The Bulgarian football rivalry between CSKA and Levski has been classified as one of the fiercest derby clashes in the entire world. As the renowned football magazine FourFourTwo outlined in a recent article, ‘The Eternal Derby of Bulgaria’ ranks 37th of the biggest derbies in the world, which puts it ahead of ‘The Sheffield Derby’, ‘Le Derby’, ‘The Basque derby’, etc. Today, as we are eagerly waiting for the two teams to play against each other yet again, we will write about the peak times of this clash – the Cup final in 1985, which caused acute issues not only to the losing side but for the winners as well.
The date is 19th June 1985. Without any surprises, the final for the domestic cup yet again features the best teams in the country – CSKA versus Levski on ‘Vasil Levski National Stadium’. The symbolic guests in this match were far superior to their rivals – ‘The Blues’ had just won back-to-back championship titles and the last 7 clashes between these clubs ended in favour of Levski. CSKA, in contrast, was slowly, yet surely, going past their golden years – after winning four league titles in a row as well as beating elite European sides like Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, the ‘dream team’ of ‘The Reds’ was aging. This match marked only the second start in the derby game for the 19-year-old Hristo Stoichkov who would become the most recognisable Bulgarian footballer in a decade's time. Even though it was clear which team was expected to come out on top, such intense clashes often give an advantage to the teams which aren’t pressured by the expectation to demolish their opponent. Our ‘Eternal Derby’ wasn’t an exception to this unwritten rule.
The match started against all odds – CSKA was dominating the game which inevitably led to a goal of theirs. However, it was a quite controversial one – when Nikolai Iliev from Levski tried to clear the ball, it hit Georgi Slavkov’s arm. The defender and keeper both stopped playing, anticipating the referee’s whistle, but it wasn’t to be which meant Slavkov had the easiest job to break the deadlock. He was quick to celebrate his goal in front of the rivals’ end which enraged the fans of Levski. The second half wasn’t any different – a 50/50 foul was awarded to CSKA which was converted into a second goal by Iliya Voynov. Levski’s players were infuriated which provoked harsh tackles and incredibly ugly challenges. A total of 3 red cards were shown which just added fuel to the fire. The awful refereeing continued to be the talking point throughout the whole match as 2 controversial penalties for both teams were given but only the one Levski took was made into a goal. The rest of the story are myths – it is believed that there were mass fights in the tunnels right after the final whistle, which had a critical outcome – referee’s broken rib, the cup smashed to pieces and an immeasurable amount of swearing words. We can only take Stoichkov’s words in his biography for granted:
‘After the final whistle, Levski’s players gathered around Asparuh Yasenov [the referee]. Players like Borislav Mihaylov – national team’s keeper, Nasko Sirakov – former national player and footballer for [Real] Zaragoza and Espanyol, [players who should act like professionals] were all cursing, hitting, threatening and pushing him [the referee] while we were celebrating in front our ecstatic fans. At the age of 19, I won my first cup during my first season with the club I love – the team of the army.’
One thing is constant though – this was without any doubt the ugliest of derbies in the history of Bulgarian football. The consequences after it were beyond severe – the clubs were obliged to change their names and presidents as Krustyo Chakarov and Boris Stankov were both expelled from the Bulgarian sport. What’s more, key footballers from both sides were suspended – Nasko Sirakov, Borislav Mihaylov, Plamen Nikolov and Emil Spasov from Levski were banned from Bulgarian football. In addition, Hristo Stoichkov from CSKA had to do his military service. The suspensions were announced by the dictator in our country back in the days – Todor Zhivkov. The ‘new’ clubs were called Vitosha (Levski) and Sredets (CSKA). The bans were lifted after the end of the communist regime but between 1985 and 1989, the policemen were sanctioning anyone who called the ‘brand-new’ clubs by their old names. Last but not least, Levski were stripped of their league title while CSKA – their domestic cup, just to be returned in 1989. Without some of their key players, Vitosha would finish 5th while Sredets would be 1 place above them in the upcoming season.
The infamous match against these 2 Bulgarian hegemons would never be forgotten even though the communist party tried to erase the memories of it happening. The match, which for a brief moment in the history of the game, changed the Bulgarian football.