When it comes to Bulgarian football, one man tends to reign supreme. Five-time Bulgarian footballer of the year, five-time La Liga champion, World Cup semi-finalist and a Barcelona legend. I am of course talking of the great Hristo Stoichkov, who as far as most of the world is concerned, is the greatest Bulgarian to ever grace the field of play. However, in Bulgaria itself, the matter is not quite so much of an open and shut case. His name was Georgi Rangolev Asparuhov, but the Bulgarians called him ‘Gundi’, and it was Gundi – not Stoichkov – who the Bulgarian people voted as the best Bulgarian footballer of the 20th century. Whether or not Asparuhov was better than Stoichkov is not what matters, but the lack of knowledge regarding one of Europe’s greatest strikers throughout the continent itself is something worth redressing.
Gundi was born in the Bulgarian capital city of Sofia on May 4th 1943. At the time of Asparuhov’s birth, Bulgaria was a monarchy, with a six-year-old Tsar Simeon II taking on the already precarious looking role as Tsar in 1943. Asparuhov would see little of Bulgaria as a monarchy though, and in 1944, during WWII, the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) took power. In 1946, they became the countries ruling party, and in doing so, the now aged nine Simeon was exiled.
Asparuhov had incredible natural ability when playing football from an early age, and began playing for his local club side. Having developed relatively early, Gundi was taller and physically more powerful than most of his peers. It was because of this that a number of his early coaches chose to utilise the teenager in central defence. Professional and respectful even at an early age, Asparuhov never complained, although he always maintained that he was a striker, and not a defender. Eventually, Gundi had outgrown his local side, and he went for trials at his local professional club, Levski Sofia, where he auditioned for the teams Under-16 squad. Among a higher class of players, Asparuhov still stood out as head and shoulders above those around him. One coach remarked “There is nothing we could teach him. The boy is a born footballer.”
He signed for Levski Sofia, and quickly began playing for the club’s youth team. Gundi’s stock was rising, and he was already being touted as a future star of the first team. But despite being regarded as one of the most gifted players in the country in his age group, Asparuhov himself was not wholly content with the game. Football in the late 1950’s was a physical game, and nowhere was that more the case than in Eastern Europe. Skilful and technical players were especially prone to vicious tackles and being repeated hacked to pieces throughout games, and at youth level, there was no greater target than Gundi.
The brutality and ‘butchery’ of the game was a real turn-off for Asparuhov. Whilst his coaches were telling him he had the ability to become a world class player, he was still weighing up whether football really was for him. A natural sportsman, Gundi tried his hand at volleyball, where yet again he excelled. It appeared clear than he could have a bright future in either sport, but aged 16, he had a decision to make. He chose to stick with football, despite his gripes over the physicality of the game, and in 1959, at the age of 17, he was promoted to Levski’s first team having been the stand-out player as the club won the national youth championship’s.
He made his first team debut in 1960, still only 17 years of age, playing as a defender in a game against Botev Plovdiv. It was unusual for such a young player to begin starting games in a teams defence, especially in one of the countries leading teams. Levski were eight-time Bulgarian champions and eight-time Bulgarian Cup winners when Gundi made his debut, although they hadn’t won a league title since 1953. Asparuhov continued to be played in defence, but that didn’t stop him bagging his first goal of the season, which came against Botev, and more goals would follow.
After only a couple of months of first team football, Asparuhov was called-up to the Bulgarian youth team, for a tournament held in Austria. Although pleased by his immediate success and recognition, Gundi was becoming worried with his growing reputation as a defender rather than as a striker. With Bulgaria, he scored an incredible long-range effort from just past the half way line. This would be the last full game in which Asparuhov would play as a defender, with his tremendous goal convincing the coaches of Bulgaria and Levski alike that the teenager should be played further forward.
When he returned to Levski, he was played as a forward, and he soon began to find the net. In his debut season, Gundi scored 7 goals in 23 games, despite being played largely as a defender. In 1961, after only his first season as a professional, Asparuhov had to take part in his mandatory military service. As such, he was sent to Plovdiv. Now regarded as one the countries finest prospects, Gundi was granted permission to play for one of the cities football teams. In an unusual turn of events, Asparuhov began playing for the team who he had both made his debut and scored his first goal against, Botev Plovdiv.
Unike Levski, Botev were not a team steeped in greatness. They had only won one league title, way back in 1927, and had never won a Bulgarian Cup. Despite being only 18 years of age, Gundi immediately became the club’s star player. He transformed them from mid table mediocrity into challenging the club’s established sides. He scored 25 goals in 47 games for Botev over two seasons. In his first season he inspired the team to finish third in the league, and the first Bulgarian Cup in the club’s history in 1962. In his final season he pushed Botev on a step further, finishing as runners-up, second only to crosstown rivals Spartak Plovdiv, and recording the club’s highest league finish in 36 years.
It was also whilst playing for Botev that Gundi won his first full cap for the Bulgarian national team, aged 19. Still a teenager, he was the countries standout performer in their pre-tournament friendlies ahead of the 1962 World Cup, giving manager Georgi Pachedzhiev no choice but to include him in Bulgaria’s squad for the tournament, held in Chile. Bulgaria were handed what we might now refer to as the ‘Group of Death’, in which they were considered the weakest side in among three of the tournaments big hitters, namely; England, Argentina and Hungary. Hungary topped the group, with Bulgaria finishing bottom, and fellow Levski player Georgi Sokolov scoring the countries only goals of the tournament.
In 1963, after his two exceptional years, Levski Sofia were delighted to welcome Gundi back into the fray. There was no doubt about where he would play now. Gundi became the focal point of the team, and deeply passionate about the club, they set about building a team around the striker who had only recently turned 20. Over the next eight years, Asparuhov would go on to become the greatest player in Levski’s history, and arguably the greatest of Bulgarian football. With Gundi leading the line, Levski won three league titles and four Bulgarian Cup’s. Levski also became the first Bulgarian team to reach the final of a European competition, reaching two Balkan Cup finals, although they failed to reign victorious on either occasion.
Asparuhov’s finest season came in the 1964/65 campaign. He scored 27 league goals, making him the league’s top scorer as Levski won the league that season. In the summer of 1965 he was named both Bulgarian Footballer of the Year and Bulgarian Sportsman of the Year. His fine form didn’t go unnoticed by the international bodies either, and despite playing in the less recognised Bulgarian league, Gundi was nominated for the Ballon d’Or, finishing eighth, with Eusebio picking up the accolade.
Gundi would have the chance to go up against the great Eusebio the following year, in the 1965/66 European Cup, as Levski faced Benfica. With Benfica the reigning Portuguese champions and twice European Cup winners in the 1960’s, the Estadio da Luz was one of the trickiest away days in Europe at the time. The home leg, held in Sofia, finished with a 2-2 draw, as Gundi scored after just 5 minutes, but a brace by Eusebio saw the game end in a draw. Asparuhov gave Levski an even earlier lead in the away leg, scoring after just three minutes. He added a second on 75 minutes but was powerless to prevent Levski being knocked out by three first half goals from Benfica, which saw the Portuguese club run out 5-4 winners on aggregate.
Remarkably, Asparuhov became the first player in history to score two goals at the Estadio da Luz against Benfica, and his three goals against the club immediately drew him to the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs. Firstly, it was Benfica, having seen first hand what the Bulgarian was capable of, after he dismantled Portugal twice and scored three against Benfica. Eusebio was certainly an advocate of the move, commenting “I craved to play alongside Asparuhov. In the game between Benfica and Levski he conquered Lisbon.” Next it was AC Milan, who spent a number of years chasing the forward, with Milan manager Nereo Rocco describing Gundi as, “the striker of my dreams.”
Gundi never expressed any desire to leave Levski. He once passionately declared to representatives from AC Milan, “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.” Sadly, Gundi’s words were all too true. Whether he really did have no temptation to play elsewhere is difficult to tell, as had he wanted to move, it would have been no easy thing to do. Communist countries were notoriously stern with regards to players leaving the country to play elsewhere, and the Bulgarian Government even denied Asparuhov the right to leave Bulgaria for fellow communist country Russia, in order to play in a one-off testimonial game in honour of Lev Yashin.
In December 1965, Gundi rounded off his best ever season in emphatic style. With Bulgaria and Belgium tied at the top of their World Cup Qualifying group, the two teams had to play a play-off game. The game was remembered as one of Asparuhov’s finest, as he scored a brace to give Bulgaria a 2-1 win. Just as had been the case in 1962, Bulgaria were handed a mightily tough group at the 1966 World Cup, put in with Brazil, Portugal and Hungary. All four teams had a star striker; Brazil had Pele, Portugal had Eusebio, Hungary had Florian Albert and Bulgaria had Gundi. Pele, Eusebio and Gundi all scored, with Gundi scoring Bulgaria’s only goal of the tournament in a 3-1 defeat to Hungary as they crashed out in the group stages once more.
Gundi and Bulgaria returned to England two years later for a friendly against world champions England at Wembley in 1968. Asparuhov scored one of his most memorable goals in the game, picking the ball up in his own half, taking it all the way to the England penalty area and slotting home, as Bulgaria managed a 1-1 draw. Highlights of that game can be found at the bottom of the page. Much of Gundi’s career was plagued by injury, as many teams simply resorted to kicking the Levski star in an attempt to thwart his attacking abilities.
Asparuhov tragically died in a car crash in 1971, aged just 28, along with fellow Levski and Bulgaria striker Nikola Kotkov. Despite his devastating and early death, which was described as an “incomparable disaster in Bulgarian football” by Germany legend Gerd Muller, in only 11 years of professional football, Gundi still managed a total of 209 goals in 326 games for Botev Plovdiv and Levski Sofia and 19 goals in 50 caps for Bulgaria. He played in three World Cup’s. He won three league titles, four Bulgarian Cup’s and was nominated for the Ballon d’Or. Levski’s stadium is called the ‘Georgi Asparuhov Stadium’. His funeral was attended by over half a million people and the legend of Georgi Asparuhov is very much still alive and kicking in Bulgaria.
He will never be forgotten, we sing about him every match, our stadium is named Georgi Asparuhov.