trophies; others entered the field and left again, empty-handed. On occasions, there’s a game when the handing-on of the torch can be identified. In the World Cup of 1974, for example, Johan Cruyff’s ‘Oranje’ destroyed a street-fighter of a Brazil team that would have embarrased Pelé and the ‘Joga Bonito’ Samba Boys of four years earlier. It was a game when the Dutch ‘Totall Voetbal’ won the day and cherished the stewardship of ‘the beautiful game’ for a few years. In other times though, the change is seamless, but no less apparent for that.
In the fifties and sixties, two magnificent teams rose above the rest to dominate football for a generation. In the early part of the fifties, it was Hungary and the Magnificent Magyar team of Puskás, Hidegkuti and the cherry-shirted magicians playing under Gusztáv Sebes. The team that went from May 1950 to February 1956, winning 43 games, drawing a mere half-dozen, and losing just one – that one game however was the World Cup Final of 1954, and it denied the Hungarians the crown that would have rubber-stamped their dominance. Continue reading →
Football folklore is replete with tales of unfancied teams fighting back in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity, recovering from an apparently inevitable defeat to down one of the giants of the game, when a last minute goal gets a team through a difficult match that seemed to be pointing to elimination, when the opposition fails to convert any of the first three penalties in a shoot-out or when a team comes back after losing an opening game to unexpectedly qualify from a group stage of the biggest tournament in the world. Other tales may speak of seemingly hopeless situations when unforeseen results conspire to offer a chance that had surely been extinguished, when last minute goals work wonders and unexpectedly transform successive matches, when winning goals are created and scored by players who really shoudn’t have been on the pitch or when a giant stumbles and lets the little guy through; when the most unexpected of events happen again, and again, and again. Some tales have such a feature, some have a two or three, but very few have all of them. The story of Bulgaria’s ‘American Dream’ at the 1994 World Cup and the strange combination of results and events off the park that conspired to get them there however, is one of them. Continue reading →
Back in March 2012, Stiliyan Petrov made a call to his agents. In these days of commercial opportunities it was the sort of thing professional footballers do all the time. This time however the content was very different. When Base Soccer Agency took the call from their client, it was to receive a plain truth. Petrov simply said: “I have got leukaemia.” It was the very phlegmatic way in which the popular Bulgarian captain of Aston Villa decided he had to deal with the illness.
Following a game against Arsenal a few days before, Petrov had complained of feeling feverish. Fearing a virus was to blame, the club swiftly took blood tests, and then a bone marrow scan, which led to the startling diagnosis. For anyone, in any walk of life, the dread ‘C’ word delivers a harsh realisation. For someone like Petrov, living out the dream of millions with a comfortable lifestyle and financial security, it would have been easy to lash out at the perceived injustice. Petrov was not like that however. This time, cancer had picked on the wrong man. Continue reading →