21 Midfielder Sporting Bulgaria
2014 has been...
Something of an anti climax. The Bulgarian national team has been in a rut for a number of years. A succession of talented individuals, such as Dmitri Berbatov and Martin Petrov, have added the odd dash of excitement, but the team has frequently been little more than average. You’ve got to go back to 1994 for a real high point for the Bulgarians and the swashbuckling golden generation led by Hristo Stoichkov which put then World Champions Germany to the sword.
Stoichkov, although the first name often recalled from that team, wasn’t the only show in town. A talented squad had enough about them to run finalists Italy very close in the semi final and while Stoichkov is often considered the man, Krasimir Balakov of Portugal’s Sporting was a more than competent sidekick. Both made the USA '94 team of the tournament.
Balakov became something of a cult hero at Sporting following his arrival in late 1990 and he was soon joined by the equally popular Ivaylo Yordanov, who would go on to spend a decade with the club. Buoyed by these, and several other successes, Sporting have maintained a watchful eye over Bulgarian football since, elbowing their way to the front of the queue should a new gem emerge.
Despite the unmitigated disaster that was Valeri Bojinov’s time at the club, Bulgaria was in vogue for Sporting again this summer as they completed the £2.2m signing of Litex Lovech’s 20-year-old golden boy Simeon Slavchev.
Already a full international and a veteran of over fifty appearances for the Lovech club, Slavchev has been likened to a young Frank Lampard; his positional sense, strength and ability to find the goal from deep lying positions making this a reasonable comparison. Indeed Sporting weren’t the only club interested, with both Chelsea and Tottenham keen to negotiate a deal for the youngster.
His outstanding form was enough to see the Sofia born midfielder awarded with the club captaincy by Zlatomir Zagorčić, but a poor start to the A Grupa Championship playoff earlier this year cost the coach his job and, following the appointment of Croatian Miodrag Ješić, Slavchev the captain’s armband.
Invariably Slavchev’s form suffered and with an impending departure imminent, the youngster was far less instrumental in Litex’s final games. On July 1, he became, to much fanfare in the Portuguese capital, a Sporting player and if there was a high point in 2014, this was it. From then on? Downhill. Rapidly.
In the #IBWM100 for 2013, we picked out Litex’s Georgi Milanov as a potential star and twelve months after his move to CSKA Moscow, we singled out former teammate Slavchev, one year younger, for a similar escalation. The move abroad arrived, but unlike Milanov, Slavchev has not bounced straight into a Champions League eleven, in fact, he’s barely featured for Sporting’s B team.
It’s not like Sporting’s second string have been any great shakes either, a 5-0 defeat to bottom of the table Atlético Clube recently a fairly representative performance for the team. Slavchev started, but didn’t return for the second half with his side already 3-0 down.
Recent comments in the press relating to his inability to settle in Portugal go some way to explaining the absolute crash that Slavchev has suffered over the last five months. While we would normally point out that, at 21, he has plenty of time to work things through; it’s worth noting that he’s one of the older players in Sporting’s reserve side. With a regular place in the second team an unlikely prospect, the chances of making an impact on a fairly average first eleven are completely impossible.
It’s all such a shame really, but emphasises just how tough the step up to the highest level can be for young players. The youngster we saw for Litex was something of a lion; scoring goals, bullying opponents and his award of the club captaincy, a matter of weeks after we’d found him a place in The 100, was entirely justified. But the fully formed man we see on a pitch is often a very pale shadow of the meek kid trapped in his hotel room that we know often exists off it. We can’t claim to know exactly how Simeon Slavchev is viewing things right now, but the transition from family life in eastern Europe to a high profile new one on the Iberian Peninsula has obviously been difficult. Adjusting to a new culture and learning a new language might seem like a wonderful opportunity to us ‘been round the track’ types, which it is, but it must be very easy to become disillusioned when things go wrong. At a young age it must be terrifying.
It may be that a loan back to his home country, at least in the short term, might be a good idea. An opportunity for both parties to reflect and go at things again later in 2015. Alternatively, Slavchev can tough it out at Sporting, it would certainly build character, but that looks a difficult route right now with no guarantees of the long-term effect.
The one saving grace here is that Slavchev is at a good club that has pedigree for bringing young players through. Things haven’t gone that well so far but this kid was an absolute giant on occasion back in Bulgaria and if Sporting can extract a little of that things could start motoring. In the short term though, the picture is pretty bleak.
"Sporting have a proud tradition of Bulgarian imports, but after arriving to much fanfare Slavchev has sunk without trace into the B team. Recently gave an interview in which he said he was having trouble adapting, but that it was his fault. The jury is still out, but only just..." - Ben Shave
E You’ll never get this chance again. Knuckle down. Seriously.
An impressive range of Aquascutum is available over at Scotts.