On a hot October Saturday, as a scrum of players lunged for the ball bouncing head-high in the midfield, a match in Bulgaria’s Third League – a 71-team competition divided into four regional groups – played out in the universal rhythm of amateur football: frenetic and slow at the same time.
On some rusted blue benches between the changing rooms and the stadium’s running track, 30 spectators chatted and nibbled pumpkin seeds, half-watching their friends and relatives exhausting themselves on the pitch.
In an early-evening, early-autumn kick-off at Nikolai Laskov Stadium in the town of Yambol, the game between Tundzha Yambol and Chernomorets Burgas – mid-table rivals in the south-east group of the Treta Liga – ended in a 3-0 win for Chernomorets. The visitors were by far the better team, and scored through an own goal before half-time, then impressive goals by Martin Dimitrov and Milen Tanev in the second half.
Somehow, Chernomorets’ central midfielder didn’t get himself sent off.
It wasn’t always like this. In the last century Tundzha Yambol were a mainstay in Bulgaria’s second division. The team even held its own in the top tier for a while in the 1970s, when the big clubs from Sofia – Levski, Slavia and CSKA – would visit, and the seats on the stadium’s concrete steps would be full.
Chernomorets Burgas have fallen from even higher. The club had been almost ever-present in Bulgaria’s first league, even playing in the European Intertoto Cup for two seasons in the 1980s. But as Bulgarian football ran out of money in the last decade, the whole system sinking into the doldrums, Tundzha and Chernomorets were two of the many teams to be dissolved. Both were reformed in the last five years, as new. They were forced to begin at the very bottom, two levels below even where they find themselves at the moment.
With seven more games to play this season, the best the footballers of Burgas can hope for is promotion to the Second League (Vtora Liga) – the first professional level in Bulgarian football. Chernomorets, now unbeaten in four games, lie fifth out of 20 teams in the south-east group, 10 points behind leaders Sayana Haskovo.
Tundzha Yambol will still be here next season, playing for the few dozen on the metal benches. They are tenth, and haven’t scored a goal in five games.
Jonathan Campion is a writer, a translator from Russian and Ukrainian, and a book editor. He has travelled in Eurasia since 2005. Read about his work here, and contact him here.