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CSKA Sofia- A Unique Football Club

CSKA Sofia Badge (via Wikipedia)

With Armistice Day having passed, one now to file in the “for the curious” pile as we make our way to Eastern Europe for a look at CSKA Sofia- a Central Sporting Club of the Army which has kept many of its military links intact…


Founded in May of 1948, they can trace their roots back to an officers club formed in October 1923, sanctioned by the country's Ministry of War following a merger between three original Sofia clubs, Slava Sofia, Athletic Sofia & Officer Sport Club, which birthed a new entity AS-23- the new club's first chairman a lieutenant colonel by the name of Nikola Karagyozov.


The 1940-41 season would see several players called up for military service, though CSKA's forebear still managed to finish fifth in the Sofia Elite Division, sporting kit provided by Bulgaria's Ministry of Defence. Club secretary Ivan Bashev would later rise to become his country's Foreign Secretary, the club switching between ever- changing army departments in terms of patronage. They have played at the Bulgarian Army Stadium, renamed in 1990, since 1923 when it was known as the Atletik Park. From 1948-90 it was the People's Army Stadium, '48 also seeing Chavdar (as they had been renamed) Sofia become the club of the Central House of the Troops.


As their fortunes waned on the field of play, a solution presented itself. If you can't beat them, merge with them! Which is exactly what happened when Septemvri Sofia came onto the scene. They had already secured a place in the national league's play offs & would go on to secure their independence in 1949 before once again being merged into CSKA within twenty years & breaking away for good in 1988- they now play in Bulgaria's Second League.


By the dawn of the Eighties CSKA Sofia had won the country's top division & twice humbled Nottingham Forest 1-0 in the European Cup, before Liverpool nabbed a 6-1 aggregate win in the quarter finals. The next season it was Liverpool's turn to be nobbled after wins over Real Sociedad & Glentoran served as a prelude to a semi-final clash with Bayern Munich, winning the home leg 4-3 before crashing out 4-0 away. Their run to get that far is still the best performance in Europe by a Bulgarian club side, domestic dominance theirs until 1984-85 when they finished second behind local rivals Levski Sofia.


Communism's fall in the early Nineties saw the country's Ministry of Defence severing its ties with the club, though the league was theirs again by 1992. Hristo Stoichkov, probably one of Bulgaria's greatest players (legend- Ed), would leave for Barcelona after 81 goals in 119 games, later making a brief return in 1998 with a single goal from four games before a move to Saudi Arabia with Al-Nassr. Years before he had been banned by his country's Communist Party from playing for 'the Armymen' for his part in a heated Sofia derby in the Bulgarian Cup Final of 1985, CSKA beating Levski 2-1, both teams were punished before the decision to bar Stoichkov & others from playing was reversed.


He would later return for a short spell as manager between June & July of 2013, before he decided he couldn't wade on through the club's financial troubles of the time & leaving his post before taking charge of a game- he now holds a 20% stake in the club. These money troubles would lead to CSKA withdrawing from the 2013-14 Europa League before a takeover by the Red Champions- a group combining businessmen & former players,


A similar group is now at the helm, the damage done during the Red Champions' time leading to a drop into the third division after the Bulgarian FA took action over unpaid debts. Oligarch Grisha Ganchev became CSKA's new owner in June 2015, appointing former midfielder Hristo Yanev as manager with another ex-middleman in Plamen Markov as director of football.


Yanev had said during his time in that capacity that he wanted a fully Bulgarian eleven, though the current team boasts a fair few Brits- former Plymouth midfielder Graham Carey joined by ex- Birmingham City man Viv Solomon-Otabor in the middle of the pitch. While among the forward options is Tony Watt, who has enjoyed something of a nomadic career since first bursting onto the scene at Celtic in 2011, spending time in Belgium with Lierse, Standard Liege & OH Leuven between spells with Blackburn, Charlton & Cardiff among others.


All three arrived to play for the Armymen this year alongside former Derby centre back Raúl Albentosa, Watt telling the Scottish Sun that “Sofia is an amazing city, it’s beautiful and the weather has been brilliant. Waking up and seeing the sun every day makes a huge difference to your mood.You don’t get homesick as much when you’re in a city like this and a great climate. “


Of his new club he added “We are one of the top teams and expected to be challenging for the title. It’s competitive, teams sit in against us so we need to learn how to break them down.The team did well last season and the other strikers they have are good, so it’s competitive.”


Solomon-Otabor also gave his take on it to the English Sun, the move to the Bulgarian Army Stadium the best offer on the table according to the man himself. “There were quite a few options floating around, but then CSKA made their interest known and came in with a good offer.


They tried hard to get me, which opened my eyes to the possibility of moving out there. I spoke to my family for weeks and then we all came to the decision that I should sign for Sofia.


I had always thought about playing abroad at some point during my career and if the opportunity came up I was always going to be open to it.”


Having taken the plunge & opted for conscription, the new boys will be looking to help CSKA end an eleven year wait for a league title, 31 such successes currently racked up after the last saw them go the entire 2007-08 season unbeaten & finish sixteen points ahead of Levski, only money troubles stopping them getting into the Champions League. Can they reach those heights once more & stop Ludogorets Razgrad sitting top of the First League tree for a ninth consecutive season?

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