PFC Levski Sofia returned home to a heroes' welcome today having made history by becoming the first team from Bulgaria to reach the UEFA Champions League group stage.
The Bulgarian champions were greeted by hundreds of celebrating supporters as they flew back into Sofia from Italy, where a 2-2 draw with AC Chievo Verona last night secured a 4-2 aggregate triumph in their third qualifying round tie. For club president Todor Batkov, Levski's success marks the start of a "new chapter in Bulgarian football".
'Our place is in Europe'
Batkov told reporters: "We've achieved something the politicians have been trying to achieve for the last 16 or 17 years: we've got into Europe. We've proved the place of Bulgarian football is in Europe. We've shown we can play football and we've started a new chapter in Bulgarian football."
Eleven times since the UEFA Champions League's inception Bulgarian sides had tried and failed to make the group stage, with PFC CSKA Sofia, PFC Litex Lovech, PFC Lokomotiv Plovdiv 1936 and Levski themselves all falling short. Stanimir Stoilov's men have now ended the long wait, however, and the coach did not disguise his delight: "We were under immense pressure against Chievo and that's why we are so happy now. The way we played from the early stages gave us the necessary confidence that we would score the away goal."
Dream goes on
UEFA Cup quarter-finalists last term, Levski advanced comfortably in the end as strikes from Dimitar Telkiyski and Cédric Bardon put them two goals in front last night, and 4-0 up overall, before Chievo pulled two back. Stoilov added: "I can only thank my players for their efforts. They have been outstanding and fully committed." Whoever lies in wait in the group stage can expect to face that same level of commitment. "We will not surrender and we will fight just as much in every game to come. We are happy to have turned one dream into reality but we will go on dreaming."
Levski's executive director Nasko Sirakov praised Stoilov and his players, saying: "The fairy tale goes on and on. We've worked very hard and played 18 games in Europe in the last 12 months. I always believed we would succeed. We have an excellent coach and players and a great team spirit." Captain Elin Topuzakov underlined this spirit when he said: "I believe we can do even more." Tougher challenges undoubtedly lie in store for Topuzakov and company but it would be unwise to underestimate them.
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