As continental football returns to their Gradski Stadium after a 27-year exile, PFC Beroe Stara Zagora hero Tenio Minchev recalls facing some of Europe's top sides with the Greens.
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Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC will have the dubious honour of being the first side to visit PFC Beroe Stara Zagora's Gradski Stadium for a UEFA game in 27 years as they arrive for Thursday's UEFA Europa League second qualifying round opener.
FK Austria Wien, Athletic Club, Fenerbahçe SK and Juventus all came a cropper in Bulgaria's fifth-largest city during Beroe's golden age. Moreover, former captain Tenio Minchev has not forgotten how – having won their only Bulgarian title in 1986 – Beroe held Valeriy Lobanovskiy's mighty FC Dynamo Kyiv (featuring the bulk of the Soviet Union national team) to a 1-1 draw in Stara Zagora in the first leg of a European Champion Clubs' Cup first-round tie, in what was the last European home match played at the recently refurbished Gradski Stadium.
"Dynamo were superhumanly strong at that time, but we could have won that first leg," the 59-year-old former defender cum midfielder told UEFA.com. "Several months earlier we had met Dynamo in a friendly in Stara Zagora and won 3-0. That gave us a lot of confidence in our quest for the league title, but after that Dynamo knew about us so there was no element of surprise in the European tie. We had our chances in the second leg too. We lost 2-0 in Kyiv but missed two or three good chances."
Minchev represented Beroe from 1972–86, when the club boasted some of Bulgaria's best players, making his European home debut in a European Cup Winners' Cup quarter-final second leg against East Germany's 1. FC Magdeburg in March 1974. "We lost the first leg 2-0, but we were so determined to make amends," he remembered. "We led 1-0 in the second half, we dominated the game and it seemed we were close to the vital second goal.
"But our best players at the time missed the game – our leader, one of the greatest Bulgarian goalscorers of all time, Petko Petkov was ill; Boris Kirov and Georgi Belchev were injured. They were our main attacking weapons. Defender Hristo Todorov had to play up front at the end. Unfortunately, Magdeburg grabbed a late equaliser and our dream was over. They went on to beat AC Milan in the final. With a little more luck and with all our best players fit, we could have done better. Who knows what might have happened in the semis?"
There were to be no regrets after Juventus's trip to Stara Zagora, with Giovanni Trapattoni's all-star side beaten 1-0 in the second round of the Cup Winners' Cup in October 1979, though the match took place at the nearby Lokomotiv Stadium due to refurbishment work at the Gradski. Georgi 'The Barber' Stoyanov decided matters with a penalty ten minutes from time, while Minchev helped keep the visitors at bay. "Playing against Juventus, with some of the greatest player in the world, and winning – how could anyone forget that?" Minchev recalled. "We were magnificent that day."
Now he hopes past glories can inspire the current generation as they take on Hapoel. "We are at home, we are in our fortress, and historically we do well at home in Europe," he continued. "Coach Petar Houbchev is doing an excellent job. We won the Bulgarian Cup last season and the Super Cup last week. We have spirit, we have togetherness, and that is often more important than big names. The lads will give everything and they will be proud after the final whistle whatever the outcome."