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Ludogorets is a Bulgarian football team from the northeastern town of Razgrad, and are also the reigning champions of the Bulgarian Premier Division. But their story is remarkable and it needs to be told. And now that Ludogorets have become the first ever Bulgarian team to go on a pre-season tour in England, what better time to do so?
The club, as we know it today, is a successor of a sports organization founded in 1945 under the same name. However, the football club has had various names through the years, some of which were Antibiotik (Razgrad) and Ludogorie. Funnily enough, the words “Ludogorie” and “Ludogorets” are literally translated in English as “Crazy forest”. But the name of the club comes after the region where they’re based- a beautiful part of Bulgaria full of forests and historical artifacts.
The last 10 years in the club’s history have been really interesting. The team I already told you about- Ludogorie- was founded in 2001, so the teams in the city of Razgrad became two. The original Ludogorets was dissolved in 2006, and their license was acquired by the newer team. Ludogorie was later renamed to this name to succeed the traditions of the old Ludogorets.
Not many people in Bulgaria, let alone the rest of the world, were familiar with this team and their history until 2009. Throughout the years the club played mainly in the second and third tiers of Bulgarian football, their fan base was rather small, and they’d hardly ever achieved any success.
But in the 2009/2010 season they finished second in the Bulgarian Third Division and gained promotion to the Second one. Before the start of the 2010/11 season a new manager was appointed- Ivaylo Petev, a well-known former midfielder and Premier Division champion as a player with Litex (Lovech).
The season started well for the team, which attracted the interest of local businessman Kiril Domuschiev, who decided to buy the club and turn them into one of the best, if not the best, in Bulgaria.
After the takeover was completed, Domuschiev made sure enough funds were available, and he started modernizing the club’s facilities and bidding for better players. Immediate success followed, as they won the Second Division and gained promotion to the Premier Division for the first time in their history.
Prior to the start of the 2011/12 season Petev assembled a very strong team after owner Domuschiev made loads of transfer funds available. Players such as Bulgarian international and former RC Strasbourg midfielder Emil Gargorov, French defender Alexandre Barthe, Portuguese full back Vitinha, Bulgarian internationals Stanislav Genchev, Ivan Stoyanov and Svetoslav Dyakov, and Brazilian playmaker Marcelinho were signed.
And thus we reach the eternal discussion about money buying success in football. Because there are many examples of clubs who spend a lot, win trophies and emerge as one of the top clubs in their respective countries, at least for some time. Such is the case with Manchester City, for example, who have never been a major force in English football, yet they have spending like mad lately and this has brought them cups and titles.
I’m saying this because Ludogorets, in their first ever season in the Bulgarian Premier Division, won both the title in the championship and the Bulgarian Cup, an amazing achievement that very few teams in the world have made before.
When you think about it, one can find similarities in this story and in those of other teams, especially some British ones. I already mentioned Manchester City, but to some extent we can compare Ludogorets to teams such as Chelsea, Swansea, Hull City or Norwich. Of course, all these teams are much stronger than the Bulgarian champions (except maybe Hull), but think about it- Manchester City and Chelsea were never really successful before they were bought by rich businessmen. But once Sheikh Mansour and Roman Abramovich started pouring money in these clubs the trophies started coming one after the other.
Swansea, Norwich and Hull are teams which have remarkably made it all the way from the lower levels of English football to the Premiership- same as Ludogorets, who did this in Bulgaria. And yes, none of these teams managed to win any major cups or trophies, Hull even got relegated again, but the stories are more or less the same, no matter how silly it seems to compare English and Bulgarian football.
Anyway, back to Ludogorets now, or as their fans affectionately call them- The Eagles. So, after winning the domestic championship, they qualified for the 2012/13 Champions League qualification rounds. And sadly, the draw was really tough on them, pitting them against the very strong Croatian team Dinamo Zagreb in the Second qualifying round.
Everyone in Bulgaria- media, pundits, the football community- agreed that this is the worst opponent of all possible ones and that the Eagles don’t stand a chance. A week before the first leg Ludogorets won the Bulgarian Super Cup, their third trophy in less than three months time, and they were really impressive in this game. It seemed that for the second year in a row they had made some great transfers, the new guys played well, and most of the old ones remained in the team for this season as well.
Thus came the first ever Champions League game in the history of Ludogorets, and much to everyone’s surprise, they were unlucky to get only a draw in the first leg at home. They completely outclassed their much more famous Croatian opponents and were leading 1:0, until Ante Rukavina equalized for the visitors in injury time.
In the return leg there was so much drama, I personally can’t remember seeing such a game for a long time. In the 90th minute the score was 2:2, and it seemed that Ludogorets would go through on away goals. But then German referee Felix Zwayer gave 5 minutes of injury time. Injury time was over, but the ref still hadn’t blown for full time. And in the 98th minute Domagoj Vida scored for the Croatians, making the result 3:2 and taking his team through to the next round.
“It’s a big disappointment that we lost like this. But I’m proud of my team, the boys fought hard and they deserved to go through. We made some mistakes in both games, and as much as I don’t want to say it- the ref played a big part in the development of the second match. He just made fun of all the hard work we did during the summer,” says head coach Petev.
Owner Kiril Domuschiev was even harsher: “I was thinking of quitting after the second game. You spend money, you try to build something from nothing, and then something like this happens. But then I thought about it, and figured out that losing just makes you stronger. So I’ll continue working for the future of Ludogorets, and hopefully we’ll become stronger and stronger.”
And indeed, Domuschiev has so far kept his word, and he even sent the team on a short pre-season tour in England. They stayed in Manchester for about a week, and even played a friendly against Everton at Goodison Park (1:1). They were supposed to play another one, but were unable to find a strong enough team, as they didn’t want to test themselves against lower league sides.
There you have it, the brief story of Ludogorets (Razgrad), the Cinderella of Bulgarian football. To some it might not seem that impressive, but believe me- it is. To play amateur football in 2009 and to reach the Champions League just 3 years later- it’s an amazing achievement. Ludogorets were lucky to find their Prince Charming in the face of Kiril Domuschiev. We can only hope that more men like him start helping Bulgarian football develop, and one day we might again enjoy success as we did in 1994.