Ludogorets Razgrad: From amateur football to Europa League last 16

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Bulgarian side Ludogorets Razgrad knocked Italian giants Lazio out of the Europa League on Thursday after a 4-3 aggregate win

The story of Ludogorets Razgrad is fascinating and their rapid rise to the top of Bulgarian football and onto the big stage in Europe is incredible.

The club was only founded in 2001, and remained an amateur club until 2010 when they won promotion to the B Group, the second tier of Bulgarian football. In truth this was when Ludogorets Razgrad was officially established, or in fact brought back to life. From 2001 to 2010 the club had played under the name Razgrad 2000. Razgrad is a city in North-Eastern Bulgaria with a population of around 35,000.

In 2001 they adopted the name of and acquired the license of Ludogorets Razgrad a club who had been around since 1945 but dissolved in 2006. In 2010 businessman Kiril Domuschiev bought the club with the immediate intention of taking them into the top flight.

In Domuschiev's first season they achieved promotion to the A Group for the first time in their history and were now able to play with the big teams in the country, CSKA Sofia, Levski Sofia, and Litex Lovech. In preparation for their first season in the top flight, Ludogorets brought in an influx of players including many Bulgarian internationals, and Svetoslav Dyakov who is now the club captain. They also now have a Brazilian player on their books called Michel Platini.

Remarkably in their first ever season in Group A they won the league after a tense final match against CSKA Sofia. In a winner takes all match, Ludogorets came out on top with a 1-0 victory. They also went on to win the Bulgarian Cup and then the Bulgarian Super Cup. An incredible achievement which is hard to imagine. In comparison it's like Leicester City going on to win the Championship this season and then winning the Premier League next year as well. In fact Leicester are in a better position to do that then Ludogorets were. Amateur football was all they played until 2010. So perhaps it's like Salisbury City continuing to rise to the top of the English pyramid. Obviously there is less of a gap in Bulgarian football, but it is still an incredible rise.

Ludogorets became only the second club in the world following Levadia Tallinn from Estonia to ever win the domestic treble in it's first season since being promoted to the top flight.

The following season as the reigning champions of Bulgaria they had their first taste of Champions League football. Unfortunately it did not last for long as they were beaten 4-3 on aggregate by Dinamo Zagreb in the second qualifying round in which they had been entered.

They did not let it affect them for the domestic season however. They again won the Bulgarian title, with it being decided on the last day just like the previous season. On the final day of the season Ludogorets had to beat the already relegated team Montana and to hope that Slavia would prevent Levski from winning the match. In the last minutes of the Levski-Slavia match Levski conceded an own goal which resulted 1–1 draw, allowing Ludogorets to win their second championship title.

They entered the Champions League qualifying stages once again, and this time overcame Slovan Bratislava and Partizan Belgrade. Two big sides from Slovakia and Serbia and now just FC Basel stood between them and a lucrative Champions League spot. They could not get the better of Basel though, and they had to settle for a place in the Europa League group stage. In their group they would face Dinamo Zagreb who had denied them progression in the Champions League last season. They would go on to beat them home and away however, and also did the double over Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven. The other team in the group was Chernomorets Odessa of Ukraine who they took four points off and thus won the group to progress to the knockout stages.

In the last-32 they would face Lazio; two time Serie A winners and winners of the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1999. In the first leg at the Stadio Olimpico, Ludogorets made another giant leap in their history. They won 1-0 in their biggest ever match, and would take that lead into the second leg at home in the Ludogorets Arena. In doing so Ludogorets became the first ever Bulgarian side to win eight games in Europe in a single season.

However Lazio took the lead in the first minute of the second leg, and scored a second in the 54th minute. Ludogorets needed to score two goals to lead the tie once again and they did just that. However Miroslav Klose scored a third for Lazio in the 83rd minute and they were set to advance on away goals. Ludogorets journey would not end here though. In the 89th minute, substitute Juninho Quixada scored the winner for the Bulgarian side, sending the fans into raptures, and sending his side through to the last-16 of the Europa League.

The Bulgarian Prime Minister congratulated the team following their triumph.

Ludogorets will now go on to face Valencia, two time runners-up in the Champions League. It's sure to be a momentous occasion for Ludogorets but it's unlikely to be their last in what has been a wonderful rise in the last four years.

image: © klearchos

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