CSKA Sofia: European football’s slayers of Champions

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.

Since its official formation in 1948, CSKA has been a prominent force in Bulgarian football. In the years since the first time it competed in the Bulgarian league, until the turn of the century, the Reds were domestic champions on no less than 28 occasions across a touch longer than half a century. Three more titles were added in 2002-03, 2004-05 and 2007-08. Their total of 31 championships is a Bulgarian record. They have also won the Bulgarian Cup on 20 occasions, with many of those awards resulting in domestic ‘double’ triumphs.

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For all that though, it is their exploits in European competition that mark out the club as something special on the wider football stage. On top of their three successes in ousting the current top dogs of the European Cup, it’s worth adding to the record that each of those European championship winning clubs were also multiple champions, and it all happened in less than a decade.

In the 1973-74 season, they eliminated Ajax, who had lifted ‘Big Ears’ for the previous three seasons. Seven years later, they deposed Nottingham Forest, champions for the previous two terms. The following season, they defeated Liverpool, who had picked up the crown that had been tumbled from the heads of Brian Clough’s team the previous year. The Anfield club were also triple winners having earlier triumphed in 1976-77 and 1977-78. It meant that across an eight-year spell, CSKA, that little club from Eastern Europe, so often considered as mere cannon fodder the western powerhouses of continental football, had humbled champions of Europe who had reigned as the continent’s supreme club on no less than eight occasions.

The seventies saw CSKA take their bow on the European stage. They entered the European Cup Winners cup in 1970-71, but were eliminated by Chelsea in the Second Round. A few years later though, they would take the unlikeliest of all scalps.

CSKA qualified for the 1973-74 European Cup by comfortably topping the Bulgarian 1972–73 A Group. It was their third consecutive league title, finishing some eight points clear of runners-up Lokomotiv Plovdiv, netting an impressive 80 goals a cross the 34-game league programme. It was, therefore, of little surprise that the club’s striker Petar Zhekov finished as the league’s top marksman, scoring 29 times. It is however worth mentioning that, somewhat surprisingly given their haul of goals, he was the sole CSKA player among the top ten scorers that term. Indeed, Zhekov was the only CSKA forward to hit double figures, with the next highest scorer being midfielder Georgi Denev netting a dozen times.

No-one could accuse manager Manol Manolov of having a ‘one-man team’ though. Aside from defender Boris Gaganelov, who appeared in all 34 league games that term without finding the net, only Dimitar Yakimov, who made just a single appearance, failed to score. It was the sort of egalitarian output much trumpeted by the Communist regime in the country, and one that would serve CSKA in their European adventure to come.

Their first tie paired them with FC Wacker Innsbruck of Austria, with the first leg being played at the Stadion Balgarska Armia on 19 September 1973. True to form, in the 3-0 victory, three different players would net for Manolov’s team. Forward Dimitar Marashliev scored the first after just three minutes, before Zhekov weighed in midway through the first period. Then, still seven minutes ahead of the break, Denev added the third to put both the game, and the tie, beyond the Austrians’ reach. More than 25,000 had watched the first leg in Sofia but, with the tie, to all intents and purposes, already settled, only around 8,000 turned up for the return leg. With the small crowd rattling around the half-empty stadium, another Zhekov goal completed the rout, and CSKA went into the Second Round with some ease. Their next encounter looked somewhat trickier though. They were drawn to play the three-time reigning champions, Ajax of Amsterdam.

By now, complete with his third winner’s medal, the iconic Johan Cruyff had left the club to join his mentor and manager Rinus Michels in Catalunya, donning the Blaugrana shirt of Barcelona. The team he left behind, however, was still chock full of the stars that had retained the trophy the previous term, defeating Juventus in Belgrade. In fact, the only difference from that line-up was the inclusion of Jan Mulder replacing Cruyff.

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Ștefan Kovács, who had inherited the Ajax manager’s job from Michels and secured the last two of Ajax’s three titles had, by now, moved on to take control of the France national team. In his stead, George Knobel took temporary charge. He would only stay for nine months, but it was sufficient time to see the Dutch club removed from their throne as the kings of European football.

The tie was a reunion of sorts, as the clubs had faced each other at the same stage twelve months earlier, with the Dutch running out 6-1 winners on aggregate. It wouldn’t be the last time that CSKA were soundly beaten by that aggregate score before taking revenge the following season. That was for the future though, and despite the loss of their talismanic captain, very few thought that much would change from twelve months previously, and Ajax were strong favourites to progress.

The first leg was played at Olympisch Stadion in Amsterdam. It was a rough and tumble affair with both teams overindulging in physical excesses and CSKA’s goalkeeper Stoyan Yordanov ending up with a broken arm. Perhaps it was straying away from their gilded ambitions of Totaalvoetbal that drew the sting of Ajax’s football on that night, but when Keizer gave the champions an early lead, it seemed that the form book was playing out. Later, Johnny Rep had the chance to double the lead from 12 yards, but the opportunity was squandered and Ajax had only the slenderest of margins to pack into their suitcases for the return game in Sofia two days after Bonfire Night. There would be plenty of fireworks in the Bulgarian capital.

Knobel sent out an unchanged team for the return leg, and despite having just the single goal lead, would surely have maintained a decent level of confidence. After all, only twelve months ago, the Dutch club had visited the same stadium and ran out 1-3 winners. The reigning champions played out the first period without much concern, and even offered some threat upfront, but the Bulgarians were both resolute and boisterous in attack.

The game was still in the balance when, halfway through the second period, skipper Piet Keizer – retaking the armband he had passed on to Cruyff – was dispossessed on the edge of the Ajax penalty area. A quick cross found the defence out of position as Marashliev efficiently headed past Stuy to bring the aggregate scores level. The Bulgarians celebrated as the Dutch trudged back to the halfway line to restart the game, with Rep’s missed penalty in the first leg now looming large.

There would be no more score before the end of normal time and, as the game went into an extra 30 minutes, Manolov removed midfielder Tsvetan Atanasov, replacing him with forward Stefan Mihaylov. It would be a portentous decision. With a mere five minutes remaining, it would be the fresh Mihaylov ramming the ball past Stuy for the winning goal, the only strike he would ever record in Europe’s premier club competition, to eliminate the champions.

The European Cup, that had resided in the Amsterdam club’s trophy cabinet for three years would now be removed. After a period of dominance not known since the formative years of the European Cup and Real Madrid’s early dominance, it wouldn’t return to the Dutch capital for more than two decades.

There is a strange, but almost neat, symmetry about what happened next. After defeating the team that had been top of the European shop for three seasons, and taking tacit revenge for the 6-1 mauling they’d endured twelve months earlier, CSKA faced Bayern Munich in the next round. The Bulgarians would suffer a 5-3 aggregate defeat, and the Bavarian club would go on to reprise Ajax’s feat and take home the European Cup for the next three years.

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CSKA had shown that, on their day, they could compete with the very best, but delivering such performances on a regular basis was perhaps something beyond them. Back home, CSKA took three more domestic league titles, in 1974–75, 1975–76 and 1979–80. The latter of those would lead to another opportunity to eliminate a multiple European Cup winning club.

The title was secured by a single point from Slavia Sofia, and Spas Dzhevizov was both the club and league’s top scorer, netting 21 goals. Nikola Hristov joined him in the top ten marksmen netting 13, but perhaps the club’s most interesting forward was Georgi Slavkov, who played nine league games, netting five times, whilst on loan from Trakia Plovdiv. He features further in the story later.

In the East Midlands of England, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor had taken over a mid-ranking second tier football club, took it to promotion and then the English league title in successive seasons, then amazingly gone on to win and retain the European Cup. It seemed that there was little that Forest couldn’t achieve, and as they set off in pursuit of their third successive European title, an opening round fixture against Eastern European opponents CSKA Sofia, there seemed little danger of any kind.

A fairly dour and uninspiring first 45 minutes had passed, and with the score remaining goalless, Forest at least had the comfort of the home leg to come and the opportunity to put the tie to bed if nothing changed. Something nearly did change after the restart though when a neat wall-pass from John Robertson set the Scot clear to slide the ball past the home goalkeeper. Unfortunately, for the few travelling Forest fans amongst the 70,000 crowd, the goal was wiped out, as Italian referee Luigi Agnolin ruled for offside.

Other chances would follow but when the goal came, it was at the other end. CSKA had offered enough to suggest that they had sufficient weapons to trouble the visitors’ backline, with the towering presence and surprisingly lithe skills of Dzhevizov often causing concern for a defence denuded by the absence of Kenny Burns serving out a suspension. In keeping with much of the game however, when the defence was breached, the goal was hardly a thing of beauty. Not that such niceties would have mattered much to new CSKA coach Asparuh Nikodimov, who had replaced Nikola Kovachev in 1979.

With 20 minutes remaining the Bulgarians were awarded a free-kick a few yards out of the Forest penalty area. Following a blocked shot and a brief scramble, Tsvetan Yonchev – looking suspiciously offside – fired past Shilton. The rest of the game was played out, and CSKA had a lead to take to England on the first day of October. In the end, the result was probably a fair reflection of the game. An assessment that Peter Taylor endorsed.  “A fair result, no complaints,” he commented after the game.

The journey home, already unlikely to be a pleasant one for the Forest party became increasingly frustrating as their flight was delayed for three hours, some say by technical difficulties, others merely ascribing the hold-up to over-zealous officialdom. There was even talk of an official boarding the plane, after the party had belatedly been seated, and requiring everyone to disembark for further passport checks. Reports suggest that it was Clough himself who declined the insistent blandishments and, instead, ejected the official with one of his “Young man…” statements that brook few arguments.

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Despite the result, and the way the game had played out, there seemed plenty of confidence that things could be put to right at the City Ground, even though Taylor conceded Forest weren’t at their best. “There’s a lot of work to do to get back to our form of two years ago,” he conceded, without diluting his confidence in Forest’s ability to take the second leg clearly. Burns returning to the fold would surely help matters, and back in England, the eager Forest forwards would be keen on a little payback for treatment in Bulgaria, and to get their defence of the European Cup rapidly back on track.

It wasn’t to be. Just 30 minutes into the first half of the game, with Forest dominating possession but the Bulgarians retaining a threat on the counter-attack, disaster struck for the reigning champions. Breaking forward, Plamen Markov played the ball into the Forest half, finding first leg hero, Yonchev. The midfielder controlled and laid the ball back to Dzhevizov who clipped a delightful pass inside of Viv Anderson for Ruzhin Kerimov to run onto and flick the ball past an advancing Shilton. It meant Forest now needed three goals. They would fail to even get the first of those and, after successive one goal defeats to the Bulgarians, they were eliminated.

Buoyed by their success, CSKA went into the Second Round on a high and duly dispatched the Polish club, Szombierki Bytom, 5-0 on aggregate. A crushing four goal triumph in the home leg, with Yonchev nabbing a hat-trick, and Radoslav Zdravkov adding the other strike, had all but negated the tie as a contest before the return leg in Chorzow, where a goal from Dzhevizov completed the rout.

After the winter break, it was time for the Quarterfinals, and another of those strange quirks of fate that seemed to circulate around CSKA on their European Cup sojourns. With Forest eliminated, the throne was empty and over at Anfield, Liverpool had designs on reclaiming their position as the continent’s top club. CSKA would play the Reds in the last eight of the tournament. It was hardly a contest worthy of the name.

Despite another Yonchev strike on the hour mark in the first leg at Anfield offering a glimmer of hope with his team three goals astray at the time, Liverpool would add another two to deliver a five-goal pasting. Two weeks later, a single David Johnson goal would underscore the Reds’ superiority delivering a 6-1 aggregate margin for Liverpool. A couple of months later, Liverpool would complete their journey back to the top of the European football tree by defeating Real Madrid in Paris to reclaim the European Cup.

For CSKA, it was the second time they had been left smarting from a 6-1 aggregate defeat to the team destined to win the tournament. In the previous decade, the defeat to Ajax had surprisingly been avenged the very next season when CSKA bundled them out of the competition. Surely, the fates couldn’t conjure up a similar doom for Liverpool in the 1981-82 season. Things like that just don’t happen. Do they?

A little as in the previous domestic season, the 1980-81 league title was a tighter affair than the one that qualified them for the European Cup seven years earlier. This time, the league was only secured by four points from Levski Sofia, with both Trakia Plovdiv and local rivals Akademik Sofia also in close attendance. The one similarity with the domestic success of 1972-73 league however was in relation to goal scorers. Again, the club topped the goals scored column netting 70 times in a now reduced season of 30 games. Again though, there was only one player from the club amongst the league’s top ten marksmen as Spas Dzhevizov’s 17 goals placed him in second place.

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Topping the shop was Georgi Slavkov of Trakia Plovdiv, now returned to his parent club. Incredibly, his 31 strikes were almost half of his club’s 64 goals in that season. Slavkov would later join CSKA full time and continue his goal scoring form over the next few seasons scoring 43 league goals in just 92 appearances, but too late to be part of their remarkable period as giant slayers.

The 1981-82 European Cup competition looked like it could be over almost before it had begun for CSKA. Drawn to play the Basques of Real Sociedad, the first leg at Sofia’s Natsionalen Stadion Vasil Levski on 16 September was drifting to a frustrating 0-0 draw, and an immensely difficult return in northern Spain when Tsvetan Yonchev again proved his value as a goal scorer on the big stage, netting the winner in the last minute of the game. A goalless draw in San Sebastián was sufficient for progress.

The Second Round paired the Bulgarians with Northern Ireland’s Glentoran, who had reached the stage courtesy of a comfortable 5-1 aggregate score against Luxembourg’s Progrès Niedercorn. A 2-0 victory in the home leg, in front of more than 55,000 fans, set CSKA up to go and play at the Oval, in a confident mood. Any such mood of supposed comfort was dispelled however by The Glens, who perhaps had giant-killing aspirations of their own.

The first period was played out without any score but, in a four-minute period around the 20 minutes to play mark, first James Cleary, and then Ron Manley squared things up on aggregate. The game went to extra-time and Alyosha Dimitrov managed to score the vital strike to send CSKA through to the Quarterfinals, where they would face reigning champions – and the team that had triumphed over them 6-1 in the previous season – Liverpool.

CSKA’s tortured progress to the last eight was in fairly marked contrast to Liverpool’s results. Despite only winning by a single aggregate goal margin against AZ Alkmaar, The Reds had notched no less than 13 goals in their two rounds. Advancement to the Semi-Finals was surely on the cards. In early March CSKA visited Anfield, offering up a stoic performance, and limiting the European champions to a single goal lead, notched by a Ronnie Whelan strike just past the hour mark. It was hardly a thrilling performance by Bob Paisley’s team, but the canny manager had moulded his team into a case-hardened collection of players, who were well used to getting the job done in difficult circumstances.

With just over a dozen minutes to play in the return leg in Sofia, that cussed professionalism seemed increasingly likely to ease Liverpool into the last four, but a terrible error from goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar saw a long cross float over his head, leaving Stoycho Mladenov the simple task of heading into an empty net to bring things level on aggregate. There were no further goals in normal time, and a further 30 minutes were required to settle the issue.

Eleven of those minutes had passed when Mladenov profited from another cross into the visitors’ box that caused confusion. A corner on the right flank was played short before being slung into the box. An aerial contest for the ball saw it drop down around the penalty spot. Falling away as he struck, the striker’s effort evaded both Grobbelaar and two defenders dropping back to guard the goal line as he swept the ball home. More than 60,000 fans that had squeezed into the stadium celebrated raucously as the players piled up onto the still felled Mladenov, sensing another famous victory. And, so it was. To cap off Liverpool’s misery, Alan Hansen was sent off with a few minutes remaining, and CSKA had pulled off the impossible once more.

After defeating both Ajax and Forest in the early rounds of the tournament, CSKA had succumbed quickly afterwards, as if spent by their efforts. This win, however, had propelled them into the last four for a meeting with Bayern Munich, the team that had successfully evaded falling foul of the CSKA curse by winning the trophy for three years after Ajax had been dethroned. Was this the time to put that record straight?

On 7 April, the Bavarians visited Sofia, keen to ensure that there would be no slip-up. That plan was quickly cast to the winds though. After a mere 18 minutes, remarkably CSKA were 3-0 ahead. Some 70,000 fans could hardly believe their eyes as first Georgi Dimitrov, Yonchev, and finally Radoslav Zdravkov had the Natsionalen Stadion Vasil Levski, in ecstasy. Bayern were made of stern stuff though, and by half time, Bernd Dürnberger and Dieter Hoeneß had cut the lead down to the slenderest of margins.

Yonchev added a fourth goal for the home side just after the break, but Paul Breitner narrowed the lead again in the dying moments of the game. A thumping 4-0 defeat in Munich ended CSKA’s interests, and Aston Villa went on to defeat Bayern in the Final. Fortunately, for the Birmingham club, their run to the trophy did not include a 6-1 aggregate triumph over CSKA, and the seemingly inevitable consequence that would follow! Regardless, their reign as champions would last a single season before losing out to Juventus in the Quarter Finals in the following season.

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In the coming seasons, CSKA would retain the domestic Bulgarian title until 1983-84, when they finished in second place, two points adrift of local rivals Levski Sofia. Worse was to follow. In the 1985 Bulgarian Cup Final between the same two clubs, disgraceful scenes with mass brawls and an attack on the referee saw CSKA over the line, winning 2-1, but later due to the incidents in the game, both teams were disbanded on the orders of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, with several players, including Hristo Stoichkov receiving bans. CSKA was renamed as Sredets, although both the decision and bans were later reversed.

Following the loss of the league title, the now restored CSKA would return to the summit of Bulgarian football, winning five more titles before the end of the century, and a further three as the new millennium was opened. They would also qualify regularly for European competition, reaching the Semi Finals of the Cup Winners Cup in 1988–89 where Stoichkov and Lyuboslav Penev would be the two top tournament scorers, before they tumbled out to Barcelona 6-3 on aggregate. The following season, they again reached the Quarter Finals of Europe’s premier club competition, before losing out to Marseille.

It was a more than a decent record for a club that retained competitiveness as so much of Eastern European football crumbled around them. For the club who had humbled some of the greatest clubs in Europe, however, nothing would surpass the years when CSKA Sofia became European football’s Slayers of Champions.

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