In the broader scheme of things, a barrage of rotten fruit and vegetables is not the worst welcome a national team can face upon return from a disastrous World Cup tournament. The 1966 Italian squad famously suffered this indignity at Genoa airport, an angry crowd throwing ripe insults and overripe produce at their lazy, greedy and vainglorious players who had underperformed so markedly in England.
No-one would have thought to label the feckless stars as unpatriotic or ideologically unsound though, and certainly no-one would have started an insidious persecution campaign against them as punishment. After a disappointing tournament of their own four years later in Mexico, this was the sinister welcome Bulgaria’s players and coaching staff faced upon their return to Sofia.
Bulgaria’s Olympic team winning a silver medal two years earlier in Mexico City encouraged the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) in their hopes the national team might also prosper at the 1970 World Cup. Olympic football was a sham though, dominated by eastern European nations through a generous interpretation of amateurism, and as a tournament it was no guide to World Cup prospects at all.
Some optimism could certainly be engendered by a decent squad peppered with a handful of genuinely excellent players: keeper Simeonov, full back Shalamanov, striker Yakimov and the attacking maverick Georgi Asparuhov were all well-respected players across the continent. Most of the same squad had played in Bulgaria’s disastrous 1966 tournament though, while Yakimov and Asparuhov went back even further as veterans of the similarly disappointing 1962 tournament.
The Bulgarian 1970 campaign kicked off against a little known and much underrated Peru side. Comfortably leading 2-0 a few minutes into the second half, Bulgaria conspired to eventually lose 3-2 in the first of a number of surprises the South Americans would spring in the competition. A goal by Nikodimov again gave them a lead in their next game, but their opponents, West Germany, would casually brush aside this early set back to win 5-2. Morocco would be Bulgaria’s final opponents and once more a lead was established, but not held. The group minnows equalised in the second half and the game ended 1-1.
A single point and early elimination from a group Bulgaria had been expected to qualify from was seen as abject failure. Recriminations would be quick to follow, starting with the inevitable state media-driven propaganda campaign against the travelling party. The first targets were the President of the Bulgarian Football Federation (BFF), Nedyalko Donski, and the team coach Stefan Bozhkov. Both were summarily dismissed from their positions for what the Bulgarian news agency BTA described as ‘lack of patriotic responsibility’. The state-run newspaper, Rabotnichesko Delo, condemned Donski and the BFF for poor tournament preparation and for the lack of information and knowledge about the other teams. If that wasn’t damning enough, the generally poor state of the Bulgarian game was added as a further embellishment to the charge sheet.
The Deputy Chairman of the snappily titled Central Council of Bulgaria’s Physical Culture & Sports Union, Georgi Georgiev, signed the dismissal statement and appointed himself as temporary BFF president. It was probably no great coincidence that one of the benefits that came with the position was a sizeable Sofia apartment with effective central heating, a rare commodity in Bulgaria at the time.
The Sports Union ambiguously explained that the team’s coach Bozhkov was dismissed for not providing the players with ‘suitable training.’ The Council followed up publicly with its criticism and dissection of each match, focusing in particular on the apparent lack of stamina that saw the team flag badly later in games – Bulgaria failed to score a goal beyond the 49 minute mark while seven of the nine conceded came in the second-half of games.
Stefan Bozhkov had been a much-respected figure in the Bulgarian game and a former international player himself, yet his previous reputation now counted for nothing as the door to future management positions at club level was firmly closed. It would be 12 years before he worked again in a similar capacity. The players were hardly likely to be absolved of responsibility for the fiasco either. The contracted payments they had agreed for their time in Mexico were suspended and all 22 squad members were deprived of their special ‘national team player’ status. This was a significant loss of privilege which, among other things, denied them vouchers to use in one of the two special Sofia stores that stocked western goods for the party elite.
The official communiqué made veiled references to ‘decisions that would need to be made as to which of the players have the necessary qualities to be included in future international squads.’ Mention was made that certain individuals might be excluded altogether for ‘anti-party activities.’ This was a statement deliberately aimed at star forward Dimitar Yakimov after he dared to challenge the official line and suggest there were broader reasons behind the failure.
Yakimov had a point though: there were inconvenient truths about Bulgarian football in general, and the 1970 campaign specifically, which didn’t fit the ruling party’s chosen narrative. A lack of focus on stamina and fitness had long been a feature of the Bulgarian game. This was partly cultural as skills with the ball were vastly more prized than lung power, and partly a by-product of the staleness of the domestic League. The BCP’s continual pointless restructuring, merging and demerging of the top clubs had weakened the fabric of competition, as did the unwillingness to contemplate any form of official professionalism.
Whilst countries like Yugoslavia allowed their best players to move abroad late in their careers to better their individual lot, the refusal of the Bulgarian authorities to permit the sale of Georgi Asparuhov to Benfica several seasons earlier had made it clear lucrative foreign transfers were not an option for the top Bulgarian stars. Players lacked the motivation to work hard and improve their game as a result.
Bozhkov had harboured longstanding concerns about the general lack of intensity and had asked unsuccessfully for the League campaign to be shortened, or at least completed early to allow him extra time for the necessary physical preparations for Mexico. A severe winter had led to multiple domestic postponements and by the March of 1970 outstanding fixtures were piling up.
Teams were now playing several times a week to clear the backlog and this heavy schedule led to a spate of injuries suffered by key players. The BFF panicked and backtracked rapidly by suspending all football, but by then the harm had already been done. Asparuhov had picked up an ankle injury which would greatly reduce his effectiveness in Mexico – a repeat of what had happened four years earlier – while Shalamanov, Penev and Gaidarski were all notably under par for similar reasons too.
Most telling of all was the squad’s failure to properly acclimatise beforehand with high-altitude training in Mexico. This was no oversight by the unfortunate Bozkhov who requested such facilities, but limited funding meant the best he could negotiate was a stint with the squad at Belmeken in the Rhodope Mountains. Not only was this not the high-altitude and dry air of Mexico, it wasn’t even abroad. Belmeken is a high-altitude, moist air resort 140km from Sofia.
Training the squad did there was not useless, but it was limited preparation for the quite different metabolic challenge of Mexico. Appreciating this broader context, it’s perhaps easy to understand why the Bulgarian players were so lacking in energy later in games compared to opponents who had prepared more thoroughly.
High-level Bulgarian response to the complex issues that undermined their 1970 World Cup campaign was depressingly typical of communist regime mentality. Amidst the incompetence and the desperate attempts by party officials to jockey for position and deflect the blame to others, simple sporting failure could never be accepted as just simple sporting failure. There had to be public humiliations, scapegoats had to be made of decent men and most unpleasantly of all, those scapegoats had to be tarnished with the insinuation that their failure had ideological undertones. When you were labelled as an enemy of sport, you also became, by association, an enemy of the people. Your life just became that bit more difficult.
Unsurprisingly, Bulgaria never won a single international tournament game under Communist rule.