Gundi: Bulgaria's Very Own James Dean

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Gundi: Bulgaria's Very Own James Dean

Georgi Asparoukhov, or “Gundi”, is considered by many to be the greatest Bulgarian football player of all time. This means he is deemed a better player than modern Bulgarian stars such as Barcelona’s phlegmatic forward Hristo Stoichkov, Stuttgart’s brilliant play-maker Krassimir Balakov, or the defender Trifon “Wolf” Ivanov.

 

A while ago, I was drinking a few pints and having a laugh with some friends in my local pub when we got into a conversation with some foreign season-workers.

 

Some were Polish, some were Czech, some were Bulgarian. In some basic German and English, we still managed to keep a conversation going. The main topic that evening, besides beer and women, was football.

 

When we came to talk about the best player their nation had ever produced, I was pretty sure the Bulgarians would choose Hristo Stoichkov. After all, “Itso” was one of the best forwards in the world in the early nineties. He won the Europa Cup I in ’92 and he led Bulgaria to an unprecedented fourth spot in the ’94 World Cup.

 

My Bulgarian drinking comrades still surprised me by mentioning Gundi as the best player Bulgaria had ever had. Naturally, none of us had ever heard of Gundi and we were curious to hear more of this unknown legend.

 

Despite their poor German and English, the Bulgarians managed to tell their tale about Gundi, Sofia’s and Bulgaria’s very own James Dean.

 

Gundi was a striker for Bulgaria and Levski Sofia in the sixties. He scored over 150 goals in the highest Bulgarian division and was wooed by some of Europe’s finest at the time. Eusébio’s Benfica and Nereo Rocco’s AC Milan were rumoured to be interested in the Bulgarian star, but communism prevented Gundi from plying his trade abroad.

 

Gundi remained faithful to Levski and Bulgaria, going on to become one of the most prolific goalscorers in Bulgarian history. He featured in three World Cups and scored a goal that is still legendary in Bulgaria to this day.

 

In an away game against then reigning world champions England, Gundi scored an amazing goal at Wembley, dribbling past five English defenders before slotting the ball past the goalie. For people interested, I've added a Youtube-link.

 

Looking at video images, I can imagine why several of Europe’s top sides were interested in the Bulgarian. It’s as if you’re watching a modern-day footballer, playing in a match forty years ago. It’s like watching Thierry Henry play in the World Cup final from ’66.

 

Gundi was faster, stronger, and more technically skilled then anyone else on the pitch. The brilliant skill, passes with both feet, impressive shots, head-play reaching to perfection, hard-working mentality, and physical strength make him look like a modern-day forward.

 

He was a superstar back in his days.

 

Despite this foreign interest and his obvious skill, he never plied his trade for a foreign club, as the communist government vetoed a move abroad. To make it sound like a patriotic gesture and possibly protect his family from repercussions, Gundi was quoted saying: “There is a country named Bulgaria, and in this country there is a team called Levski. You may not have heard of it, but here I was born and here I shall die!”

 

Image

Gundi, in the darkish shirt, heading home a cross.

 

According to my drinking-buddies and various internet sources I checked later on, his loyalty and skill weren’t the only reasons why Gundi quickly became a national hero. In an era were communism reigned supreme, the Bulgarian people had not much to rejoice over. Gundi gave them something to be proud of, someone to cheer for. Forced to stay at Levski or not, Gundi was a national hero.

 

One would think that all this fame and glory would have gone straight to the man's head. I mean, just compare him to modern-day icons such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Ronaldinho and their crazy antics on and off the pitch.

 

This did not apply to Gundi. This son of a humble lock-smith always stayed true to his humble upbringing and never got cocky. He did everything he did with the noble bearing of an aristocrat—with charm, elegance, and finesse.

 

Never did he complain or whine, never did he ask for the spotlight to be directed at him.

 

Just to illustrate his modesty, another anecdote one of my pub buddies came up with. Once, he was offered to describe his life in autobiography. Gundi refused with the argument: “Why me, surely there are others more worthy?”

 

Try telling that to one of today’s primadonnas.

 

At this point, our fairy-tale turns into a tragedy. In 1971, Gundi and his friend and fellow international Nikola Kotkov die in a tragic car-crash. Gundi’s brand-new Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GT proved too fast for the poorly maintained Bulgarian roads, and the car crashed and burned, killing both passengers.

 

 

Image

A picture of the car-crash and the burnt wreckage.

 

 

To illustrate his popularity, it is rumoured that over half a million people came to Sofia in an effort to attend Gundi’s funeral, to pay tribute to the man that gave them so much joy.

 

Bulgarians do not blame Gundi for driving too fast, they blame CSKA Sofia-defender Plamen Yankov. In what would be Gundi’s last match, Yankov made a hard foul on Gundi’s right ankle. The gentleman-striker, only recently recovered from a severe ankle-injury, responded by hitting out at Yankov. The forward was sent off for the first and only time in his career.

 

Banned from playing in the last league match, Gundi decided to travel to some friends for a party. He never arrived there, crashing his car along the way. Yankov became the national scape-goat, being labelled as “Gundi murderer” by fans from all over the country.

 

It’s a bit ironic that a true fan of fair play—on the playground and in life—died partially because he received his first red card ever. Causality would suggest that the forward would probably not have crashed his car had he not been banned, because he should’ve played in a Levski league fixture.

 

The legendary forward is still remembered in Bulgaria. His former club Levski renamed their stadium to the Georgi Asparoukhov Stadium, and they retired the No. 9, all as a tribute to Gundi.

 

Gundi was and still remains a national favorite. Sorrow over his pre-mature death does not subside until this day, as grown men still become emotional when you mention his name. He is and remains Bulgaria’s very own James Dean.

 

 

Authors note: A special thanks goes out to Stefan Vasilev, for helping me with my internet-research. My Bulgarian is rather rusty, so thanks Stefan.

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