By Vasil Kotsev
Exactly 40 years ago a tragic accident took away the life of Georgi Asparuhov, perhaps the greatest Bulgarian footballer of all time. A leader and a role model, a dream striker and a legendary player - Goal.com pays tribute to one of the lesser-known geniuses of the game.
When most people think of Bulgarian football the first name that springs to mind is that of Barcelona legend Hristo Stoichkov. Younger readers, some of whom may not have witnessed 'The Dagger' in action, probably associate the Balkan country with Manchester United forward Dimitar Berbatov. Very few, however, mention the name of Asparuhov, chosen posthumously as Bulgaria's best footballer of the 20th century ahead of Ballon D'Or winner Stoichkov.
“The boy is a born footballer”
Georgi Rangelov Asparuhov, or 'Gundi', was born on May 4, 1943 in the Sofia district of Reduta, a part of the capital associated with Levski Sofia. Asparuhov's career started with the youth team of the Blues and he would continue to play there until his remarkable progress saw him promoted to the first team at the age of just 17. In his trial for Levski's Under-16 squad, coach Konstantin Georgiev would famously remark: "There is nothing we could teach him. The boy is a born footballer."
His excellent physical features, particularly his height, were held in high regard by his trainers, who would play him as a centre-half due to a lack of quality defenders. He always saw himself as a striker, but his calm and committed nature never prompted him to cause trouble over his being played out of position.
Asparuhov was a victim of many harmful fouls, even during his early years, and never kept secret his disgust for 'butchery' on the pitch. The excessively brutal play even meant he took to volleyball, a game in which he also showed tremendous potential.
'Gundi' tried to balance the two sports, but was soon forced to choose. After a wonderful performance for Levski Sofia in a decisive game in the youth championship, Asparuhov finally decided to stick with football, much to the dismay of his volleyball coach, who believed that "volleyball lost a real talent".
|"When I first heard of Asparuhov's demise, I started to cry. Why would fate take away the life of such a great footballer? I could not sleep all night, I was seeing him play against Belgium in my dreams. I fell in love with the great player he was."
- Sandro Mazzola, Inter legend
Asparuhov made his debut for Levski Sofia against Botev Plovdiv on June 5, 1960, as a 17-year-old defender. Later that year he scored his first goal for the Blues against the same opponents, and ironically the team he would be forced to play for in the next two seasons.
Months later, Asparuhov received a call-up from Bulgaria's national youth side for the European tournament in Austria. 'Gundi' played his last game as a defender after scoring a stunning goal from near the centre of the pitch, and from then on he never looked back.
As part of his mandatory military service 'Gundi' was sent to Plovdiv in 1961, but was allowed to play for the local football team Botev, a club with close ties to the army. Asparuhov transformed the Yellow-Blacks into title contenders, winning the Bulgarian Cup in his second year at the club, and reaching second place in the league the next season.
At 19 years of age the striker received his first call-up to the senior national football team. After majestic performances in a number of friendly games, 'Gundi' was included in the squad for the World Cup finals in Chile, where he scored the Lions' only goal of the tournament against the mighty Hungary.
The lost son returns
Asparuhov was full of exquisite and beautiful play, and would later be described by legendary Hungarian striker and Ballon D'Or winner Florian Albert as "an artist, a footballer of the rare kind who give spectators pure joy."
Standing at 1.85m and equally competent with both feet, 'Gundi' was a fearsome opponent; strong, elegant in possession, lightning fast, unbeatable in the air and very, very difficult to dispossess. His bag of tricks and dribbles would give defenders nightmares, and his outstanding footwork, passing and vision would make every midfielder jealous. His uncanny ability to score from very awkward positions, and especially on the volley, was feared of across Europe.
On and off the pitch 'Gundi' was a gentleman and humble person. He greeted provocation and horror challenges with a smile, and even though he was on the receiving end of so many brutal fouls, he would stay true to his good and fair nature. He would even play through excruciating injuries - so big was his love for his team.
Moment of glory
The tricky forward dismantled Portugal in a memorable game in 1962, and again a year later as his reputation continued to grow. He netted wonder strikes for fun and conquered defences with finesse and power, becoming a vital part of Levski Sofia's renaissance in the middle of the 60s.
1965 was a year to remember for Asparuhov. The forward made a stunning start to the season, bagging nine goals in five games - all of them against fellow title contenders. He led Levski Sofia to their first championship title in 12 years that season, bagging 27 goals, which was a new record for the Blues. He also won the Sportsman of the Year award.
In a crucial World Cup play-off game against the mighty Belgium in Italy, 'Gundi' set the world alight with a 'divine' performance, scoring twice to send Bulgaria through to the World Cup finals in England the following year. This was the game in which Asparuhov’s star truly began to twinkle on the horizon, catching the imagination of fans all over the world.
'Gundi' was nominated for the 1965 Ballon D'Or award and placed eighth in the final standings, tied with Italian legend Sandro Mazzola and Torpedo Moscow's Valery Voronin, ahead of players like Franz Beckenbauer, Ferenc Puskas, Denis Law and Lev Yashin. The winner was Eusebio, who would soon become quite an admirer of Asparuhov.
|"I craved to play alongside Asparuhov. In the game between Benfica and Levski he conquered Lisbon. No other player had scored two against us at home before him. Asparuhov was the first."
- Eusebio, Benfica Legend
"The striker of my dreams"
The following year Asparuhov would enter the records as the first player to ever score two goals against Benfica at Estadio da Luz. In the 1965-66 European Cup, Levski Sofia were drawn against the legendary team of the Eagles, which included 'The Black Panther' himself, Eusebio.
The Blues were narrowly eliminated by Benfica, drawing 2-2 in Bulgaria and losing 3-2 in Lisbon, with 'Gundi' netting all four goals for the Sofia outfit. Eusebio fell in love with the majestic play of the Bulgarian striker, and would crave to play alongside him for the Eagles.
The Portuguese giants tried to lure Asparuhov, but the communist government would not allow 'Gundi' to leave Bulgaria. He was even denied the chance to play in Lev Yashin's farewell game in Moscow, after he was personally invited by the goalkeeper, for fear he would defect.
AC Milan were particularly keen on 'Gundi' and pursued the player for a long time. Coach Nereo Rocco famously said of Asparuhov: "This is the striker of my dreams."
Just before a Cup Winners' Cup game between Milan and Levski in 1967, he was offered $500,000, safe escape from Bulgaria, and a wage equal to that of the top stars of the Italian outfit, the legendary Gianni Rivera included. Asparuhov refused, citing his love for, and loyalty to, Levski Sofia and Bulgaria.
|"I am sorry I could not play on the right wing in the team of the world. Asparuhov was popular in Germany and had a lot of admirers. The papers used to write about him very often. His demise is an incomparable disaster for Bulgarian football."
- Gerd Muller, Bayern Munich legend
The conqueror of Wembley
'Gundi' continued to shine for club and country, further enhancing his reputation as one of the top players in Europe. At the World Cup finals in England in 1966 Bulgaria were placed in a group with football superpowers like Brazil, with Pele and Garrincha, Eusebio's Portugal ,and the Hungary of Florian Albert. Asparuhov was again the only goalscorer for the Lions, netting against the Magyars in the last game of Group 3.
In 1967 'Gundi' put in a world-class performance in a 3-0 demolition of Sweden, who became Bulgaria's ultimate bogey team in years to come. The Lions, led by Asparuhov, defeated Italy 3-2 in a European qualification match in Sofia the next year, but the Azzurri went through on the back of a 2-0 win at home.
Bulgaria played two friendlies later that year, crushing Turkey and the Netherlands before a crowning game in December - a match against world champions England at Wembley.
In a 1-1 draw at the legendary stadium, Asparuhov scored one of the goals of the century. With Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst and Bobby Moore on the pitch, 'Gundi' picked up a partially-cleared ball in the centre of the pitch, waltzed past England's defence, and slotted coolly past the goalkeeper.
|"I loved his football, and I really liked him. In the Bulgaria-Italy game in Sofia I accidentally kicked him... I hope he had forgiven me..."
- Gianni Rivera
Asparuhov's legacy'Gundi' had problems with injuries throughout his career, caused by the 'special treatment' teams would give him. Defenders tried to stop him by any means necessary - elbows, kicks, scything tackles, even punches and provocation. As a purist, 'Gundi' would resent this aspect of the beautiful game, but would never get involved in quarrels.
Many exploited his loyalty and love for the national team. He would be forced to play through painful injuries at the World Cup finals in 1970 in Mexico. His health was put on the line even when featuring for his beloved Levski as coaches would field him unfit in important games simply because his very presence was inspiring to the team, and daunting for the opposition.
"There is a country called Bulgaria, and in this country there is a team called Levski. You may have not heard of it, but there I was born and there I shall die!"
- Georgi Asparuhov
to AC Milan representatives
Aged just 28, Asparuhov's life came to an end in a car accident at the Vitinya pass along with his close friend and fellow Bulgarian great Nikola 'The Cat' Kotkov. More than half a million people went to Sofia to attend his funeral, paying tribute and bidding farewell to one of football's greatest ever players.
A true gentleman on and off the pitch, to this day Asparuhov is a symbol of humility, devotion and greatness. Levski Sofia's current stadium is named after the striker, whose eternal love for the Blues and his motherland is a rare example of loyalty in today’s world. Among his other achievements, 'Gundi' was posthumously honoured with the Fair Play award in 1999 and the title of Best Bulgarian footballer of the 20th century. In addition, FIFA placed him 40th on the list of all-time best footballers.