Patrick Giffney salutes a sadly-forgotten legend of the Eastern European game.
When England took on Bulgaria in this month’s European Championship qualifiers the commentators mentioned the name of a little known Bulgarian striker of the 1960’s and remarked, “He was the Dimitar Berbatov of his day.” I can assure you he was far more than that.
The name Georgi Asparuhov may not mean a great deal to a large number of people but in his native Bulgaria he was and still is a footballing icon. He was a talent of enviable proportions and a man of grace and humility but his untimely death robbed the world of his skills.
Having spent most of his career with Levski Sofia, he played for just one other club (Botev Plovdiv) for only two seasons before returning to his boyhood heroes. AC Milan attempted to sign him, but he endeared himself to a nation by declaring, “There is a country called Bulgaria. And there’s a Bulgarian team called Levski. You may not have heard of it, but I was born in this team, and in this team I will die.”
This statement is all too true as Asparuhov was tragically killed in a car accident alongside teammate Nikola Kothov in 1971. He was just 28 at the time of the crash and approaching what should have been the prime of his career. The mark of the man was demonstrated in the amount of people that attended his funeral: over 550,000 people took to the streets to celebrate a remarkable life.
Never again has Bulgaria seen a player with so much talent, an imposing striker with an eye for goal and capable of both power and finesse, in 199 appearances for Levski he scored an incredible 125 goals and during his time at Plovdiv he was equally prolific, netting 25 goals in 47 senior appearances.
After a successful trial where one coach commented, “There’s nothing you can teach him, the boy’s a natural footballer”, he began his career with the Levski youth team.
After winning the national youth team championship he was then promoted to the senior squad and was handed his debut at just seventeen years old, playing as a centre back. His first goal for the club soon followed just months later – ironically against future employers Plovdiv.
In 1961 he was sent to Plovdiv to complete his national service, but a deal was agreed that enabled him to play for the local army team, Botev. During his time there he’d win the first of three Bulgarian cups and finish as runners-up in the 1962/63 league campaign.
Once his military service was complete the young striker returned to his beloved Levski Sofia and was part of a truly special team, where he would eventually win three league titles as well as setting a record of 27 league goals in the 1965 season.
Breaking records became a feature of his career and perhaps the most significant one was during Levski’s 1965/66 European Cup campaign. Asparuhov become the first player ever to score twice in the mighty Benfica’s stadium, the Estádio de Luz. The tie in general was remarkable and ended 5-4 on aggregate to Benfica with Asparuhov scoring all four of the Bulgarian side’s goals.
It was his exploits in this match that led to Eusébio, the Portuguese legend, claiming that Asparuhov was a dream striker and “one of the best he’d ever seen.” Both players were nominated for the 1965 Ballon D’or which was eventually won by Eusébio but Asparuhov finished a respectable eighth place; ahead of the likes of Denis Law, Franz Beckenbauer, and the legendary Hungarian Ferenc Puskas.
Despite being a player that there is so little written about he achieved so much, and was blessed with all the attributes that great strikers have. You only have to see his memorable goal against the then World Champions England at Wembley in 1967 – where he took on half the defence before finishing with ease – to understand that this was a man blessed with a special talent.
Many argue that he saved his best performances for the national team, continuing his fine scoring form playing in 50 international matches and netting an impressive 19 times. Some believe his finest hour came in a World Cup play-off against Belgium in Italy, where he scored twice and ensured Bulgaria qualified for the 1966 World Cup finals.
Despite all this, his career would meet a tragic end. After being sent off in the 1971 cup final against CSKA Sofia he was subsequently banned for three matches by the Bulgarian FA. It was because of this ban that he agreed to appear in an exhibition match in the mountain town of Vratsa, but he never arrived.
At aged just 28 the world was deprived of a young man with so much talent and one that had so many more pages of history to write. To this day the Levski Sofia stadium is named after him and he was posthumously named Bulgaria’s greatest footballer of the 20th century, ahead of the iconic Hristo Stoichkov.
You can find Patrick on Twitter @pjgiff.