Bulgarian Football Union president Borislav Mihailov is delighted to be overseeing something of a footballing renaissance in his home country.
The former goalkeeper is Bulgaria's most capped player of all time with 102 appearances and he was thrilled to see his old club PFC Levski Sofia make it into the UEFA Champions League group stage. Their success, however, has only been the most dramatic of a number of notable Bulgarian achievements in 2006.
Levski's group stage debut may have ended in a 5-0 defeat against European champions FC Barcelona last week, but the UEFA Cup brought respectable results for both PFC Litex Lovech and PFC Lokomotiv Sofia - a sure sign that good work behind the scenes is starting to pay off for the Balkan nation. "This success is down to improved work at our clubs," Mihailov told uefa.com. "The quality of our league has been raised and now we're seeing more interesting games."
While his heart remains with Levski, Mihailov is ready to celebrate any Bulgarian successes. "This is very important for Bulgaria's league coefficient," he said. "We're in 13th place in the rankings and if we manage to keep a position in the top 15 this season we will have the right to field two teams in the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Champions League in 2007/08."
Having reached the group stage with victories against FC Sioni Bolnisi and AC Chievo Verona in the qualifying rounds, Levski's run is the crowning Bulgarian achievement of the season, the capital club joining Europe's top 32 after a number of near misses. "We've been waiting for this to happen for many years," Mihailov said. "Levski have been very close to reaching the UEFA Champions League group stage but were eliminated in the third qualifying round a couple of times.
This is an historic success for the whole of Bulgarian football. Our clubs don't have big financial resources, but Levski have managed to join Europe's élite. Levski have showed that reaching the UEFA Cup quarter-finals last season was no accident and that they are ready for the UEFA Champions League group stage."
With Group A games against the Chelsea FC and Werder Bremen to come, Mihailov knows Levski's chances of making it to the knockout phase of the competition are beyond slender, but he is convinced the experience of top tier competition can only improve the side.
"It will be great for Bulgarian players to face some of the best clubs and players in the world and for Bulgarians to watch these games live," he said. "On the other side, it will be extremely difficult to achieve good results and qualify from this group. There are some other groups in which Levski could have had a realistic chance of battling for second place or at least third place, which allows a move to the UEFA Cup. But personally for me the draw was fantastic and I am happy to see such great teams coming to Bulgaria."
With the national team having earned four points from their opening two UEFA EURO 2008™ Group G qualifiers, they could be on course to reach the finals for the second time in succession. And should all that top-level club experience rub off on the players, Mihailov may have even better reasons to be proud of his nation's footballers in 2008.
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