PFC Ludogorets Razgrad bowed out in the last 16 but had "all of Bulgaria" behind them, according to defender Tero Mäntylä, during a historic UEFA Europa League campaign.
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Something quite unusual took place a couple of weeks ago at a football match in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. It was the night of 13 March and the National Stadium was completely sold out for the UEFA Europa League game between PFC Ludogorets Razgrad and Valencia CF.
In the highly partisan world of club football, it felt like a whole nation had united behind Ludogorets, a team based 400km away in the small town of Razgrad, who were playing their home ties in their maiden UEFA Europa League campaign in the capital.
Before kick-off, a fan mosaic formed a huge Bulgarian flag and the national anthem was sung. Stoicho Stoev's team lost the match 3-0 – top scorer Roman Bezjak's penalty miss summing up a night when everything went wrong – and their European adventure ended in Spain last Thursday as Valencia won the second leg 1-0. Yet it is hard to see their European run as anything but a success story.
Ludogorets are the new force in Bulgarian football. Champions for the past two seasons having only entered the top flight in 2011, they are on course to complete a hat-trick of domestic titles after beating closest challengers PFC Litex Lovech 3-0 on Sunday. It is their European exploits, though, that really got Bulgarian football fans behind them – they went through the group stage unbeaten, triumphing home and away against former European Cup winners PSV Eindhoven, and then overcame SS Lazio 4-3 on aggregate in the round of 32.
Stoyan Georgiev, UEFA.com's long-serving Bulgarian correspondent, explained: "Bulgaria was hungry for such games. We haven't been at this stage for many years – it is a big breakthrough. To some extent, this Ludogorets team united Bulgaria."
It felt that way on the night Valencia came to town. The club's Finnish defender, Tero Mäntylä, said afterwards: "It was amazing – you could see it was all of Bulgaria supporting the team."
With the backing of their owner, Kiril Domuschiev, Ludogorets are the biggest fish in Bulgaria, but in Europe they remain one of the minnows. Reflecting after defeat at Mestalla last Thursday, midfielder Mihail Aleksandrov told UEFA.com that they surprised themselves after each hurdle cleared on the road to the round of 16.
"Nobody was thinking we would go through the group stage and we were top," he said. "We were drawn against Lazio and we thought 'it's over', but we went through. We started dreaming against Valencia but they are a very big team. We are just a small team growing up fast."
They certainly are, and next year they will be back for more, according to president and owner Domuschiev, who said: "With our modest means we achieved so much, but this does not mean that next season we will not try even harder and achieve more."
Georgiev does not doubt these words and points to the club's impressive youth structure and planned redevelopment of their modest stadium to ensure future European nights take place in Razgrad, whose population is just 35,000. "Ludogorets are doing things in the right way," he explained. "They have very good facilities, a very good training base and are working hard on their academy. This is not only for one season but for years to come."