Strange goings on at Levski Sofia

By Rumen Paytashev in Sofia
By a strange twist of fate, on the same day that the new Bulgarian prime-minister Boyko Borissov (a fan of Levski) unveiled his new government, the president of FC Levski Todor Batkov sacked their coach Emil Velev.

In fact, there is nothing unique about this, it happens all the time, but… Velev was fired late at night on the same day that the team had returned from Andorra, fresh from a 5-0 victory over Sant Julia in the second preliminary round of Champions League; thus qualifying for the next round 9-0 on aggregate.

Equally surprising is that this happened just 5 days before the first leg of the third round against Azerbaijan’s FC Baku. Velev’s successor Serb Ratko Dostanic had just 3 days to prepare the team for such an important game. The question is – why?

Comedy of errors
Velev, a member of the glorious “blue” generation of the 1980s, arrived in 2003 from Israel, where he played and lived almost for 15 years. It’s a public knowledge, that he is close to major shareholder of the club, Mickael Chernoy, who lives in Israel, since becoming “persona non grata” in Bulgaria in August 2000.

Velev replaced Velislav Vutsov as Levski coach in 2008 following a 0-1 home defeat to Belarus’ BATE. The new man was unable to overcome the deficit in the return leg and when the team returned to Sofia, a small group of fans chanted abuse against the players, prompting Velev to call the supporters “drug addicts”.

Henceforth, the feud between the “ultras” and Velev erupted and although the coach apologised to the fans, they continued to campaign against him. At almost every game they chanted slogans and demanded his dismissal.

During the 2008-09 season several newspapers indicated that his job was on the line, but he stayed and led Levski to the league title. However, during the match in Andorra, Batkov was overseas and on his return to Sofia, he sacked Velev.

To remove the coach under these circumstances is somewhat unusual, but when quizzed about his decision, Batkov replied: “I gave €12 million from my own pocket and I make the decisions. To sell the club shares? To whom? Those, who want to buy the shares, want this for their own ends. But their place is in prison.”

Of the fans he added: “I am not told what to do by some drug-dealers.”

Meanwhile, the former executive director of the club Nasko Sirakov said: ”Batkov lied to me. I’ve never believe to meet such a man as him. I spoke with him about a month ago and I agreed to return to Levski. Later he forgot about this agreement and didn’t call me. When I tried to call him, he didn’t answer. To sack the coach at this moment in time is suicidal. It makes no sense to remove Velev right now. But in recent times such strange things are commonplace at FC Levski.”

Batkov also replaced the executive director Daniel Borimirov with the player Georgi Ivanov and the director of the youth school Russi Gochev with Kiril Ivkov (both former Levski players). Gochev learned about Batkov’s decision from… the media and called it “comical”. On hearing this, an angry Batkov stated: “I am not a comic!”

The saga continues
It’s unlikely that Velev’s sacking will be the last strange decision to be made by Batkov. Although he claims to own 90 per cent of the club’s shares, it is suspected that he owns as little as 20 per cent with the remaining 70 per cent being owned by Chernoy.

Batkov is a lawyer by profession and possibly a good lawyer, but he understands little about football. As president he has tried to be a “football expert”, adhering to the maxim: “He who who pays the piper plays the music.”

When Sirakov was executive director and with Stanimir Stoilov as a coach Levski achieved success in European football (becoming the first Bulgarian team to reach the Champions League group stage in 2006 and a quarter-final place in UEFA Cup the same year, to account for 14 matches in one season – a Bulgarian record), Batkov remained in the background. Although he did make some embarrassing public blunders, namely, when he said of the English’ referee, Mike Riley: “This British homosexual broke the game!” after Levski’s UEFA Cup quarter-final defeat to Schalke in 2003.

But when relations with Sirakov deteriorated, things spiralled out of control. In December 2007, the day after Levski lost 0-1 to rivals CSKA, Batkov sacked the coach Stoilov as well as Sirakov. The fans were angry and two days later Batkov reinstated both Stoilov and Sirakov and promised work with them for the so called “Plan 2009”.

However, just five months later Batkov sacked the duo again. Stoilov was replaced with Velislav Vutsov and Sirakov by former Levski player Daniel Borimirov. The fans, who were fond of Stoilov, were unhappy with the decision to fire him. His departure explains why Vutsov was never popular, despite coming through the ranks at Levski. His tenure turned out to be shortlived and just two months after taking charge he was sacked in the wake of the defeat to BATE.

Now Velev is the victim of Batkov’s erratic leadership. Maybe his successor, Dostanic, will be the next? Velev responded to his removal by saying: “I didn’t expect this. I am insulted, disappointed and there is a lot of bitterness within me.”

Batkov’s moods change like day and night. His decisions are a perpetual comedy of errors, a cavalcade of madness in the most popular football club in Bulgaria. Nobody knows what will happen next.