The triumph and tragedy of Georgi Asparuhov, Bulgarian football’s original icon

The triumph and tragedy of Georgi Asparuhov, Bulgarian football’s original icon

Ask any non-Bulgarian who the greatest footballer ever produced from that country is, and the answer you receive will be quite unanimous: Hristo Stoichkov. It is an answer difficult to argue with; the Barcelona legend being their sole Ballon d’Or winner and widely regarded as one of the finest strikers of his generation.

But the response would be far from unanimous amongst Bulgarian natives – particularly those of a slightly older vintage. More than a few from that demographic would answer quickly and in one solitary word: Gundi.

Georgi Rangelov Asparuhov was born on 4 May 1943 in the Sofia district of Reduta. A boy of natural talent playing in the local junior leagues, he successfully attended trails at Levski Sofia. Once accepted into their under-16 squad – who were charged with preparing the youngsters for their graduation into the senior team – coach Konstantin Georgiev told his first-team counterparts: “There is nothing we can do with him. The boy is a born footballer.”

Widely known as ‘Gundi’, he would make his senior debut for Levski at 17 years old against Botev Plovdiv. His professional career begun that day, as did a close but ultimately fateful relationship with Botev.

Tall and physically strong ahead of his years, the coaches saw him as a ready-made centre-half to help fill the void of quality defenders in their squad. Gundi always saw himself as a striker, but was a quiet and polite young man and grateful for the opportunity, so he forged himself into a defender and excelled immediately. Even from defence, it wasn’t long before he began scoring goals – his first coming, predictably, in a return match against Botev.

Gundi also excelled at volleyball and played at a high level, but as the rigours and time commitments of football came, he had to make a choice. It would seem like an easy decision, but young Asparuhov was becoming a little disillusioned with the beautiful game. It was an extremely physical sport with the hardest and most intimidating teams and individuals usually rising to the top.

Asparuhov’s ability and willingness to skip past onrushing opponents out of defence – often making them appear foolish – made him a target for being scythed down violently. This, coupled with him being played out of position, meant that a less lucrative but more enjoyable volleyball career became a serious threat to the young star’s budding career.

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He decided to stick with football and beat the bully-boy tactics with his grace and finesse. But he would eventually pay the ultimate price for his passion to play the game in the right manner and rebel against the thuggery that blighted Bulgarian football.

He received a call-up from the Bulgarian national youth team for a tournament in Austria. He had developed a swagger and was dominating from the back, and in a moment of sublime audacity, he scored a sensational goal from near the half-way line. The skill and an obvious eye for goal meant that both his coaches within the national setup and Levski agreed he should be utilised further up the field. He never played in defence again; Gundi the striker was born.

Unfortunately, before he got chance to plunder the goals he dreamt of doing for his beloved Levski, he was drafted for Bulgaria’s mandatory national service in 1961, but it was agreed he would be allowed to play for the professional club most local to where he was stationed near the town of Vratsa. That club was Botev Plovdiv.

In his first season with Botev, he transformed them from also-rans to third place in the league and, remarkably, winners of the Bulgarian Cup. In his second and final season they finished runners-up in the league.

His performances brought about an inevitable national team call-up as excitement grew around the country. Stellar performances in friendlies led to him being an automatic starter for Bulgaria and a place in their squad for the 1962 World Cup in Chile was assured for the 19-year-old. Despite a poor showing from his compatriots, which led to an exit at the group stage, Gundi impressed and the world was now aware that there was a prodigy emerging in Eastern Europe.

In the autumn of 1963, Asparuhov made his long-awaited return to Levski. They built their team around him and he predictably flourished. He became a prolific goalscorer and a leader, a figure of professionalism to the sport and commitment to his club and country.

Rapid, two-footed, elegant, strong in the air and impossible to barge off of the ball, the Bulgarian butchery tactics no longer worked on the fully evolved Gundi. He couldn’t be man-marked as he dropped deep to collect the ball, would skip past defenders on the turn and display the vision of a seasoned playmaker.

A love affair developed between Gundi, Levski and the supporters, but his gentlemanly manner, well ahead of his tender years, and his performances for Bulgaria led to him quickly becoming a national darling, given the nickname “the artist”.

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By 1965, it all came together for Asparuhov and Levski. He scored 27 goals in 29 matches and was awarded the national Sportsman of the Year title as he led his team to their first championship win in 12 long years.

At the end of the year, on 29 December, he set the world alight. Bulgaria went into a World Cup qualifying playoff match as huge underdogs against Belgium on neutral territory in Italy. Gundi’s performance was described as “divine” as he netted twice to send his country to the finals. Subsequently, he was nominated for the 1965 Ballon d’Or and achieved eighth place – ahead of the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Ferenc Puskás.

With Levski national champions, they embarked on a European Cup campaign. They were drawn against the mighty Benfica, featuring the Ballon d’Or winner, Eusébio. A 2-2 draw in Sofia and a narrow 3-2 defeat in Lisbon meant heroic and heartbreaking elimination. Gundi scored three of the Levski’s four goals and became the first away player to bag two goals in one game at the fortress that was the Estádio da Luz.

The Portuguese giants, as well as AC Milan, embarked on persistent and targeted campaigns to try and lure Asparuhov from Levski, Milan coach Nereo Rocco describing him as “the striker of my dreams.” Eusébio said of the Bulgarian, “I crave to play alongside Asparuhov. In the game between Benfica and Levski, he conquered Lisbon.”

But Bulgaria’s communist government refused to allow him to defect from their shores. When Levski were drawn against Milan in the 1967 Cup Winners’ Cup, the Italians reportedly offered him the equivalent of $500,000 to sign for them, safe and protected escape from Bulgaria and an equal wage to the highest-paid player at the San Siro.

But his loyalty to Levski, his country and his relationship with their supporters prevented him from accepting: “There is a country called Bulgaria, and in this country there is a team called Levski. You may not have heard of it, but there I was born and there I shall die” was the defiant message sent from Gundi to the AC Milan representatives.

Seemingly every World Cup had a group of death, and in 1966, after Gundi’s heroics had dragged them there, Bulgaria were the unfortunate team to be drawn into it. But each and every team in that group could boast of a superstar forward: Brazil had Pelé (and indeed Garrincha), Portugal had Eusébio, Hungary had former Ballon d’Or winner Flórián Albert, and Bulgaria had Georgi Asparuhov. The Eastern Europeans predictably failed to qualify from the group once again, but Gundi was their star once again and their one and only goalscorer.

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Following the World Cup, and with their inspirational talisman striking fear into every defence he came up against, Bulgaria began to look formidable. They demolished Sweden 3-0 and recorded victories over powerful nations in Italy, Turkey and the Netherlands. They took this form and the prayers of the whole nation to the home of football, as they would take on world champions England on the sacred turf of Wembley.

England were at full strength and hoped to put on a show for the 80,000 there to see the World Cup-winning heroes as Bobby Moore led out a team containing Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst and Bobby Charlton. But Gundi was arriving in London at the peak of his powers, having recently scored a hat-trick in the cauldron of the Sofia derby in a 7-2 win over CSKA.

As expected, England came forward with penetrating attacks, but the sturdy and well-organised visitors kept them at bay. After little over half an hour, Bulgaria once again cleared the ball high towards the halfway line. They had had everyone except Gundi behind the ball, and a frustrated England had pushed everyone forward except Everton centre-half Brian Labone, who was marking Gundi tightly – too tightly.

Asparuhov beat Labone in the air, cleverly flicking the ball high into the air for himself to spin and run onto. He left Labone in a heap, with right full-back Keith Newton sprinting across to cover. He anticipated Newton’s presence and knocked the ball forward out of his reach, allowing the defender’s momentum to carry him beyond the play,

Now he bearing down on goal. He calmly slotted the ball past debutant goalkeeper Gordon West to score what is regarded as one of the great Wembley goals. From the moment the ball arrived at him aerially on the halfway line with his back to goal, he had just five touches and 12 seconds before the ball was nestling in the corner of the net.

The match finished 1-1, with Hurst equalising a few minutes after Gundi’s heroics – his defensive teammates clearly still thrilled and distracted by what they had witnessed.

After the match, Gundi swapped shirts with Peters, who donated the iconic jersey to the West Ham museum at Upton Park. When the Hammers vacated for the London Stadium in 2016, the shirt was one of the items auctioned off and fetched £8,000.

Asparuhov’s devotion to Bulgaria and its football was taking its toll on him physically. As he was the one and only superstar in the bitterly tough, defensive league, he was targeted for rough treatment and provocation in every match he played. He was carrying injuries going into the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico but played through them, regularly doing the same for Levski.

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On 28 June 1971, a series of events started that would lead to tragedy. Asparuhov was playing in yet another bitterly contested derby against CSKA, and was once again targeted for special treatment. It had now been a decade of this and was threatening to cut his career short. Sadly, it did.

The CSKA players were ruthless in their aggression. Finally, Gundi snapped and retaliated in a rare flash of temper; shown a red card for violent conduct. He was suspended for the following match and so his former club Botev – where he was still idolised after scoring 38 goals in 60 games as a teenager – invited him as a guest to their 50th-anniversary celebrations.

It was a 70-mile drive across north-west Bulgaria from Sofia to Vratsa. Gundi asked his close friend and international teammate Nikola Kotkov – a goalkeeper nicknamed “the cat” – to join him. During the journey, Asparuhov pulled into a petrol station and filled up the tank of his Alfa Romeo. Whilst a lady working at the station injected the fuel, a hitchhiker asked Gundi if he could travel with them. Always friendly and willing to help, Gundi agreed and invited the stranger into the car.

The fuel bill was 9.20 leva. Asparuhov gave the lady 10 leva and insisted she take the change as a tip, but she insisted on getting him his change. When she came back from the cashier, the Alfa had gone. Gundi had sped away to ensure the young woman got her tip.

Just minutes down the Hemus motorway, driving through the scenic Balkan mountains in the Vintinya Pass, the car would collide horrifically with a truck. Within seconds, it set ablaze and all three men inside were killed. Kotkov was 32 years of age, Asparuhov just 28.

As well as his skill and his goals, Asparuhov is remembered fondly for his gentlemanly conduct on and off the pitch and for his loyalty and devotion to club and country. He was posthumously given the Fair Play award in 1999, and the title of Best Bulgarian Footballer of the 20th Century – ahead of Stoichkov. He was placed in 40th on FIFA’s list of all-time greatest players.

Levski currently play at the Georgi Asparuhov Stadium. He scored 170 goals in 266 matches for themm despite his first two seasons having been played as a central defender. With him as their talisman, they won three league titles and four cups. He netted 19 times in 50 appearances for his country, and over half a million people took to the streets to pay homage in Sofia during the joint funeral for him and Nikola Kotkov.

Bulgarians are still left to wonder what may have been had the generous Georgi Rangelov Asparuhov had accepted his change at that petrol station.

By Steven Bell @steven_bell1985

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