Or, everything you wanted to know about the football clubs of Bulgaria’s capital city but were afraid to ask. One of my launch articles on BTLM back in 2012 included the first in what I planned to be a regular series called The Football Cities of Europe and finally, four years later, I’m revisiting the series.
There’s good reason for the tardiness in returning to this theme. Researching, writing and attempting to visually map out the ridiculously complex footballing history of Brussels was a project so time and energy-sapping that it’s taken me four years to summon up the willpower to attempt it again. So this time I’m simplifying things a little for the benefit of you, the reader, and especially for me, the put-upon writer. I could regale you with tales of some of Sofia’s more quixotic clubs like Regiment 1605 and 6th September Factory, but instead I’m choosing not to delve into every dark and obscure corner of Sofia’s footballing back story.
This time I’ve selected fifteen clubs whose collective histories encompass just about everything worth knowing about football in Bulgaria’s main footballing city. Of those 15 clubs: 5 have played in European competition, 6 have been national champions, 8 have won the national Cup and 10 have appeared in the national Cup Final. Poignantly 10 is also the number of clubs featured here that no longer exist, though 7 of them were lost in mergers that created some of the clubs still active today. Virtually every Bulgarian club and domestic competition has been through multiple name changes over the decades, so for simplicity and consistency I’m using the most commonly used and recognised versions throughout this piece.
Sofia’s Big Four
An illustrious quartet comprising Slavia (most successful pre-WW2), CSKA (most successful in Communist times), Levski (most successful in the modern era) and Lokomotiv.
1) CSKA Sofia. (1948-)
CSKA (Central Sports Club of the Army) is the biggest and most successful club in Bulgaria having won a record 31 titles and 20 national cups. While the other members of the big four were all active and enjoying success pre-WW2, CSKA was a post-war communist construct with strong links to the army. Formed in 1948, its origins lay in the merger of several successful pre-war clubs including AS 23 and Shipka (both clubs that feature later in this article).
A first championship arrived in the club’s debut season and a further 25 followed at regular intervals over the next four decades of communist rule. A major re-organisation of Bulgarian football in 1969 brought an attempt to reduce the number of major clubs through consolidation. CSKA absorbed second division club Septemvri Sofia and were technically renamed as CSKA Septemvriysko zname – although internationally were still known as plain old CSKA Sofia. The army club didn’t acquire any notable players from the merger, but did benefit from extending their civilian base and inheriting the up and coming prospects from Septemvri’s strong youth policy. The two clubs eventually demerged in 1988.
While Bulgarian clubs have broadly underperformed at European level, CSKA has easily made more impact than any of their compatriots in reaching four European Cup semi-finals. The club became known as a dethroner of European champions thanks to the manner in which they eliminated the competition holders on three occasions during the 1970s and 80s – including both Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.
The post-communism era has been less kind to a CSKA club now no longer affiliated with the military. Just five additional titles have been won in the past quarter of a century and the unthinkable happened in 2015 when the club was sent down to the third tier of the Bulgarian game due to debts. Surprisingly CSKA won the 2016 Bulgarian Cup despite their current lower-division amateur status.
2) Levski Sofia. (1914-)
The other half of Bulgarian football’s elite, ‘the team of the people’ was created in 1914 and took the first of its 26 national titles in 1933. Levski won titles on a regular basis in the post-WW2 era though tended to be cast into the shadows by stronger CSKA teams propped up by players called up to perform national service. Levski has been the more consistent and successful of the pair post-1990 though and their haul of 25 national Cup wins remains a record.
Never especially potent in Europe, Levski’s best campaigns took them to the Quarter-Finals of the Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup on four occasions between 1970 and 1987. If you’ve heard of Levski Spartak and are wondering if this is the same club as Levski Sofia, you’d technically be correct. This change was a consequence of that 1969 reorganisation that mashed together Levski with fellow top flight club Spartak Sofia (plus second tier Sportist Sofia). The merged club was known as Levsky Spartak during the 1970s and early 80s, then Vitosha during the second half of the 1980s. The pair separated fully in 1990 and resumed under their former pre-1969 titles.
3) Slavia Sofia (1913-)
Formed in 1913 with a historical connection to the capital’s construction workers, Slavia is Bulgaria’s oldest active organised sports club and is the country’s third most successful football institution with seven titles and seven national cup wins. All but one of those titles came between 1928 and 1943 as Slavia’s early dominance of the Bulgarian game dissipated after the war. One further title arrived in 1996 with most of the club’s best moments in the second half of the last century tending to come in the national cup competition.
Their peak years might have been in the 1930s, but Slavia was strong in the 1960s too and achieved its best European performance in 1967 by reaching the semi-finals of the Cup Winners Cup with a team that featured six Bulgarian internationals.
The 1969 reorganisation was traumatic for Slavia when pushed into a forced merger with Lokomotiv to create a new club named GKS Slavia. In a rare example of mass fan protest forcing a climbdown by the authorities, this merger was reversed after just two seasons.
4) Lokomotiv Sofia (1929-2015)
The club of the railway workers was founded in 1929 with the first of their four national championship wins coming in 1940 while playing under the name of Railway Sports Club – the Lokomotiv name had been adopted by the time of their second championship in 1945. Further titles were secured in 1964 and 1978 along with four post-war Bulgarian Cup wins, the most recent coming in 1995.
We mentioned above the abortive merger between Slavia and Lokomotiv in the middle of the 1968-69 season with the clubs placed in sixth and fifth place respectively at the time. Lokomotiv have appeared in Europe on a number of occasions and their best performance came in reaching the Quarter Finals of the 1979-80 UEFA Cup.
Lokomotiv’s modern history has been considerably less auspicious culminating in its 2015 dissolution because of unpaid debt. A new club with a similar name has sprung up to replace it and now plays in the second level of the Bulgarian game.
The Inter-War clubs of Distinction
5) AS 23 (1923-44)
We’ve written at length about AS 23 and Sportklub in our Lost Champions series, but here’s a brief synopsis anyway. As their name suggests, AS 23 (or Athletic Slava 23) started out in 1923 and existed for 21 years before being bloodily dissolved in 1944. The club originated as the footballing wing of the Tsar’s Army and won its solitary Bulgarian title in 1931, further adding a national cup to its list of honours a decade later.
The new post-war communist government identified it as a fascist organisation and two of AS 23’s organisers were controversially executed despite being noted WW1 veterans. The club was forced to merge with Shipka Sofia as the first stage of the complicated process that brought about the advent of CSKA Sofia.
6) Sportklub Sofia (1912-44)
Originally established in 1912 as Karavelov, the Sportklub name was adopted in 1920 following, yes, you guessed it, a merger. Sportklub’s moment in the sun arrived in 1935 when they secured the one significant honour in their short history: the state championship (which doubled as the national championship) thanks a 4-0 win against Ticha Varna in the final.
During the war Sportklub absorbed a couple of other local clubs and briefly became known as Sportklub-Sredets, but it was a short-lived stay of execution with the Bulgarian football map set to be radically redrawn by the communists. Once hostilities ceased SK disappeared altogether in ignominious fashion as they became one of seven clubs hurriedly thrown together to create Septemvri.
7) Shipka Sofia (1923-44)
Formed initially as FC Sparta in 1923, this club changed its name to Shipka the following year and adopted its briefly famous green and white striped shirt. A first promotion to the State Football Championship arrived in 1937 and Shipka maintained that level for three years, winning the Bulgarian Cup in 1939 for good measure. Disappeared in a merger with AS23 and King Boris III in 1944.
8) FK 13 (1909-44)
FK 13 boasted cosmopolitan beginnings. Starting life as FC Savata in 1909 when thirteen Bulgarian students from the Galatasaray High School in Istanbul decided to create a football club, things only really got moving four years later when the students returned to the Bulgarian capital and renamed their club as FK 13. Never a League winner but twice enjoying cup success in 1938 and 1940, FK 13 carried on until its 1944 dissolution through a merger into Rakovski Sofia. Rakovski was further merged with FC Yunak in 1947 to become Spartak Sofia.
9) Sportist Sofia (1936-49)
Formed in 1936 and playing most of its short 13 year history in the Sofia regional leagues. Sportist’s high-point came in 1945 when the club reached (and lost) in the national championship play-off final. Along with Sportklub, Sportist was absorbed into the new Septemvri Sofia entity in 1949.
The Post-War Generation
10) Spartak Sofia (1947-2007)
Spartak was assembled just after the war via the merger of two clubs, one of whom was the former Cup winners FK 13. The early 1950s was Spartak’s zenith as they finished League runners-up in both 1951 and 1952, although their only major trophy win would follow later with an unlikely Bulgarian Cup success in 1968. Just a matter of months after winning that surprise honour the club was merged into Levski Sofia and spent the next 21 years as the junior partner in Levski-Spartak.
Independence was restored in 1990 without Spartak ever managing to re-establish an identity for itself after such a long absence. Spartak became a feeder club for its former partner a couple of years before disappearing altogether in 2007.
11) Septemvri Sofia (1944-)
Yet another club that came together in the 1940s as a result of a clumsy and hurried multiple merger of many of the capital’s fringe clubs. No fewer than seven of them – including former national champions Sportklub – came together over a 6 month period to form Septemvri (September), named after the month the country’s communist revolution took place.
Septemvri’s brief golden era came at the beginning of the sixties when, as a newly promoted club, they won the Bulgarian Cup in 1960 and finished in fifth place in the top flight. To emphasise the fleeting nature of that success, the following season Septemvri was relegated once again. Respected nationally for a strong youth policy, Septemvri disappeared in 1969 when it was forcibly subsumed into CSKA.
Granted its independence once more in 1998, Septemvri has returned to the top flight just once (in season 1998-99) and fell down into the regional leagues after the turn of the century. The club is currently playing at its natural level in the Second League having itself absorbed several smaller local rivals.
12) Akademik Sofia (1947-2012)
A club whose name hints strongly at its origins, Akademik was indeed formed in 1947 by students from Sofia University. The club first reached the top-tier of the Bulgarian game in 1950 and a first Cup final in 1951 before settling into life as an elevator club with regular relegations and promotions.
The forced merger in 1969 of many of their city rivals brought unexpected opportunity for Akademik. The club was handed automatic promotion to make up the numbers in the First League, and for good measure was given Spartak Sofia’s points total at the time of their merger into Levski and the option to sign all the players from the lost clubs not given a role within the new merged institutions.
Akademik duly spent the next decade at the top level and even qualified for UEFA Cup football on a couple of occasions following high League finishes. Relegation came along again in 1982 and this time Akademik would have to wait nearly three decades until 2010 for a return. This promotion didn’t spell any sort of restoration of earlier fortunes however, instead proving to be the most temporary of stays of execution. Relegation followed immediately in 2011 and by 2012 Akademik had ceased operations altogether.
The Short-Lived 1950s Interlopers
Three other clubs from the capital made fleeting contributions to the ever-changing nature of the 1950s A-League.
13) Stroitel Sofia (1949-54)
Stroitel was formed in 1949 as the Sofia wing of the broader national Stroitel DSO (Voluntary Sports Organisation) which encompassed those working in the construction industry, health care, agriculture and forestry. Stroitel managed to finish as runners-up in the League in 1950 before being continually refigured over the next few seasons through to 1954 when the Stroitel DSO was disbanded nationally.
14) VVS Sofia (1949-56)
Where the Soviets led the Bulgarians would faithfully follow. The creation of a new post-war football club affiliated to the Soviet Air Force and named VVS Moscow was an act quickly mirrored by its Bulgarian equivalent and named, predictably, VVS Sofia. The new military club successfully reached the A-League and spent two seasons there attaining a best finish of 8th place in 1955. The following year they were absorbed by CSKA Sofia.
15) Zavod 12 Sofia (1949-56)
This was a workers club from Factory 12 that made industrial vehicles and was a part of a broader VSO most closely associated with Levski. Zavod 12 spent three seasons at the top level of the Bulgarian game in the 1950s and recorded an impressive fourth placed finish during their debut year in 1954. Relegated after play-offs in 1956, the club disappeared shortly afterwards.