For this interview, I look back at the infamous Bulgarian Cup Final of June 19, 1985, between CSKA and Levski.
The Interviewee is:
Bulgarian Sports Journalist Mr. Teodor Borisov
Mr. Teodor Borisov-PhD in history and sport journalist in Bulgarian daily newspaper Meridian match. Author of the book “How the football conquered Bulgaria - 50 stories about The Beautiful game”. Football books, programmes and magazines collector.
Mr. Borisov’s contact info:
Soccernostalgia Question: Before we discuss the 1985 brawl, can you give a background on the reasons for the post-war rivalry between the Sofia clubs: CSKA and Levski Spartak Sofia?
Teodor Borisov Response: Levski is one of the traditional pre-World War II clubs, founded on 24 May 1914. During this period, their main rival in Sofia was Slavia, but after 9 September 1944, when Soviet troops entered Bulgaria, the situation changed. Organizational changes took place throughout the country and gradually the Bulgarian sports system was built on the Soviet model (something typical for all of Eastern Europe). On 5 May 1948, after the merger of the teams of Septemvri (September) and the Central House of the Army (CDA), today's CSKA was created. This is a team representing the Bulgarian army. A police team called Spartak was also created, which, however, cannot be a real competitor. Levski remains the most popular team in the country and in the 1960s, Georgi Asparuhov, who was designated as the footballer of the century in Bulgaria, played there. In 1969 reforms were carried out in Bulgarian football, as a result of which Levski and Spartak merged into Levski-Spartak. Even before that, Levski and CSKA had a serious rivalry, but now Levski players can enjoy the same privileges as their rivals - ranks in the police, secured apartments and cars, much better pay compared to ordinary Bulgarians. In the 1970s and 1980s, both clubs won almost all the championships and gradually the other teams began to resent the tolerance of the big rivals from Sofia. Thus, at the beginning of 1985, it was decided that the two teams would cease to be under the protection of the army and the police from the middle of that year.
Photo From: Onze, Issue 107, November 1984
(Bulgaria National Team group from 1984, Sirakov is standing first on the left, Mihaylov is standing second from the right, Nikolov is sitting, third from left, next to Zdravkov)
Soccernostalgia Question: As was the norm in the communist world, the clubs were not professional but under the umbrella of state institutions such as the army, the police, etc. Who were these two clubs affiliated to and how did this have any bearing on their rivalries?
Teodor Borisov Response: As I said, CSKA is an army team, while Levski was originally a Bulgarian post office team, then it became a voluntary sports organization Dinamo, also covering the light and food industry. The unification with Spartak was initiated by the Minister of Internal Affairs, Angel Solakov, who does not hide his bias towards Levski. In 1971, he was replaced for allowing the funeral of Georgi Asparuhov and Nikola Kotkov, who died in a car accident, to be attended by thousands of fans, seen by the communist regime as a threat. Over the years, the two clubs have had their advocates in power - Boris Velchev for Levski, Milko Balev for CSKA, but the party leader Todor Zhivkov himself was not excited by their disputes, but supported Bulgaria's successes in individual sports that bring medals at the Olympic Games.
Soccernostalgia Question: Had there been any instances of fights or violence in previous meetings in the decades prior?
Teodor Borisov Response: There has been violence and clashes on the field and in the stands since the beginning of football, and not only in Bulgaria. For example, the final for the Cup of the Soviet Army (so called the Cup of Bulgaria) in 1977 between Levski and Lokomotiv Sofia was very rough. The Blues won it 2:1. At that time, it was a tradition for the two teams to gather for a banquet after the matches. In this case, a fight ensued, in which Levski player Kiril Milanov hit his colleague Yordan Stoykov, who fell down the stairs and was taken to hospital. As a result of this episode, Milanov was banned from playing football at the age of 28. As for Levski and CSKA, there have been matches with controversial refereeing decisions, but never such problems as in 1985.
Soccernostalgia Question: How were relations between players at National Team gathering. Was there friction due to the rivalry or do you think this was more at administrative level?
Teodor Borisov Response: All the players from that period say that off the field they were friends with the players of the opposing team, but that all ended during the matches. It is significant that CSKA and Levski icons Hristo Stoichkov and Nasko Sirakov are very close friends, despite each of them being hated by opposing fans who chant against them to this day. As for the fans, until the 1980s they watched the derbies together and then discussed what they saw in the square in front of what is now Museum of Sofia, which used to be a city bath. This was the most popular location for their gatherings.
Soccernostalgia Question: Can you present the state of affairs with the two clubs at the start of 1984/85 season and the evolution of the teams between the clubs?
Teodor Borisov Response: During this period, Levski had one of the greatest teams in their history, featuring players such as Borislav Mihailov, Nasko Sirakov and Bozhidar Iskrenov, mostly a product of their academy.
This is good documentary about this team, which you can add - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHvDFpYPhHk&t=1s
In the previous season, they won the title, the Cup of Bulgaria and the Cup of the Soviet Army (which became the third strongest tournament in the country), and in the last round of the championship and in the semi-finals of both cups they defeated CSKA. Until the final of the Bulgarian Cup in 1985, which was the 100th match between the two teams, Levski was in a series of 7 consecutive victories against its rival. In the European Cup in the 1984-85 season, they eliminated Stuttgart (for the second consecutive season), but were eliminated by USSR champions Dnepr after a dramatic rematch in Kryvoy Rog. In CSKA, there is a change of generations after the successes in the early 80s, and therefore they fail to be a real competition in the championship.
Soccernostalgia Question: Let’s get to the match itself, on June 19th, 1985, the two sides faced for the Bulgarian Cup Final. Describe the mayhem that ensued?
Teodor Borisov Response: In the 26th minute, CSKA opened the scoring with a goal by Georgi Slavkov, who, however, took the ball with his hand. This went unnoticed by the referee Asparuh Yasenov (his real name was Ahmed Yasharov, but at that time, as a result of the so-called Revival Process, the names of Bulgarian citizens of Turkish origin were changed) and led to a nervous situation. After the break, the situation got out of control - Plamen Nikolov from Levski was sent off after Radi Zdravkov was injured and the CSKA player was taken to hospital. In another clash, Emil Spasov from Levski started choking Kostadin Yanchev, as a result of which there were clashes between the two teams, in which the young Hristo Stoichkov took an active part. Spasov and Yanchev were sent off, and subsequently CSKA won the match 2:1. Various publications talk about a fight between the players in the tunnel, but the participants of the match themselves deny that there was such a thing.
Photo From: Onze-Mondial, Issue 14, March 1990
Photo From: Panini World Cup 1986
Soccernostalgia Question: In the aftermath, can you describe the punishments handed out by the Bulgarian Central Committee of the Communist Party?
Teodor Borisov Response: The day after the match, the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the BKP makes decisions in connection with the "trampling of socialist sports morality". The two teams were disbaded and replaced with Vitosha (Levski) and Sredets (CSKA). It was decided that the Bulgarian Cup would not be awarded, and after Levski and CSKA were kicked out of the championship, Botev Plovdiv (then Trakia) became the champion. A lifetime suspension was imposed to Borislav Mihailov, Plamen Nikolov, Emil Velev, Emil Spasov (all Levski) and Hristo Stoichkov (CSKA). Nasko Sirakov, Miroslav Baychev (Levski) and Vasil Tinchev (CSKA ) were suspended for a year and they were stripped of their title „Master of sport“. Kostadin Yanchev (CSKA) was banned for the first three months of league play. These punishments proved fatal for Nikolov and Spasov, who had signed a contract with Porto that was annulled. Thus they miss a chance to be part of the team that will win the European Cup in 1987.
Photo From: Guerin Sportivo
(Nikolov and Spassov with Porto kits before the called-off transfers)
Soccernostalgia Question: This match took place about a month after Bulgaria’s win over France and just a few weeks after Bulgaria’s victory over Yugoslavia in the World Cup qualifiers. These wins had more or less ensured qualification to the World Cup. One would have thought that such wins would have united the players from their respective clubs. Why was there still hostility then?
Teodor Borisov Response: These are normal things that can happen in a game, but the reaction of the Communist Party I think has to do with what happened at the Heysel Stadium about a month earlier. The TV cameramen were instructed to monitor the behavior of the spectators and at the slightest tension in the stands to show it. What happened is a wonderful opportunity for the party to stop the growing fan movement in Bulgaria, which it perceives as a threat. Without their favorite teams, fans would have no one to root for and cause trouble.
Photo From: France Football, Issue 2046, June 25, 1985
(The incident covered in France Football)
Soccernostalgia Question: Was there a feeling that this was going to be detrimental to the chances of the National Team on the verge of qualifying for the Mexico World Cup?
Teodor Borisov Response: There is tension in the team before the decisive visit of Luxembourg, but captain Georgi Dimitrov (CSKA player) manages to mobilize his teammates. At that time, the selector was Ivan Vutsov, who bet on players from different teams, without orienting his team only to those of Levski and CSKA. For 1986 FIFA World Cup, he included players from 13 different teams on the roster, including defender Iliya Dyakov from Dobrudzha, who were in the Second Division at the time.
Soccernostalgia Question: Can you explain the reason for the clubs’ name changes: Sredets (CSKA) and Vitosha (Levski)?
Teodor Borisov Response: I don't know why these names were chosen, but they are related to the capital Sofia - Sredets is the medieval name of the city, and Vitosha is the mountain located near it. The fans of Botev Plovdiv immediately invent the joke that the names were added so that Vitosha (a popular brand of cheese) and Sredets (a brand of vodka) would be good appetizers for their championship table.
Soccernostalgia Question: Given these name changes, did the fans actually still cheer them with their old names or the new ones?
Teodor Borisov Response: Until the return of the old names in 1990, fans chanted "Levski" and "CSKA" instead of "Vitosha" and "Sredets". This leads to clashes with the police (then militia) and arrests, but they never give up on their favorite teams. It‘s interesting that sports associations, part of which are football clubs, kept their names Levski-Spartak and CSKA Septemvriysko zname until the very end of communism, and this reform did not affect them.
Soccernostalgia Question: Goalkeeper Borislav Mihailov and Nasko Sirakov were integral parts of the National Team. Describe how their suspensions were reduced and how this was viewed by the Public (it surely would have been seen as a cynical attempt to help the National Team ahead of the World Cup)?
Teodor Borisov Response: Their punishments were forgiven at the beginning of 1986, after the national coach Ivan Vutsov managed to convince Todor Zhivkov that he needed these players, with artists close to the party leader acting as mediators. The then chairman of the Bulgarian Football Union, Ivan Shpatov, was against it, but he was faced with a fait accompli. Among the fans, the participation in the world championship is a reason for national euphoria and it is no coincidence that the most popular song in the country in this period is "Mexico" by the duet Bratia Argirovi (Argirovi brothers). It is interesting that the rehabilitated Borislav Mihailov and Nasko Sirakov participate in her recording as backing vocals.
Photo From: Onze, Issue 107, November 1984
Photo From: Onze, Issue 138, June 1987
(Nasko Sirakov, May 31, 1986, World Cup, Italy 1-Bulgaria 1)
Soccernostalgia Question: Hristo Stoichkov as an up-and-coming player at the time of his suspension. Can you describe this immediate post-suspension period?
Teodor Borisov Response: During his suspencion, Hristo Stoichkov served in the military unit in Stara Zagora. At the same time, he played in matches of the lower divisions under a false name - Angel Stankov. During one of the matches, a referee said to him in a friendly way, "Boy, you are a player for First and Second division", without being able to recognize him.
Soccernostalgia Question: Did Stoichkov harbor any resentment towards Levski for his suspension (the number 4 shirt incident)?
Teodor Borisov Response: It is interesting that Stoichkov arrived in Sofia for the first time on Levski's bus, without them knowing that they were driving a future CSKA player. He played number 4 in the next derby after the 5-0 success in which he scored 4 goals for them and it's just part of the folklore.
Photo From: Onze-Mondial, Issue 40, May 1992
Soccernostalgia Question: How was the post-brawl rivalry between the clubs into the post-communist era?
Teodor Borisov Response: In the 1990s, the two teams took their rivalry to another level, after the companies VIS-2 and Multigroup became their sponsors. They, as well as a significant part of the sponsors of Bulgarian football in this period, are connected to organized crime. Supporters of Levski perceive themselves as a symbol of democracy and define CSKA as a team of the communist regime. However, these assessments are controversial, since some of Levski's leaders in that period were agents of State Security, and the team itself was under the umbrella of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. However, both clubs suffer from poor management and this is the reason why teams outside Sofia such as Litex and Ludogorets get the opportunity to displace them in certain periods.
Soccernostalgia Question: Describe the decision in 1990 that allowed the teams’ to regain their trophies and names. Was there a feeling to usher in a new positive era in the post-communist world?
Teodor Borisov Response: In this return of the trophies, the team of Botev Plovdiv was the most damaged, which in the following season 1985-86 lost the title at the expense of Beroe. In one of their decisive matches, Beroe defeated Vitosha, and to this day it is believed that their rival lost on purpose, just so that Botev would not be the champion. The reason is the president of the football federation, Ivan Shpatov. At the time, it was believed that he was a supporter of Botev and tolerated the team, but the truth is that Shpatov had no particular interest in football and accepted his position as an administrative obligation. Thus, instead of having 2 titles, Botev remains without one. At the beginning of the 1990s, the whole of Bulgaria had the feeling of the beginning of a new era, but the subsequent political and economic realities replaced this hope with disappointment.
Soccernostalgia Question: In closing, how is this incident looked upon historically in the Bulgarian Football folklore more than 35 years later?
Teodor Borisov Response: This incident is known throughout Europe as an example of the direct interference of the Communist Party in football. Today's football fans can hardly imagine such a thing being possible, but the older generation remembers it as an attempt to liquidate the two most popular and successful teams - thankfully without success. 4 players who participated in this match are part of the Bulgarian team that reached the fourth place in the USA in 1994, and if the intentions of the party had come true, we probably would not have had our most famous generation in football.