Bulgaria may not be one of the most prominent football-playing countries, but the country’s residents share a love for the sport like no other. When it comes to the most popular sport in the country, Bulgarians are no different from their European counterparts and give football precedence over any other sport.
Here is a brief insight into the history of football in Bulgaria, its evolution over time, and the current status of the sport in the country.
History of football in Bulgaria
Unlike most European countries, where English workers or expatriates introduced the sport, Swiss gymnastics introduced Bulgarians to football for the first time in 1893. However, the locals took their time in embracing the sport.
In 1894, a football match was played between two teams from a boys’ high school in Varna under the supervision of a Swiss teacher, and it was named kickball. Another Swiss gymnast, Charles Champaud, introduced football to Bulagaria’s capital Sofia in 1895. The formal rules for the game were published in 1897.
In the following years, football continued to gain acceptance, and the first Bulgarian football club was formed in 1909, followed by the formation of more clubs. The Bulgarian Football Union was formed in 1923 as the sport’s official governing body. A year later, the national team made its international debut at an Olympics qualifier in Vienna, where the team lost to Austria by 6-0.
Interestingly, the team was invited to play in the FIFA World Cup in 1930, only six years after its international debut, but turned down the invitation. From 1930 till 1950, the national team could not qualify for any major tournament. It did come close but could not succeed. The team finished in third place in the 1956 Olympics and second in 1968, which is its most significant achievement to date.
From 1962 to 1974, the team qualified for the FIFA World Cup tournament four times but never got past the group stage. In the following years, Bulgaria either failed to qualify for the UEFA Euro and FIFA World Cup or never got past the group stage.
Bulgarian national football team
The Bulgarian men’s national football team, nicknamed the Lions, was formed in 1922 and played its first international match against Austria in 1924. From 1930 to 1960, the team could not qualify for FIFA World Cup, although it won the Balkan Cup in 1931 and 1932. The team won the tournament again in 1973 and 1976.
To date, the team’s most remarkable achievement was finishing in fourth place in the World Cup in 1994. The team has played in the World Cup seven times to date.
The national team played in the Euro Cup for the first time in 1996, where it reached the group stage. It also reached the group stage in 2006. The team is presently in 71st place in the FIFA rankings.
The Bulgarian women’s national football team is presently in 92nd place in the FIFA rankings. The team played its foremost international game in 1987 against Spain, and the game ended in a draw. The women’s team’s highest achievement to date is winning the Balkan Championship in 2008, and the team won the Albena Cup the same year.
Domestic football structure in Bulgaria
Domestic football leagues are highly sought after in Bulgaria, and locals closely follow their leagues and other European leagues. The first organised football tournament in the country was the National Championship in 1924.
In 1948, a new national top division was established, the Republic Football Group, and two years later, the second highest division, B Republican Football Group, was established. The lower divisions were established in the following years to form a formal structure. This system was followed until 2000 and was replaced by the formation of the Bulgarian Premier Football League as the top football division of the country, while the Bulgarian First Football League was established to replace the B Group.
However, this setup only remained for three years and was replaced by the old format in 2003. Presently, the football league system in Bulgaria has five levels in the pyramid with 56 different divisions. The national league, the First Professional Football League or the Bulgarian First League, is the top division, with CSKA Sofia and Levski Sofia as the most successful teams. The Levski Sofia was also the first team to qualify for the UEFA Champions League in 2006.
Football in Bulgaria Overview
Although Bulgaria is not among the most successful football-playing countries, the sport is the most loved game in the country. Over the years, Bulgaria has produced many players that have played in prominent European clubs. One such player is Dimitar Berbatov, who played for FC Fulham and Manchester United.
Other prominent players include Hristo Stoichkov, who was crowned the number one football player of the country of the 20th century, and Georgi Asparuhov, one of the finest players of his generation.