By Leo Linden
In many Eastern European football leagues, there's one or two older dominant powerhouses that challenge for — and usually win — the title on a season-to-season basis. With that in mind, what is going on in Bulgaria? How is it possible that PFC Ludogorets Razgrad, a club that is just 15 years old and located far away from the capital of Sofia, has managed to storm through the First Professional Football League (Bulgaria’s top flight) and become that dominant side in such a short period of time? And, even better, their domestic success has translated to some relatively big accomplishments on the continent, which it doesn’t for too many teams from Eastern Europe, their latest milestone coming in the Champions League yesterday.
As many expansion teams do, Ludogorets started out in the lower flights of Bulgarian football when they were founded in 2001. Their rise to prominence wasn’t immediate, as they spent plenty of time in the lower tiers before finally breaking through at the turn of the decade.
Playing in the regional league in the northeast, a component of the country’s third tier, the Orlite (Eagles) made their first major breakthrough when they won that competition in the 2009-10 season, earning promotion to the East B Group, which ran parallel to the West B Group as simultaneous second tiers.
While the goal of the club was always able to make it to the A League, then the name of the top flight, Ludogorets had the biggest offseason in club history in 2010, which allowed them to make it to the first tier much faster than expected. The most important thing that happened was a takeover by wealthy Bulgarian businessman Kiril Domuschiev, whose investment in the club allowed Ludogorets to acquire a handful of necessary players that allowed them to win the East B Group on their first try, earning a swift promotion to the top flight.
It was an extremely fast ascension, but then, the impossible happened. After adding another wave of new players thanks to the investment of Domuschiev, Razgrad — in their first ever season in the top flight — won the title, edging the national old-money powerhouse, CSKA Sofia, by one point in the most epic of fashions. Ludogorets hosted CSKA in the last match of the season and trailed the Sofia side by two points heading in, and with no one else in the title hunt, the game was effectively a championship bout. The Eagles won 1-0, took home the title, and completed the domestic double later in the month when they won the Bulgarian Cup (they would also take home the Supercup in the fall, completing a domestic treble in the first season one was possible).
All of the sudden, to start the 2012-13 campaign, Ludogorets was in the Champions League, just three seasons after being in the third tier. They fell to Dinamo Zagreb in the round they entered the competition, the second qualifying round, but that was just the taste of the tournament that Razgrad needed to grow as a club.
Their elimination wasn’t unexpected, but it allowed
After winning both the second and third playoff rounds, Razgrad fell to Basel in the playoff round, but that was good enough for a spot in the group stage of the Europa League. In a mild shock, they won their group and then, in an even bigger surprise, found a way to sneak past Italian outfit Lazio in the round of 32 by a 4-3 aggregate score. The run ended with a 4-0 thumping at the hands of Valencia in the following round, but it was a fantastic result to their first real European campaign. Meanwhile, on the home front, Ludogorets took home their third straight title, this time by an impressive 12 point margin.
The 2014-15 season began in the same way as the previous two, in the second qualifying round of the UCL, but this time, they finally achieved the goal of reaching the group stage, defeating Steaua Bucharest in the playoff round after winning two previous qualifying ties. It was a rude introduction to say the least, as the Eagles were drawn in a group of Real Madrid, Liverpool, and Basel, and as expected, they finished last, with four points (although they did scrape out a win over Basel and a draw with Liverpool).
To little surprise, Razgrad won their fourth straight league title that season, but they then followed that up with their most disappointing European run to date, when they went out to Moldovan side Milsami Orhei in the second qualifying round. That brings us to the end of last year, where they secured a fifth straight title by fourteen points, as Razgrad topped the table from the 18th matchday through the 36th and final fixture.
There’s no doubt that this new-age juggernaut will be pipped for their sixth straight league title this year, but more importantly, they have made their way back to the Champions League group stage. They smashed Montenegrin side Mladost Podgorica 5-0 in the second qualifying round before sneaking past Red Star Belgrade 6-4 in extra time in the third. Then, playing Viktoria Plzen in the playoff round, they won the first leg 2-0 before earning a fantastic 2-2 draw Tuesday in the Czech Republic to book their place in the competition.
It won’t be easy, but given Razgrad continue to perform well in the league and have slowly started making their way up the European ladder, it wouldn’t be a shock to see them pull of a surprise or two if given a kind draw.