Close your eyes for a moment, and try to imagine life as a Walsall FC supporter. Not the easiest thing to do, I’ll admit that, but just indulge me for a moment. You’ve toiled away in the lower divisions of the English football system forever, never really threatening to make the move up to the highest level. You’re playing at home to Rochdale and away at Southend, and that seems about right.
You fall on tough times, and bankruptcy seems inevitable. A group of local entrepreneurs and former players decide to revive Walsall, focusing on youth and trying to get the background of the club in good shape. After a chance meeting at a boat show, a businessman invests €25,000 into the club. This leads to promotion to the second tier of league football, at which point the businessmen takes over the club and invests €250,000. Three years later, Walsall FC are taking a sixth-minute lead against Real Madrid.
Much of this has been simplified of course, but the story of five times Bulgarian champions Ludogorets follows the same lines. This week the team known as The Eagles will travel to London to take on Arsenal in the UEFA Champions League, two seasons removed from facing Liverpool at the same stage. Gunners fans must be licking their lips in anticipation of learning all about Bulgarian football, right? Well, probably not, but here’s an idiot’s guide to Ludogorets regardless.
In northeastern Bulgaria lies a town called Razgrad. Home to some 34,000 people or so, Razgrad is famous for approximately zero things. The town has a sizeable Turkish minority, and also plays host to one of the biggest mosques in Europe (non-Turkish division), albeit a ruined mosque. It was also home to a football team named after the town, a team established in 1945 who generally plied their trade in Bulgaria’s third tier. The team were called Antibiotik during the 90s, before reverting back to Razgrad in the new millennium.
That same new millennium saw tough times for Razgrad however, and bankruptcy became their bed-fellow. A number of local entrepreneurs and former players decided to save the club, investing a little bit of money and deciding to focus on youth development through the club. It worked, as long as we’re judging success by stability. In 2008 the club was introduced to Kiril Domuschiev, the owner of a boat club and all-round rich Bulgarian dude. Domuschiev was convinced into investing in the club, and €25,000 of his own money went into the now-named Ludogorets.
Promotion to the second tier of Bulgarian football was subsequently achieved, at which point the club returned to Domuschiev to see if he would be willing to invest further. The amount asked for? €250,000. No small amount of money in the Balkans I assure thee, but Domuschiev decided to go ahead with the deal with one small caveat; he would own the club. Hands were shook, i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed, the ink drying on legal ownership of Ludogorets Razgrad.
Domuschiev had no real football experience however, and decided to run Ludogorets purely as a business. This would prove to be the most poorly-disguised blessing in Bulgarian football history, as free of passionate stupidity and blind love Ludogorets progressed as any well-run business would. Promotion to Bulgaria’s top league was achieved a year later, and Ludogorets had no interest in just trying to survive up top.
Bulgarian football is a mess, and has been for a long time. The domestic league is generally regarded as the most corrupt in the world (let that sink in for a moment), and holds the dubious record for having the most murdered club owners in the world. Heck, at least 15 have been gunned down in the last decade alone. Lokomotiv Plovdiv had three owners shot in three years in the mid 2000s. The overwhelming majority of clubs are run by various wings of various mafias, and a 2015 Wikileaks likened the domestic league to professional wrestling. There aren’t really allegations of match-fixing, because everyone knows match-fixing has become the norm.
Baby steps have been taken to fight this, but the roots of organised crime in football are so deep in Bulgaria that it may have been best to take a flamethrower to the whole thing and start again. At the end of the 2014/15 season Lokomotiv Sofia and CSKA Sofia were relegated to lower divisions due to corruption, a move seen by many as proof that the problem was to be dealt with. Fast forward one year however, and the end of 2015/16 saw CSKA under new ownership and announcing a merger with Litex Lovech (who had been kicked out of the league earlier in the year for walking off the pitch in protest against Levski Sofia), regaining their place in the top division in the process.
It is fairly clear that any club with sound ownership, decent investment and well-trained bodyguards should be able to gain success in this league. Enter Ludogorets, who ended their first season in the top flight as champions of Bulgaria. The championship was won in dramatic fashion (almost too dramatic…), as a final-day win over CSKA meant the team from Razgrad leapfrogged their opponents into first place. The Eagles backed this up by winning the cup and the super cup, becoming only the second team in history (behind Levadia of Tallinn) to win the treble in their first season in their nation’s top flight.
Ludogorets have won every Bulgarian league title since, which is five in a row for those too lazy to count. Already this puts the club in fourth place for most titles overall (behind Levski, CSKA and Slavia Sofia) as well as being the most successful club from outside the capital. They have managed this without a lavish budget and without the help of referees and organised crime, at least as far as we know. They pay their players on time and continue to develop today, with plans to expand the Ludogorets Arena underway.
In 2014/15 they became only the second Bulgarian team (after Levski) to qualify for the Champions League group stages, doing so in remarkable fashion by beating Steaua Bucharest on penalties in the play-off. Sure, that doesn’t sound so remarkable, but the story grows when you realise that Ludogorets’ goalkeeper was sent off in teh 118th minute, meaning centre-back Cosmin Moti was in goal for the shoot-out. Moti wrote his name into club folklore by scoring one penalty and saving two, as Ludogorets won the shootout 6-5.
Ludogorets didn’t make it past the group stage that year, but they certainly didn’t disgrace themselves. In their first game they managed to score a 91st minute equaliser against Liverpool, only for Steven Gerrard to score a 93rd minute penalty and win it for his side. The next week they went 1-0 up against Real Madrid, eventually going down 2-1 thanks to a Ronaldo penalty and a 77th minute Karim Benzema strike. A 1-0 win over Basel followed, and at the halfway stage Ludogorets found themselves second in the group. They would finish bottom with four points, a more than respectable outcome.
Which brings us back to the current day. Ludogorets probably won’t play the most expansive football the Emirates has ever seen, but they will certainly be hard to defeat. No unlike Walsall then. A well-organised and transparent club is hard to find in Bulgaria, and the success of the men from the Wild Forest (‘Ludogorets’ translates as such0) should be respected, applauded and admired.
So go ahead and bet on a 94th minute penalty winning it for Arsenal.