I first met Duce in Sofia at the end of July 2016. He’d been having a rough summer. During our first encounter, he endlessly paced around his bar-cum-bookies, pouring himself large glasses of Talisker single malts, which he finished with unnerving frequency. “You. English man,” he bellowed. “If you go to Moscow, to the Kremlin, put on a suit and say you are Putin, are you now the president of Russia? NO! SO LITEX IS NOT CSKA.” 

The name on Duce’s birth certificate is Dimitar Angelov, and he has dedicated most of his life to supporting CSKA Sofia, a club who have been going through a transformative period of late.

CSKA are dead

CSKA are Bulgaria’s most successful football club. In their 68 years of existence, the Reds have won 31 league titles and 20 Bulgarian Cups. They are also by far Bulgaria’s most successful entrant into the European Cup, having twice reached the semi-finals. On first meeting me, Duce grabs my notebook and writes: “1980 CSKA - Forest. 1982 CSKA - Liverpool.” The two occasions his side knocked England’s reigning champions of Europe out of the European Cup.

CSKA’s fall from grace followed the typical path trodden by many former eastern European giants. They found the transition from communist to capitalist eras a turbulent experience; exploitative and shady businessmen, embezzled money, wasted investments. By spring 2015, the fall was complete. CSKA hit the ground hard. 

The previous summer break had offered some hope. The wealthy businessman Petar Mandjukov had joined the board and injected enough cash to secure a Uefa licence for the upcoming 2014-15 season. His generosity was not rewarded. CSKA were knocked out of the Europa League by Zimbru Chişinău of Moldova in the first qualifier they played.

It was a sign of a tough season to come. CSKA also lost their first match in the Bulgarian Cup to second division Montana while in the league they finished fifth on 52 points; three places and 20 points down on the previous season. 

If things were bad on the pitch, they were a nightmare off it. Information on CSKA’s finances began seeping out of the club; the colossal costs and crippling debts. In March, the club made a plea to its fans for donations, money that was required to help acquire a licence to play in Bulgaria’s top flight the following season. The campaign was unsuccessful. In May 2015 the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) denied CSKA a licence to play professional football. 

The previous month, a deal to sell the club to Mandjukov and another businessman, Julian Indzhov, had fallen through. CSKA’s majority shareholder, Aleksandar Tomov, resigned as chairman of the board, and passed on his shares to two associates of Mandjukov and Indzhov, who were tasked with finding a buyer. Bankruptcy proceedings began.

As with many previous clubs faced with expulsion and financial ruin, these seemingly devastating blows also offered a chance for rebirth. Two billionaires quickly positioned themselves as potential knights of salvation: Vasil Bozhkov and Grisha Ganchev. Both men were questionable saviours. 

Ganchev, a former wrestler and powerful oligarch, had taken his hometown club, Litex Lovech, from relative obscurity to four Bulgarian titles and the knockout stages of the Europa League. He was also once described in a leaked memo on organised crime in Bulgaria, sent by the then American ambassador, James Pardew, in 2005, as “one of the first organised crime leaders to use a sports team to launder money.” 

Meanwhile, Bozhkov, also known as ‘the Skull’, was one of Bulgaria’s wealthiest citizens and had previously owned CSKA in the early 2000s, but left after a spat with the club’s fans in 2006. The same memo on organised crime described Bozhkov’s illegal activities as including “money laundering, privatisation fraud, intimidation, and extortion and racketeering.”

Over the summer, numerous plans for the club were discussed publicly. One was proposed by Ganchev, who offered to do a deal involving Litex that would see the club renamed ‘CSKA’ and moved to Sofia, with Bozhkov returning as the owner. Another merger was discussed involving CSKA and Lokomotiv Sofia, who had also lost their licence. These suggestions proved unpopular with CSKA’s fans as well as contravening Uefa and BFU regulations.

In late June, Bozhkov announced to the press that CSKA would be reborn and start again in the amateur leagues, four levels down, and registered a new company named CSKA Sofia in the process. 

His actions turned out to be premature. A few days after the announcement, Bozhkov had abandoned his idea for a new team and the shares left by Tomov were passed solely to Ganchev. 

Under Ganchev, CSKA were to enter the third tier of Bulgarian football, still saddled with the debts that had prevented them from acquiring a professional licence. Ganchev promised great things. He was a CSKA fan and swore that he could restore the club to its former glory and would attempt to significantly reduce the debts.

CSKA excelled in adversity on the pitch. They unsurprisingly took the South-West Amateur Football League by storm, winning 25 of 26 games and drawing the other. More impressively, the club also claimed their 20th Bulgarian Cup with what was officially an amateur side; beating five professional clubs and two top-tier sides on their way to lifting the trophy. Their victory in the final came against Montana, the club who had humiliated them the season before, in front of a sell-out crowd of more than 33,000 at Bulgaria’s Vasil Levski National Stadium.

Off the field things weren’t going so well. Ganchev’s promises were beginning to unravel as the extent of CSKA’s debt was being revealed by the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings. The club owed 80 million leva (around €40m) to the tax office alone. They owed the Ministry of Sport another million leva and a range of private creditors were owed somewhere in the region of 22m leva. 

These debts were described by Ganchev as ‘impossible to pay off’, and in November 2015 ownership of CSKA Sofia was transferred by the judicial courts to a trustee, Dora Mileva. 

Mileva was entrusted with finding a new owner for the ailing club. In order for an individual or group to gain control of CSKA, a ‘healing plan’ would have to be presented to Mileva and the court; one which would restore the club to financial security and guarantee at least some return on the debts owed to CSKA’s creditors.

Again it was Bozhkov and Ganchev who sought to take control, the two men fronting separate organisations that put forward healing plans. In July, with the start of the new season fast approaching, the court asked for amendments to be made to both.

Neither group submitted the required amendments before the deadline expired. On 9 September 2016, CSKA were declared bankrupt. Attempts would be made to sell the clubs only assets, its logo and trademarks. CSKA’s heritage and history belonged to the state. CSKA were dead.

Long Live CSKA!

It is difficult ever really to kill a football team, though, especially one as deeply rooted in a footballing culture as CSKA, not to mention one as potentially lucrative. And, as the previous summer had shown, people were not afraid to be afraid to be creative when trying to keep CSKA alive, especially Grisha Ganchev.

Ganchev had a very busy 2016. In May, a statement was issued by the original CSKA Sofia proclaiming that CSKA would be back at the highest echelon of Bulgarian football for the 2016-17 season, having received assurances not only from the president of the BFU, the former goalkeeper Borislav Mihaylov, but also from the prime minister, Boyko Borissov. 

Soon after, Ganchev became the co-owner of another football club, Chavdar Etropole. Other people with shares in Chavdar at the time included Emil Dimitrov, a controversial MP from the ruling GERB party, and Hristo Stoichkov, the Bulgarian former Ballon d’Or winner who was joint top scorer in the 1994 World Cup and went on to play for Barcelona. Both men have strong previous connections to CSKA.

Chavdar then underwent a process of transformation, changing their name to PFC CSKA 1948. A few weeks later, in early July 2016, PFC CSKA 1948 merged with Ganchev’s old club, Litex Lovech, which after Grisha’s departure the previous summer had passed into the control of his son, Danail.

This new entity, a combination of Litex Lovech and the club formerly known as Chavdar Etropole, then also changed names. The club would now be called CSKA-Sofia - note the all-important hyphen. Its major shareholders were listed as Grisha Ganchev, Hristo Stoichkov, and Julian Indzhov, who proclaims himself “not much of a football man”.

This new side, CSKA-Sofia, then applied for licence from the BFU to play in their newly branded top tier, which was expanded for the 2016-17 season from 10 teams to 14 and had changed its name from A Group to First Professional Football League. 

Amazingly, this application was successful. Despite CSKA-Sofia being an amalgamation of a team that had never played top-tier football (Chavdar) and a team recently expelled from the top-flight after walking off the pitch in protest at refereeing decisions (Litex), they had acquired a licence to join the First Professional Football League.

Or perhaps it wasn’t so amazing. On the BFU executive board voting on the application was one Grisha Ganchev. And Prime Minister Borissov had made assurances regarding CSKA’s return to the top flight.

The new-look CSKA was taking shape. They had the strikingly similar name, still often listed without the hyphen, and a licence to play top-tier football. The next question was where they would do so; playing in Lovech or Etropole didn’t seem a particularly good fit.

CSKA’s traditional home is the Balgarska Armia Stadium (the Bulgarian Army Stadium), which is owned by the Ministry of Sport. After the original club’s license was revoked, the ministry created a contract with PFC CSKA Sofia 1948, the holding name CSKA were operating under for the 2015-16 season. 

On 13 July 2016, the ministry cancelled this contract. It was a death knell for the original CSKA. The absence of a stadium allocated to the club meant CSKA became almost impossible to run as a business; burdened with colossal debts and with very little possibility of recuperating any income. In an interview with sportal.bg three days after CSKA were declared bankrupt, the trustee Dora Mileva described the termination of the arrangement as “the end of it all”. 

Two weeks later, on July 27, two days before the start of the new Bulgarian First League season, an announcement was made that Ganchev’s CSKA-Sofia had secured use of the stadium for the whole of the 2016-17 season. CSKA-Sofia would be playing top-tier football at the Balgarska Armia. 

CSKA Fans and their Moustachioed mothers

But would CSKA’s huge fanbase still fill it? Throughout the summer and the opening weeks of the season, the team behind CSKA-Sofia did their best to ensure they would, through a succession of glitzy, attention-grabbing communiqués to CSKA’s fans. 

Two pre-season friendlies with prestigious Italian opposition were organised. The first was a symbolically significant clash with Internazionale, whom CSKA had played in the 1967 European Cup semi-final. A 2-1 win for CSKA-Sofia helped secure yet more headlines. The second, against Udinese, took place in Sofia at the 23,000-capacity Balgarska Armia. The doors to the historic stadium were opened wide, allowing all spectators in for free. Over 10,000 people attended.

These games were coupled with an aggressive media campaign throughout the pre-season. “The word of the summer in the Bulgarian sports media is ‘recognise’,” Teodor Borisov, a journalist for Meridian Match, a Bulgarian sports daily told me in July. “Every day someone new is telling the public they must ‘recognise’ this club as CSKA Sofia.” Some of the illustrious figures from CSKA’s history who came out in support of the new club included Petar Zhekov, the club’s all time top scorer, not to mention the board member Hristo Stoichkov.

The club released a statement addressed to international media outlets, imploring them to ignore any “smear campaigns” against them, and insisting that CSKA-Sofia was a legitimate successor club; comparing themselves to the “similar cases” of Napoli, Parma and Rangers. The statement added that “PFC CSKA-Sofia has no relation to PFC Litex-Lovech and can not and should not be linked in any way to this football club.”

Despite the relentless PR work, as the season began the name most commonly used to describe CSKA-Sofia was “the hybrid”. The club’s staff list at the time made it clear why. It was almost a perfect representation of the old, dying CSKA’s vital organs being hastily transplanted into expelled Litex’s slightly healthier body; Frankenstein’s monster in football club form. 

Appointed as CSKA-Sofia’s coach was Hristo Yanev, who managed the old CSKA to victory in the 2016 Bulgarian Cup, while their captain was Boris Galchev, a key player for the side in the early 2010s. Stanislav Malamov, the scorer of the winning goal in the 2016 Bulgarian Cup final and the competition’s top scorer Preslav Yordanov, who scored 33 times for CSKA in the previous season, also found themselves with a contract at CSKA-Sofia. 14 members of the registered squad were previously Litex players and another five were new signings.

Duce wasn’t even going to compromise at “hybrid”. For him CSKA-Sofia were nothing more than Litex pretending to be his beloved CSKA. 

Duce’s nickname is apt for many reasons. He and the original Duce, Benito Mussolini, share both a robust frame and passion for leadership - Angelov was viewed as the head of CSKA’s fans for many years, recognised as such by all of CSKA’s disparate fan groups. Unlike some ultras, Duce is clearly a dedicated fan of the game on the pitch as well as in the stands. He speaks only a few words of English, but pronounces the name of Brian Clough perfectly.

Duce presented a number of analogies to demonstrate how ridiculous it is to suggest that this team could be CSKA, including the one about me impersonating Vladimir Putin. He then asked how my father would feel if Swindon began playing at Priestfield wearing blue shirts with Gillingham’s badge on their chests. It was a hard question to get my head around. Duce’s main conviction, which he stated a number of times, is that a man could recognise his own team like he could recognise his own family. This was not his team.

He believed his team had been taken away from him not just by Ganchev, but by collusion between the billionaire, the BFU and the government. “Look at how quickly the ministry worked to give them our stadium,” he shouted. “Politics never works that quickly in Bulgaria, or anywhere. It was quicker than in Britain or Germany!” It was this influence from the government that raised the most ire. Duce wanted a clear separation of football and state. “Let football be played on the pitches, not in the cabinet!” 

While Duce’s proclamations represent the views of many fans in Sofia, who have littered the city with stickers proclaiming “Litex is not CSKA”, there has been a difference of opinion among CSKA’s fans since last summer on how the club should proceed. 

CSKA’s ultras unify under the name Sektor G, after the stand they occupy during home games, but are made up of numerous separate fan groups. They have been divided since the summer of 2015. The biggest group, Ofanziva, has ceased its activities but another major group, Animals, have rallied round Ganchev’s new entity. 

Members of other fan groups insist their loyalty is bought. A number of Animals members have been employed as stewards for home games at the Balgarska Armia and the group’s leaders have been photographed with both Ganchev and Borissov. 

Duce tries to be diplomatic when I first ask him about CSKA fans supporting the “hybrid” club. “That’s their choice,” he replies bluntly, but his emotions soon get the better of him. “They can go and start watching Real Madrid and say that is CSKA if they want to,” he quickly adds. “Have you met any of them yet? When you do, ask them how it is possible that their mother is a man with a moustache. That must be the world they live in if that is CSKA.”

When the first game of the season does roll around, nearly 7,000 fans with moustachioed mothers come to the Balgarska Armia to see CSKA-Sofia play Slavia Sofia. Announcements appeared online before the game stating that Hristo Stoichkov would be present to give a message of support to the team, though in the end the message was delivered via the PA system. Stoichkov was in Miami.

CSKA-Sofia ran out 2-0 winners, with the Portuguese striker Diogo Viana scoring both goals. He had been at Litex the previous season. A small band of Slavia fans congregated behind one goal tried to provoke the CSKA ultras by occasionally chanting the name Litex at them. It didn’t have much impact. 

Despite some fiery choreography in Sektor G and a banner proclaiming “WE ARE CSKA”, the game felt neither like a historic rebirth or an emphatic rejection of the new team, just a fairly routine win for a bigger club over a smaller one, in an eastern European country where passion for the domestic league is dwindling. 

Long live the other CSKA!

First hatched in the summer of 2015, Ganchev’s plan to merge Litex with CSKA to breathe new life into the Sofia giants had been executed expertly in just a few short months in 2016; seemingly with the backing of the BFU, the Bulgarian state and at least some of the fans. But Bozhkov’s notion from the previous summer, to form a new club starting in the amateur leagues, wasn’t dead.

In late July 2016, an open letter was circulated to the Bulgarian media, detailing the founding of a new club, CSKA 1948. The letter was signed by the club’s new chairman, Ivan Mechkov, a brigadier general with 28 years service in the Bulgarian army. 

In the week the club was formed, Mechkov told Bulgaria Today that he was invited to become the chairman of the new club because of his work with CSKA Forever, a fund that had raised money for CSKA and its academies. Mechkov did not reveal who had sent this invitation, but insisted that he had no plans to meet with Vasil Bozhkov.

In the same interview, Mechkov refuted the idea that CSKA 1948 were competing with CSKA-Sofia, instead describing his new club as “a solution to many fans of CSKA who do not recognise the company of Grisha Ganchev.” He added that the two clubs have vastly different objectives and policies and that CSKA 1948’s main goal was to preserve CSKA’s traditional ‘army values’.

On August 6, the BFU accepted CSKA 1948’s application to join the A group of the regional amateur league. They would start the season in the Sofia (Capital) South division. The 2016-17 season would feature two teams in the Bulgarian pyramid claiming to continue the legacy of a team who technically wouldn’t be wound up for another month. Chavdar Etropole and Litex Lovech, meanwhile, both acquired licenses from other teams and started the season in the third tier.

Derby Day & Duce

By October, the season was well underway and CSKA-Sofia had made a slightly shaky start. Their first two away matches were with unfancied sides, new to the top flight; against Vereya in Stara Zagora and Pirin in Blagoevgrad. CSKA took just one point from the two games, costing manager Hristo Yanev his job. 

Yanev was one of the few connections to CSKA’s past and his sacking alienated many casual fans. He was replaced with Edward Iordanescu, the son of three-time Romania manager, Anghel, and a strong recommendation of Stoichkov’s. 

At home, CSKA-Sofia’s results had been far better. They had won every game at the Balgarska Armia but attendances had fallen dramatically. After the sacking of Yanev, home crowds had averaged less than 2,300.

CSKA 1948 meanwhile had struggled to find a suitable stadium for home matches. Three stadiums refused to sign a deal with the new club. One deal fell through after an agreement had been reached, with the owners citing “surprise obstacles”. 

Their first home game was eventually played at the Vasil Levski, Bulgaria’s national stadium. It was perhaps an overly ambitious step, with only a couple of thousand fans rattling around in the illustrious old stadium. 

The organisers and financiers of CSKA 1948 remained shrouded in mystery, though many believe Bozhkov to be involved and there are even rumours that the Ludogorets owner Kiril Domuschiev, a CSKA fan and one time member of the club’s board, may be contributing. With the cost of renting the Vasil Levski estimated at around 20,000 leva a match, there must be a source of money somewhere.

On October 15, CSKA-Sofia made their first visit to the Vasil Levski for the biggest game in Bulgarian football, CSKA v Levski; Bulgaria’s entry into the many ‘eternal derbies’ of post-Communist Europe. 

While Levski fans repeatedly insisted that this was not another derby, that CSKA were dead and they were playing Litex, the match seemed to draw more attention than any of the ‘real’ derbies that had taken place over the previous few years. It definitely drew more attendees. 25,000 fans packed into the national stadium, higher than any derby attendance since 2001.

A free programme was given to each ticket holder in the stands housing CSKA fans. It was filled with photographs and stories from eternal derbies down the years. The message was clear: today Ganchev’s CSKA-Sofia were writing another chapter into that long legacy.

The Levski fans outnumbered their CSKA counterparts and seemed determined to turn the occasion into something resembling a wake, one in which the demise of the deceased is celebrated a little too boisterously. On their way to the stadium, a man dressed as a priest turned the ultras cortege into a funeral procession. Inside, a banner displaying a Litex badge was hoisted into the air on a stick, strategically placed to block out the CSKA badge on the scoreboard.

At half-time, Levski were leading 1-0 and the Levski fans nearest to CSKA’s ultras used the opportunity to berate them with the same questions of identity the Slavia fans had in the first game of the season: “Litex! Litex! Litex! Litex! Litex!” They got the same response, complete indifference. Most of the ultras were preparing for their second-half choreography, which seemed more of a celebration of themselves than the club; banners displaying ultras, songs about hooligans.

CSKA-Sofia equalised from the penalty spot in the second half to secure a 1-1 draw, the 48th in Sofia’s eternal derby. Or perhaps the first between CSKA-Sofia and Levski, or perhaps the ninth between Levski and Litex Lovech; it’s all a matter of perspective.

The next day, CSKA 1948 played their third home game of the season. This time they weren’t at the Vasil Levski but in a tiny ground in Orbelya, a district of Sofia that is the last stop on one of the Metro lines. The stadium’s single stand was made up of a few wooden steps, with a row of trees and a railway line running behind it. It was a romantic picture of lower-league European football and a more than adequate venue to house the 150 or so supporters that came to watch CSKA 1948 win 8-0. 

On my way home from the game, a car pulled up beside me. Duce stuck his head out of the window and barked at me to get in. He was pleased to see me again and in a much better mood than in our first meeting. He seemed delighted to have a club back, even if it was only he and a few other middle-aged former ultras singing songs for them.

Duce asked if I’d been at the ‘derby’ the day before. I admitted that I had. He insisted that most of the people there ‘supporting’ CSKA were just there to “wave their dicks at Levski.” I thought back to the lack of reaction the football had inspired compared with the joy caused by one ultra who mimed wiping his arse with a stolen Levski scarf and conceded that Duce may be right. 

Towards the end of journey, Duce made the bold statement that when CSKA 1948 play Levski in three seasons time, the Vasil Levski will be full and entirely red. I was a lot more sceptical about this proclamation but decided not to argue. Duce was full of rakija and the hubris that comes after seeing your team win 8-0 and no one can take that away from a football fan; not a cynical foreign journalist or a billionaire with links to organised crime or even a prime minister. No one.