Great 90s Footballers #1: Krasimir Balakov
There’s no denying that the poster boy of Bulgarian football, not just during the nineties but probably for all time, is Hristo Stoichkov. A wayward, unpredictable genius and a key part of Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’, Stoichkov infused his game with the swagger and danger of a rockstar, as likely to headbutt an opponent as score a breathtaking goal out of nothing or pull a dazzling piece of skill from his bottomless bag of tricks.
Yet while Stoichkov was the face (in fact a number of faces) of Bulgarian football, Krasimir Balakov was its beating heart. Over a 20-year career that saw him write his name into the folklore of two of Europe’s biggest clubs, and help drag a nation from the bowels of footballing anonymity into the spotlight of a world cup semi final, Balakov established himself as one of the finest playmakers of his generation.
In some ways, Balakov appears to be almost a caricature of your typical number 10. A headstrong figure who locked horns at various intervals with coaches and team mates alike in his day, his artistic sensibilities are reflected off the pitch by the vast and growing collection of paintings he keeps in a gallery in a wing of his house. The Bulgarian ticks all of the prime playmaker boxes – vision, skill, astonishing technique and the audacity to try what others wouldn’t dare to attempt. He also possessed a veritable Swiss army knife of a left foot, as capable of powering home a high velocity free kick from 30 yards as subtly unlocking illustrious defences with a stunning through ball.
Yet while many number 10s founder and fade as age catches up with them, or fail to adapt on moving to a different league, Balakov’s strength and work rate enabled him to make the switch effortlessly from Portugal to the more robust Bundesliga, despite being 29 by the time he arrived in Germany in the spring of 1995, and he continued to be the main man for club and country well into his 30s.
Making his debut for hometown club Etar Veliko Tarnovo in 1983, Balakov would become a key part of a surprisingly talented side also containing future stars such as Trifon Ivanov, Ilian Kiriakov and former Ipswich and Luton star Bontcho Guentchev, that would all too briefly threaten to wrest the balance of power in Bulgarian football away from the Sofia clubs. However, by the time Etar finally won their one and only championship, Balakov had departed for Sporting Lisbon, where he began to carve a name for himself as a player to watch. Scoring a number of spectacular goals from dead balls and open play (including THIS), Balakov linked well with his compatriot, centre forward Ivaylo Yordanov, to give the Portuguese giants a Bulgarian attack sharper and deadlier than a poison-tipped umbrella.
It seemed that he was reaching the peak of his powers at just the right time. He started the counter attack with a clever disguised pass that sealed his country’s unlikeliest of passages to USA ’94 against the French at the Parc des Princes in November 1993, feeding Luboslav Penev, who dinked a ball over the top for Emil Kostadinov to crash in a memorable injury time goal that shocked the home side and ended David Ginola’s international career. At the tournament itself, Balakov failed to find the net, and missed a penalty in Bulgaria’s second round shootout win over Mexico, yet he could be found pulling the strings, at the hub of every attack. As the ever-authoritative Jonathan Wilson notes, Stoichkov and Balakov complemented each other perfectly, the latter being the ‘schemer’ behind the former’s cutting edge. Off the field however, as Wilson also alludes to, the duo had a fractious relationship. Whether characterised as a clash of egos between two men who were not shy about making their voices heard, or as a conflict between Balakov the model pro vs Stoichkov the maverick, the two did not see eye to eye. This culminated in an almighty shouting match between the two at half time during Bulgaria’s quarter final against world champions Germany…which promptly fuelled their astonishing comeback and one of the greatest shocks in world cup history. “Let’s just say that God was Bulgarian that summer”, Balakov would later declare, and while Italy would put paid to their campaign in the semi finals, both he and his rival Stoichkov would be voted into FIFA’s team of the tournament.
The old tensions returned with altogether unhappier results four years later at France ’98. Stoichkov had been in self-imposed exile in protest at the sacking of Coach Dimitar Penev after Euro’ 96. Calls grew louder for the star’s return as the finals drew nearer, and eventually he was tempted back to the fold. Balakov, however, was less than impressed with the prodigal son routine, having hauled the team to qualification – top scoring for his country with five goals along the way. With an ageing squad, an ever-darkening mood and Stoichkov a shadow of his former self, Bulgaria crashed out at the group stage, humiliated 6-1 by also-eliminated Spain in their last game. They have not qualified for a major tournament since, although at least Stoichkov and Balakov have managed to patch things up in the intervening years.
Rewinding to 1995, Balakov’s time at Sporting was coming to a close – shunted into a number of different roles by tinkerman Carlos Queiroz, the playmaker grew increasingly fed up, and with his stock still high after the previous summers American adventure, a move was considered best for all parties. After picking up his first piece of silverware in a Taca de Portugal final win over Maritimo, Balakov arrived at VFB Stuttgart in March 1995 for a fee of around DM7.5m. Waiting for him were two strikers who had seen their prayers answered.
During the mid-nineties, Krasmir Balakov, Geovanni Elber and Fredi Bobic formed the famed “magic triangle” at Stuttgart. The trio is still talked about in hushed tones at the Mercedes-Benz Arena. Floating just behind the strikers, Balakov was the focal point, the “head of the triangle” who would make the bullets for the brawny yet skillful combo of Elber and Bobic. The trio shared an ability to combine almost telepathically, delighting fans and neutrals alike with one touch passing and brilliantly intricate, devil-may-care attacking play. Yet in their first full season together, they could not inspire Joachim Löw’s cavalier Stuttgart above a mid-table finish. For all of the sorcery conjured by the triangle, which saw only Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich score more goals, their porous defence conceded more than everyone bar relegated Eintracht Frankfurt, leaving Löw’s men to end the season in 10th. A 6-3 defeat at the hands of eventual champions Dortmund summed up their campaign – exciting, free-scoring, but not good enough to hang with the big boys.
Balakov remained at Stuttgart, and while the triangle’s demise saw the club go into something of a decline, the Bulgarian stepped up as a leader on the pitch and in the dressing room, nurturing the up and coming likes of Alexandr Hleb and playing a similar role at international level for players such as Stillian Petrov. The dawn of the 21stCentury saw Balakov, now well into his thirties, continue to play a pivotal role, helping Stuttgart avoid relegation in 2000/01 and, in his last season as a player, scoring the goal that sealed a Champions’ League spot in 2002/03 to bring the house down. Bowing out at 37 to take a coaching role at the club, he received an emotional gala farewell match, in which Stuttgart beat a Balakov XI 8-7.
The playmaker’s biggest challenge yet awaits him. In May he was appointed manager of Hajduk Split, and is charged with closing the hefty gap that has opened up between the famous Croatian side and their (very) fierce rivals Dinamo Zagreb. The appointment was a curious one, as Balakov’s previous forays into management have been somewhat less than successful. He was sacked by Grasshoppers Zurich after only steering them to sixth place in 2006/07 – some 15 points behind champions and city rivals FC Zurich. Taking over at St. Gallen in October the following season, he was unable to arrest the decline of Switzerland’s oldest club as they were relegated from the Swiss Super League. A spell at ambitious Chernomorets Burgas In the Bulgarian league seemed to hold more promise, until he was sacked as a cost-cutting measure in 2008, having achieved little of note.
His appointment at Hajduk seems to owe more to his reputation as a player, withPetroslav Sapunar, Head of the Croatian club’s Governing Board, perhaps tellingly announcing him at his unveiling as “the glorious Bulgarian football player Krasimir Balakov”. The legacy of another Bulgarian coach, Ivan Vutsov, who won the Yugoslav Cup with Hajduk in 1987, also seems to have played a part, with rumours abounding that Vutsov was involved in brokering the deal between the two parties. Nevertheless, fans seem cautiously optimistic about his start in Split, impressed by his authoritative pronouncements and the swiftness with which he has cleared the deadwood. Surprisingly, given his playing style, he seems to be quite a pragmatic coach if his time in Swiss football is anything to go by, with much talk of “giving 120%” and players “having to eat grass if necessary”. He should be given time at Hajduk, where years without a title win have suitably lowered expectations.
As a player, trophies eluded Krasimir Balakov, with just one Portuguese Cup and one German Cup to his name, and he will be eager to atone for that as a manager. Yet despite his lack of silverware, Balakov’s legacy should not be forgotten. For all of the plaudits that have rained down on him over his career – at its apex at USA ’94 and the glory days at Sporting and Stuttgart – he still seems underrated somehow, forever in the shadow of his friend/nemesis/rival Stoichkov. Yet with power and pace married to gliding poise and searing football intelligence, and possessing THAT left foot, Balakov should be remembered as one of the most complete playmakers of his generation.