SOFIA (Reuters) - CSKA 1948, founded four years ago after a dispute at Bulgaria’s most successful club CSKA Sofia, will know they have hit the big time in their maiden Bulgarian top-flight game next month.
The Balkan country’s sporting prowess went into a dizzy decline as money dried up from the state after 1989 when communism collapsed.
But CSKA 1948, relying only on Bulgarian players, have quickly adapted to the harsh new realities with a remarkable and rapid rise to the top following three promotions since 2017.
After a prolonged legal saga, which included a secret meeting between once-mighty CSKA Sofia and Prime Minister Boyko Borissov as well as a merger with four-times champions Litex Lovech, the Bulgarian soccer authorities included the 31-times champions in an enlarged top flight in 2016.
But some fans of the original club disagreed with the move and decided to start a new team using the year CSKA Sofia were founded in the name to acknowledge the links to the past.
“Many of us - fans, former players, couldn’t agree that the club, who merged with Litex, is the real CSKA, so we decided to create a new club,” CSKA 1948’s chief executive Dobrin Gionov told Reuters at the club’s office.
“This is a club, owned by the fans. We managed to attract big sponsors but the fans choose the management.”
CSKA 1948 began competing in the fourth division, playing home games at the Vasil Levski national stadium, and quickly moved up to the second tier after successive promotions.
Things got even better in May when the Bulgarian Football Union cancelled the rest of the second division season after the novel coronavirus outbreak and leaders CSKA 1948 were declared champions, winning their maiden promotion to the top flight.
Whether the 48s can establish themselves amongst the top clubs is a different matter as an argument can be made that their rise was too quick. But they are aiming high.
“We’ll play in the Bulgarian top flight for the first year and it’ll be extremely difficult but, as they say, the appetite comes with eating,” Gionov said.
“We have to think step-by-step. The most important thing is to make people happy, to play attractive football and to get closer to the European standards.
“But why not fighting for the places that will give us a chance to play in the European tournaments?”
CSKA 1948 are confident people will respect their model.
“CSKA is a symbol of victory in Bulgaria and we must liken ourselves to it,” Gionov said. “And our idea is to also have a ‘clean’ club without debts.”
Ex-VfB Stuttgart and Sporting midfielder Krasimir Balakov, a key member of the Bulgaria team that reached the 1994 World Cup’s semi-finals, was this month appointed coach to transform the club into major players in domestic soccer.
“It’s not a standard project,” ex-Bulgaria coach Balakov, 54, told Reuters. “I really liked the ideas they have, the way they work.
“My ambitions are not only to develop the club but also to achieve something bigger. One day I want the players to have the chance to play in Europe.”
Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Ken Ferris