Dimitar Ivankov: The penalty kick specialist who played as a goalkeeper

Dimitar Ivankov: The penalty kick specialist who played as a goalkeeper

When you think about lethal finishers, who played in the middle of the goal, the likes of Rogério Ceni, René Higuita and José Luis Chilavert are the ones who pop up in your mind at first thought. However, one goalkeeper who goes slightly under the radar is the fourth highest goalscoring goalie worldwide (and the first European)- the Bulgarian shot-stopper Dimitar Ivankov. His career and passion for scoring goals while staying between the posts will be the main topic of this article.

Dimitar Ivanov Ivankov was born on 30th October 1975 in Sofia, Bulgaria. At first, Dimitar wasn’t that interested in football- when he was a child the first sport he took up was, in fact, handball. He participated in the handball team of Levski Sofia as a goalkeeper. His coaches immediately outlined his excellent diving abilities and recommended Ivankov to the football trainers. Dimitar switched the sport and gradually progressed through the youth setups of Levski. It is probably fair to say that Ivankov’s debut came out of the blue- back in 1996, the 21-year-old was a third-choice goalkeeper for his childhood club but injuries of the other two keepers (Plamen Nikolov and Krasimir Kolev) enabled an opportunity for Ivankov to gain some first-team experience. In his first minutes as a professional footballer, the shot-stopper had the hard task to keep a clean sheet against NK Olimpija Ljubljana in the second qualifying round of the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup. The reverse fixture in Bulgaria ended up in a penalty shootout in which Ivankov managed to save a penalty which wasn’t enough for his team to advance through the next round. He had the opportunity to play for the team now and then which made him a first-team option sooner than expected.

This leads us to 1st April 1998 and more specifically- the match between Levski Sofia and Etar (Veliko Tarnovo). In the 37th minute, Levski was awarded a penalty when winning by the slimmest of margins. However, the decision who to take the important shot was shocking- the goalkeeper Dimitar Ivankov stepped up and converted the penalty. This was the Bulgarian’s very first goal in his professional career with 41 more to come. When asked about why exactly he was the chosen one to take penalties on a regular basis, in two interviews, Dimitar explained:

‘I stayed a lot after the end of the training sessions and worked specifically on my penalty kicks. My teammates and coaches saw that I had the needed abilities but at the start, they thought I was messing around. After some months, however, I improved myself in that regard and everyone was taking me seriously.’

‘I was responsible for the penalties at Levski because I was able to hold my nerves. I remember the match versus Brøndby IF (4:1) when I took a penalty without the permission of my coach. After the game Slavoljub Muslin [the manager] was angered about my decision but all my teammates were nervous about taking the penalty, so I did what I felt was right.’

During his time in Sofia, Ivankov played an important role in Levski’s ‘golden’ years. He was a pivotal part of the team, which won 3 domestic league titles in 3 consecutive years. What’s more, for 9 seasons in a Levski shirt Dimitar lifted the domestic cup 5 times- the last one being the final game for Ivankov with the Bulgarian club. In the summer of 2005, the keeper moved abroad joining a team in the neighbouring country of Bulgaria- Turkey. Kayserispor paid approximately €250K for the acquisition of Ivankov. By that time, he was well-known for his tendency to take penalty kicks and was one of the main takers in his new club as well. One of his most memorable matches was the cup final against Gençlerbirliği which ended in an 11-10 penalty-kick thriller in which Ivankov found himself on the winning side whilst scoring 2 penalties and saving 3. Months after this success Ivankov was transferred to Bursaspor. Another unforgettable campaign for the keeper was the 2009/10 one which saw his new team winning their first and, as of right now, the only title in the top tier of Turkish football. In addition, this was Dimitar’s most fruitful season, scoring from the penalty spot 5 times in 34 games. He went on to play for one more season with them before reuniting with his former teammate and coach at Levski, Stanimir Stoilov, in the Cypriot club Anorthosis Famagusta. Sadly, Dimitar was released 3 matches after his arrival due to the disappointing collapse in the Europa League’s third qualifying round against FK Rabotnički Skopje. Ivankov was one of the main reasons for the club’s failure on the European stage. This put an end to his career path in which he managed to find the back of the net 42 times making him one of the most iconic goalkeepers in that regard worldwide.

Right now, Ivankov is trying to help his beloved club in the most difficult times for the team by being a goalkeeping coach. Levski is recognised for the production of quality goalkeepers and Dimitar Ivankov is, without any doubt, included in this prestigious list.

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