How could Levski Sofia be conned into sending four of their best players to Russia on the eve of a vital derby game?
For many years people have known that anything is possible in Bulgarian football. But, even so, the events preceding September’s derby between Sofia rivals Levski and CSKA surpassed all that had gone before.
The day before reigning champions Levski were due to play away to league leaders CSKA, four of their players flew to Moscow to sign for last year’s Russian title winners, Rubin Kazan.
Bulgaria right-back Zhivko Milanov, Morocco central defender Youssef Rabeh, Macedonia midfielder Darko Tasevski and Brazilian winger Ze Soares were met in the Russian capital by a “representative” from Rubin, who accompanied them to the Sheraton hotel where they passed medicals. However, the next day the supposed transfers failed to materialise and the four flew home, arriving back in Sofia too late to take part in a game which CSKA won 2-0.
Not surprisingly, several questions were raised on their return to Levski.
For example, how could it be that, several rounds before the end of the Russian championship, Rubin – once again top of the table – needed four players from a Levski side hardly setting the Bulgarian top flight alight?
How exactly would it have been possible for such a deal to go through when everyone knows the transfer window is closed?
And how could a professional club and its president Todor Batkov, a well-known lawyer, be seemingly so easily conned into sending four of its best players abroad on the eve of one of its biggest games of the season?
“I can’t explain this,” admitted Batkov. “I didn’t meet any representatives beforehand or receive an official confirmation from Rubin’s president. Maybe this was a very well-executed scam. Seven people [from Levski] were met with expensive Mercedes cars and accommodated in a very expensive hotel.
“I did have doubts and my plan was, if there was any problem, for the four players to return to Sofia before the match with CSKA. I checked UEFA’s rules [on transfer windows] and felt we had a right for extraordinary transfers [said to be because of swine flu!]. For all four players the price was to be 5million euros (£4.47m) and the Russians told me that the money was in Sofia in a concrete bank; even in a concrete safe.
“Their representatives met each of the players and I have given names, descriptions, photos and phone numbers to Interpol. Maybe this whole thing is an attack against Levski, or me. “I was threatened over the phone by a Russian who advised me to stop the investigation.”
Batkov was later quizzed by police over the so-called Kazan Affair. It transpired that, in order to set up the transfer, he had deposited £179,000 with a man called Artur Oganesyan – a name that turned out to be false. Batkov himself has also been accused of betting £895,000 on CSKA to beat Levski, while he in turn has pointed the finger at Dimitar Borissov and Ivo Ivanov – the owners of CSKA – adding Russia’s security services were already investigating the Europa League fourth qualifying round game in which CSKA won 2-1 away to Dinamo Moscow.
There were also rumours that major Levski shareholder Mickael Chernoy, who is very close to the bosses of Rubin Kazan and has a tempestuous relationship with Batkov, may have been involved in an attempt to drive the share price down ahead of a bid to buy the club.
There is no doubt that the fax inviting the four players was authentic and sent from Rubin Kazan’s offices. Yet Mircho Dimitrov, a Bulgarian football agent who has worked in Russia for many years, said: “I spoke with the executive director of the club and with the coach of Rubin, Gurban Berdiyev. They said: ‘We don’t know anything. We don’t want players from Levski because we don’t need them.’”
Events also took their toll on the pitch, where Levski went eight games without a win, including three consecutive defeats in the league and three in the group stage of the Europa League. And in six of those eight games they didn’t even manage a single goal.
It all became too much for Serbian coach Ratko Dostanic, who was replaced by sporting director Georgi Ivanov after a shock 1-0 home defeat by Beroe. Levski have now changed coach five times in 18 months and fans have called for Batkov’s head.
So, who is the real guilty party in the Kazan Affair? Is it Batkov? Chernoy? The bosses of CSKA Sofia? People at Rubin Kazan? The mysterious “Artur Oganesyan”? Maybe it was all of them; perhaps it was the work of someone else we don’t yet know about.
Whoever is responsible, it still does not excuse Batkov from falling for the ruse. As one of their supporters put it, “he has made Levski look like the idiots of Europe”.