Check out the best clubs, greatest players, and the history of soccer in Bulgaria.
Football was brought to Bulgaria in 1894 by Swiss teachers. The game was initially called by locals as ritnitop (“kickball”), and quickly gained popularity in the 20th Century.
In 1923, The Bulgarian Football Union (BFU), the country’s national federation was established, and became a FIFA member the following year.
Like many countries in Europe, football is the number one sport in Bulgaria and the national team has participated seven times to the World Cup, the first in 1962.
Bulgarian football league system
The two main football competitions in Bulgaria are the A PFG (Professional Football Group) and B PFG.
A PFG is the top-flight football division of Bulgaria, which typically starts in August and ends in May or June. It was founded in 1924 and is currently competed by 16 teams. Each team during the season plays all the others twice: away and at home. The A PFG champion automatically qualifies for the UEFA Champions League (Champions League).
B PFG is the second-highest football league in Bulgaria and is made up of two divisions of 12 teams each. The division of teams is determined by geography. Each season, three teams are automatically promoted to top-flight: the champion for each division (2) and the winner of the promotion play-off between the runners-up of each leg (1).
The third-level league in Bulgaria is called V AFG and is composed of four legs of 20 teams each (though at times each leg may play the season with less than 20 clubs). This division is semi-professional and every club is allowed only seven professional players. Teams that are relegated from this division go to play in the amateur regional leagues.
The Bulgarian Cup is a single-elimination tournament that is open to all registered clubs in the country. Founded in 1938, Levski Sofia holds most title with 26 while CSKA Sofia follows with 19. The fixtures usually run from November to May of the following year.
Bulgarian football clubs
Bulgaria has a total of more than 500 clubs in the regional, amateur, and professional levels. CSKA Sofia and Levski Sofia are the two most successful football clubs in the country and are known for their fierce rivalry against each other, which is dubbed the Eternal Derby.
Levski Sofia was founded in 1914 by young students and has since then evolved to become one of Bulgaria’s most successful clubs with 26 league titles, 26 domestic cups, and three super cups. The blue club, in previous times, was the symbol of the poor and liberal.
CSKA (Bulgarian initial for Central Sports Club of the Army) was formed in 1948 with the support of the Ministry of War. They have the most league titles at 31 and have also won 19 domestic cups and three super cups. Previously, the club has been associated with the political party and the rich but the club no longer has any of ties of the army today.
Slavia Sofia is the third best-performing club in the country, but follows far behind the two capital city giants with seven domestic league titles.
National football team of Bulgaria
The Bulgarian national football squad played their first World Cup in 1962 but were eliminated during group stages. They would qualify three more times but it would not be until the 1986 World Cup in Mexico that they would make it past group stage.
Bulgaria’s best World Cup performance was in the 1994 World Cup in USA, when they defeated Germany in the quarter finals to progress to the semis. They finished the tournament in fourth place, in a 1-2 defeat against Italy. The last World Cup that Bulgaria participated in was in 1998, where they exited after Round 1 in a 6-1 defeat to Spain.
Greatest Bulgarian footballers
There are many great Bulgarian footballers who left their mark in international football. Borislav Mihailov is the most consistent goalkeeper the country has produced and has recorded 102 caps in his career. Trivan Ivanov is an iconic defender for Bulgaria while midfielder Stiliyan Petrov is promising to become the most capped Bulgarian. Below are the three Bulgarian footballers who are considered the best of all time.
Hristo Stoichkov is considered the all-time greatest Bulgarian football player. He led CSKA Sofia to the league titles and Barcelona to four consecutive La Liga trophies and the Champions League title in 1992. He was also the key driving force to Bulgaria’s 1994 fourth place finish.
Nicknamed Kamata (the Dagger), Stoichkov is a certified football bad boy, being remembered as much for his temper as his skills. He often caused trouble on the pitch and was unbridled when it came to words. Stoichkov became European Footballer of the Year in 1994.
Next to Stoichkov, Krassimir Balakov is considered the finest footballer of Bulgarian blood. A midfield powerhouse, he often directed his team’s offense and was part of Bulgaria’s golden generation. Balakov started playing on the streets and after his retirement, dedicated his time to being a FIFA children’s ambassador.
Berbatov is remarkable for his touch on the ball and his knack for scoring. He scored most goals for Bulgaria with 48 in 77 matches by the time of his international retirement in 2010. His classy and calm style of play earned him criticisms for being lazy. Yet Berbatov has proved time and again that beneath that apparent laziness is intelligence and a composure that is unparalleled in his Premier League time. Those characteristics of Berbatov earned him comparisons with French football legend (Best french football players) and former United great Eric Cantona.
Bulgarian football stadiums
Football stadiums in Bulgaria are not large by international standards but they play significant part in the lives of local fans: it is in their grounds that they are free to display their strong and, at times, wild passion for football. Most of the largest grounds in the country are found in the capital city of Sofia.
Vasil Levski National Stadium
The biggest football ground in Bulgaria is the Vasil Levski National Stadium, which is home to their national team. The 43,000 all-seater is named after a hero who fought Turkish rule in the country in the 19th Century. The Vasil Levski Stadium is also the venue Champions League games and of the Bulgarian Cup final, the second most important title in the country.
Hristo Botev Stadium & Ovcha Kupel Stadium
Two stadiums tie for the second largest capacity in the country: the Hristo Botev Stadium and Ovcha Kupel Stadium, both with 32,000 all-seaters and home to lower division clubs.
Georghi Asparuhov Stadium
Levski Sofia, one of the most storied Bulgarian clubs, owns the fourth largest ground in the country the Georghi Asparuhov Stadium (29,000). Its fierce rival, CSKA Sofia, plays at the 22,000-seater Balgarska Armiya Stadium (Bulgarian Army Stadium). CSKA’s management currently plans to demolish their grounds to make way for a bigger one.
Other interesting facts about Bulgarian football
Bulgarian football league controversy
Many big Bulgarian football clubs, like CSKA Sofia, Levski Sofia, and Litex Lovech, have been linked to local mafias. Syndicates are said to use clubs to make their illegal income legitimate by claiming to have earned them through their club, a practice called money laundering.
The Bulgarian football league has also been in scrutiny for match-fixing scandals and illegal gambling. Reports of tax evasion are prevalent as well.
Football hooligans in Bulgaria
Equivocally, football is a cause of unity and division in Bulgaria. One of the causes for divisions is hooliganism. Hooligans intensify tension among fans in football matches and also cause riots. They are also known for violent actions towards opposing fans and even authorities.
The biggest hooligans in Bulgaria are the supporters of CSKA Sofia, collectively called the Army Men or the Reds. The Army Men are made up of many hooligan groups like CSKA SS Front, Torcida Plovdiv, Ultras Front Vratza, to name some.