Nine Bulgarian league titles in a row: the champions from the Crazy Forest
Ludogorets have ruled Bulgarian football for the past decade. This is how they’ve become a dominant force…
On June 21, 2020 Ludogorets clinched their ninth straight Bulgarian league title, equalling CSKA Sofia’s all-time record which the Reds from the capital set between 1954 and 1962. Elsewhere in Europe, newly crowned Scottish champions Celtic are enjoying a similar run, having won the last 9 editions of the Scottish Premier League. So how did Ludogorets become Bulgarian football’s dominant force? This is a story that begins in one crazy forest…
Did you know that the name of Ludogorets literally translates as ‘Crazy Forest’ and refers to a certain geographical area located in Northern Bulgaria Ludogorets are from? Ludogorets are based in the town of Razgrad which has a population of around 30,000 people. To put things into perspective – Razgrad’s entire population could fit into the stands of the National Stadium in Bulgarian capital Sofia and there will still be around 14,000 empty seats left...
Ludogorets got promoted to the Bulgarian top flight in 2011 for the very first time in their history and they have won the league title every single season ever since, making it already nine in a row. Ludogorets’ domestic dominance can be compared to that of Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia or Olympiacos in Greece in the 21st century. Before 2010, though, the Greens from Razgrad were not even on the footballing map which was dominated at the time mostly by traditional powerhouses such as CSKA and Levski Sofia as well as Litex Lovech. Ludogorets were then acquired by one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in Bulgaria and the team from the Crazy Forest managed to take local football by storm…
From pharmaceuticals to football
The personal wealth of Kiril Domuschiev, the owner of Ludogorets, is thought to be around $1bn, with pharmaceuticals, construction and mechanical engineering being three of the sectors he has heavily invested in and benefitted from. His pharmaceutical business was actually one of the reasons he chose Razgrad, where one of his chemical factories is, to be the birthplace of his dream football club.
Domuschiev has always been a football fan and, ironically, before acquiring Ludogorets he was part of CSKA Sofia’s board, the team he used to support as a child. There were even reports the billionaire was interested in becoming CSKA’s major shareholder but a deal was never reached with the then club owners. So in the spring of 2010 the entrepreneur left CSKA and only a few months later decided to kick off his own football project, having bought Ludogorets Razgrad, who had just been promoted to the second league. Razgrad could not be more different to Sofia. It was a calm place where you didn’t feel the constant pressure to deliver immediate results as was the case in the capital. At the end of that same campaign Ludogorets won another promotion – this time to the top flight – but what happened next would surpass even Domuschiev’s wildest dreams.
The team from the Crazy Forest, entirely living up to their exotic name and backed by their owner’s financial muscles, would go on to finish top of the table in what turned out to be one of the craziest ever title races in Bulgarian football. Coached at the time by Ivaylo Petev who would later become the head coach of Bulgaria and is now in charge of Polish Jagiellonia, the Razgrad side enjoyed a Hollywood finale to their top-flight debut. Prior to the last round of the 2011-12 season they were sitting second in the table and they were about to host, of all teams, league leaders CSKA Sofia who they were trailing by 2 points in a winner-take-all clash. The newcomers managed to beat the record title holders 1-0, winning the first of their now nine consecutive league trophies. To put things into context – ahead of their debut top-flight campaign, the betting companies were offering odds of 50-1 on Ludogorets to be champions (admittedly, still far away from Leicester City’s 5000-1 odds to claim the Premier League crown in 2016 but nevertheless impressive). European football has rarely seen a newly promoted team immediately coming out on top - famously, FC Kaiserslautern did it in Germany in the 1997-98 season - but to establish such dominance the way Ludogorets have done since their 2011 promotion is absolutely unprecedented. To top it all off, the Razgrad team crowned their maiden appearance in the first tier by winning the Bulgarian Cup as well. So, is there a better way to announce yourself to the football world than to clinch a league and cup double at the end of your debut elite season?
When Fortuna is on your side…
And if you think what Ludogorets did in 2012 in the Bulgarian league was crazy, things were to become a lot crazier on the European stage in the years that would follow. In their first Champions League appearance in the summer of 2012 Ludogorets suffered a painful exit in the second qualifying round at the hands of Dinamo Zagreb after conceding a last-minute goal. The Bulgarian champions had to learn their lesson the hard way – in Europe every moment you lack focus you can get heavily punished.
The following season, however, Ludogorets made up for their mistakes they had committed 12 months earlier. The Greens first reached the Champions League qualifying playoffs after beating Slovan Bratislava and Partizan in the previous rounds before eventually losing to Basel. There was the Europa League group stage to console with but instead of being simply a consolation prize this competition turned out to be one hell of a great European adventure for the team based in the Crazy Forest. Ludogorets landed in Group B along with PSV Eindhoven, Dinamo Zagreb and Chernomorets Odessa and initially not too many people tipped the Bulgarians to advance to the knockout stages. Not only did they do that but they also topped the group unbeaten, having won five matches (including all 3 away from home) and drawn the other one. The team impressed especially in their group stage opener away at PSV which they won 2-0. Ludogorets grabbed the headlines thanks to their fast attacking style that helped them score 11 times and concede just 2 goals in the group stage.
In the round of 32 Ludogorets were drawn against Lazio and against all odds they managed to conquer Rome claiming a 1-0 victory. The visit to the Eternal City inspired the Bulgarian team in more ways than one. Impressed with Lazio’s mascot, the eagle Olimpia, Ludogorets owner Domuschiev decided to buy a similar bird for his own team, whose nickname is also ‘The Eagles’. The eagle, which landed in the Crazy Forest, was named Fortuna, after the Roman goddess of luck. And good luck was indeed on Ludogorets’ side in the return leg against Lazio when an 88-minute equalisier sealed an epic 3-3 draw that sent the Bulgarian Eagles into the round of 16. There Ludogorets were twice defeated by Valencia but the 16 European games the team played throughout that campaign helped Pavel Vrba’s new side to boost their UEFA coefficient and paved their way for their Champions League group stage assault the next season. And as is often the case with Ludogorets, ‘crazy’ is an appropriate way to describe what would follow…
After another Bulgarian league title, the Eagles from Razgrad got a new chance to fly high in the Champions League qualifiers in the 2014-15 season. And high they did fly. Following victories over F91 Dudelange and (once again) Partizan, Ludogorets came up against Steaua Bucharest in the playoffs. The Bulgarian champions lost 1-0 the first leg in Bucharest but the second leg in Sofia would go down in history as one of the most incredible UCL qualifiers ever. Even before the game kicked off tension had already reached boiling point after tens of CSKA Sofia ultras declared they would support Steaua from the stands of the National Stadium Vasil Levski in Sofia (back then Ludogorets were playing their European games in the capital because their club stadium in Razgrad was not meeting all UEFA requirements which is the case now). A quick historic explanation is needed here: both Bulgaria and Romania were under a Communist regime and both CSKA and Steaua were affiliated with their countries’ army forces. That’s why some fraternal relationships developed between both sets of fans. So the CSKA Sofia fans honoured their promise and supported Steaua against Ludogorets indeed, with Domuschiev later describing them as ‘poor souls’. Brazilian Wanderson first scored in stoppage time to send the game into extra time at the end of which Ludogorets goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov was sent off for a second yellow card. By that time the Bulgarian champions had already used their three subs and Romanian defender Cosmin Moti had to stay in goal against his fellow countrymen. The game then went to penalties and the author of this article, who was present at the match, can confirm this was one of the most incredible footballing moments he has ever witnessed. Moti not only scored from the spot himself but he also managed to save Steaua’s last penalty to seal his team’s first ever Champions League group stage appearance. For Moti it was a double delight. Before joining Ludogorets, the defender played for 7 years for Steaua’s eternal enemies Dinamo Bucharest. While in goal, he also performed goalline dances as the ones Liverpool goalie Jerzy Dudek managed to enchant AC Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko with in the legendary 2005 Istanbul final. After the game Moti admitted it was indeed Dudek’s exotic movement the Romanian drew inspiration from. In the meantime, Ludogorets owner Domuschiev was so impressed with Moti’s heroics in goal that he promised to name the new stand of the club stadium in Razgrad after the Romanian defender. A few years later he kept his word by unveiling the Moti stand which is called this way up until now.
Before Ludogorets, Levski Sofia were the only Bulgarian side to have reached the Champions League group stages. The Blues from the capital did it in the 2006-07 season, yet they didn’t win a single point back then. Eight years later Ludogorets got 4 points from their six group stage games against then reigning champions Real Madrid, Liverpool and FC Basel, having beaten the Swiss side and drawn against the Reds at home. Since then the Eagles from Razgrad have reached the Champions League group stage once more – in 2016-17 – and have twice reached the Europa League knockout stages. This season, just before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, Ludogorets were knocked out of the Europa League round of 32 by Italian giants Inter.
The Bulgarian Shakhtar Donetsk?
When Domuschiev bought the club back in 2010, the Eagles were relying heavily on his financial backing. But then the new rising force in Bulgarian football employed a strategy similar to that of Shakhtar Donetsk – Ludogorets focused on buying talented Brazilian players at decent prices and then, when the right time comes, sell them for a profit and later reinvest the money into new players. Since 2015 the Bulgarian champions have completed three of the most expensive outgoing deals in local football’s history. First they sold Brazilian defender Caiçara to Schalke 04 for a reported fee of €6m, then in the summer of 2017 Argentinian centre back José Palomino went to Atalanta for €4m, while Brazilian winger Jonathan Cafú signed for Bordeaux for €7m in what remains a record deal for Bulgarian club to this day. Add Ludogorets’ constant presence on the European stage, with UEFA’s prize money flooding in, and you get the wealthiest Bulgarian club by some distance. The Eagles have never revealed their annual budget but according to various reports it’s between €10m and €15m.
In contrast to 2011, when Ludogorets first entered the Bulgarian top flight and were considered the underdogs that went on to win the title against all odds, the Eagles are now the team to beat. Having said that, the pressure to deliver immediate results has increased significantly.
The current dressing room is a truly international environment, with players of nine different nationalities wearing the green shirt – Brazil, Israel, DR Congo, Poland, Romania, Madagascar, Senegal, Congo and Guinea-Bissau. The Brazilian connection remains as strong as ever, with two of Ludogorets key players in attack being Wanderson and Marcelinho. The first has been at the club since 2014, whereas Marcelinho has been playing in Razgrad since 2011. Both hold Bulgarian citizenship and both are Bulgaria internationals. Ironically, both of them might leave the club this summer because their current contracts are about to expire. With or without them, next season Ludogorets will try to become the first Bulgarian club to win 10 titles in a row.