In a world where the new is venerated at the expense of the old, the choice of Georgi ‘Gundi’ Asparuhov as Bulgaria’s best footballer of the 20th century was particularly telling.
Asparuhov was a centre forward whose career in the 1960s had been spent in its entirety playing in Bulgarian football, and yet he was picked ahead of Hristo Stoichkov, a modern-day hero with a glittering career in the west that was just coming to an end.
If Ivan Kolev and Dimitar Yakimov were the first players to pique the interest of the footballing cognoscenti outside Bulgaria’s borders, Georgi Asparuhov was the first to become a bona fide superstar with a reputation the equal of the stars of the west.
This was a player who became a complete centre forward: tall and strong, two-footed and quick, a natural athlete who had switched to the sport after showing great aptitude for volleyball.
His career was inextricably linked with Levski Sofia. He started out in the club’s youth ranks and was promoted to the first team in 1960 at the age of just 17, making his debut soon after in a fixture against Botev Plovdiv.
What was curious about this first appearance was the role he was playing. Unusually tall for a Bulgarian footballer, coaches saw him as a player who could make either an ideal central defender or centre forward – indeed his early games were spent in the Levski rearguard. A few months later he scored a fine individual goal and was preferred up front from that time on.
In 1961 he was forced to leave his beloved Levski to perform military service and, as was common, he spent the next three years turning out for the army club situated closest to his barracks – in Gundi’s case, Botev Plovdiv.
His contribution in Plovdiv was immense and his goals helped the club to a Bulgarian Cup win in 1962 and a runners-up spot in the League the following season.
International recognition also arrived in 1961 and Asparuhov was called into the squad for the World Cup in Chile the following year. Bulgaria had a poor tournament with the exception of its new young prodigy who scored the nation’s solitary goal of the tournament against Hungary.
Gundi would play in two further World Cups but circumstances conspired to make them less than satisfying. Obliged to play because of his reputation, a damaged ankle made him a passenger in England in 1966 before a variety of injuries hindered his Mexico campaign four years after that.
His club career went from strength to strength however upon his return to Levski in 1964. The first five games he played back in the capital brought him nine goals, 27 in all for the 1964-65 season, which saw Levski win a first title in a dozen years.
A first European Cup campaign came to a halt in the first round, though 180 minutes was long enough to swell Gundi’s burgeoning international reputation.
Levski gave the mighty Benfica two hard-fought matches before succumbing on a 5-4 aggregate and a feature of the games was how the Portuguese defence singularly failed to cope with the mercurial forward – scorer of three of Levski’s four goals.
So impressed were Benfica that a concerted effort was made to sign him, this in an era when foreign players were unheard of in the Portuguese game. Of course it was also an age when eastern European football stars offered up sporting propaganda gold, so the Bulgarian authorities would not even contemplate their star heading west.
“Asparuhov is the striker of my daydreams” Nereo Rocco, Milan coach
Gundi’s reaction to a lucrative move west being denied – he was also offered a king’s ransom to defect and join Milan in 1967 – was atypical of eastern stars. Most became frustrated at the glass ceiling imposed upon their career and their earnings, whereas Asparuhov was proud of his heritage and oft-stated loyalty to club and country.
But then he was not a player whose head was ever turned by his fame. A family man with young children, a non-drinker and non-smoker who was never involved in any off-field controversy; Gundi’s grounded personality extended to the pitch where he was famed for his sporting attitude – extending even to the many defenders who crudely stopped his progress by any means necessary entailing a career-long battle with ankle injuries.
His mid-60s club form extended to the national team and it was his quick fire double and complete centre forward performance during a play-off against Belgium that took Bulgaria to England for the following summer’s World Cup. England is a country that appreciates a classic centre-forward of course and Gundi offered up a masterclass in his art by scoring a great goal at Wembley in 1968. He collected the ball, left Labone floundering, held off the attempted challenge of Keith Newton before accelerating clear and whipping a low shot into the goal.
Tragically Georgi Asparuhov’s career did not reach a natural end. In June 1971 as he travelled to Vratza for training with teammate, Nicola Kotkov, his car collided with a lorry. Both players were killed instantaneously. The whole country ground to a halt. Thousands gathered outside the Levski stadium in silent grief and half a million people attended his funeral in the capital.
The legacy Gundi left behind was considerable. The cold figures of his career were impressive: three national titles and three domestic cups with Levsky and a domestic cup with Botev, all between 1962 and 1970. There were 150 goals in 245 appearances at club level adding to 19 goals in 49 national appearances, which included appearing at three World Cups.
But Georgi Asparuhov’s real legacy transcended stats and figures. As he started to make his way in the game, Bulgaria was a sombre country with little identity beyond its marginal status as a harsh Soviet satellite state. Asparuhov gave its people belief that Bulgarians – and thus Bulgaria by extension – could be great in its own right.