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Razgrad emerges from obscurity on the back of a local team’s international sporting success.by Peter Georgiev 28 September 2017
Small clubs struggle to make headway in modern football (soccer), where a single player can sometimes be valued at the GDP of an entire, albeit tiny, country. Yet for those lucky enough to have caught the eye of a major investor, quickly escaping the obscurity of the lower leagues to taste authentic European glory is a real prospect.
When that happens, their hometowns also fall under the spotlight. Not many years ago, fans from the modest city of Razgrad in northeastern Bulgaria trooped to the stadium of local team Ludogorets to watch games on the unpretentious end of the football spectrum. Now, as Razgrad prepares to host its first ever major European match, its population of some 30,000 is in for a sporting treat that has the potential to benefit the entire town.
On Thursday evening, Ludogorets goes against German side Hoffenheim in the second round of the Europa League group stage. For the Bulgarians, this won’t be an entirely new experience. Despite only being founded in 2001, Ludogorets already has over 50 games on the European stage under its belt while also dominating the domestic championship over the past six years.
But when Real Madrid, Arsenal, Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, and others flew to Bulgaria to face the Eagles, none of their superstars went to Razgrad. All those Champions League games were played in Sofia at the Vasil Levski national stadium. Finally, this has changed thanks to a costly modernization of the Ludogorets Arena, financed by the club’s multi-millionaire owner Kiril Domuschiev along with state funds.
With the stadium being approved by UEFA in August, Razgrad now ranks among the smallest venues among the 48 cities to have representatives in the group stage of the Europa League, the continent’s second-tier football competition. Along with excitement, Thursday’s game against Hoffenheim brings hope to locals that a relatively poor part of Bulgaria can capitalize on the success of its sports celebrities.
“Razgrad is not a place where many tourists come, as it’s far from the coast and mountains,” says Razgrad-born Ludogorets supporter Toni Abadzhiev, 24, who once lived next to the stadium. “What games like these achieve is that they raise the profile of the town. They increase awareness of the area as a whole. There are good investment opportunities around here, and maybe they can be realized by promoting them though football. I don’t anticipate great changes in the short run but just like in football, anything is possible.”
The Eagles are scheduled to play at least two more Europa League matches on home turf – more if they advance to the knockout stage – starting with games against Portuguese side Braga and Istanbul Basaksehir from neighboring Turkey.
“These three games [in total] will contribute significantly to the prosperity of the town in a social and economic sense,” 23-year-old Georgi Georgiev, another local fan, believes. “First, Razgrad will become known to the entire European football community, and second, the town will profit from ticket and merchandise sales.”
Razgrad region governor Gunay Husmen also notes the importance of the team’s achievements for the entire Ludogorie, as the surrounding area is known.
“I am sure it will benefit the development of the town in all areas of life,” Husmen said in a statement on Monday.
Rather ironically, Razgrad can draw inspiration from no other than the team’s next opponent, Hoffenheim, a club based in a village inhabited by only around 3,200 people. With their own rich patron, Dietmar Hopp, Hoffenheim rapidly rose through the ranks of German football to establish itself in the Bundesliga in 2008, bringing international recognition to both the team and its home area.
For the Germans, who debuted in a European competition this year, the atmosphere at Ludogorets Arena may seem more familiar than overwhelming. But Ludogorets is more than ready to feed off the energy of over 8,000 supporters, a quarter of the town’s population.
“When you are playing at home, your home is your castle,” head coach Dimitar Dimitrov said in the pre-match press conference. “The fact that we’ll be performing in front of our own fans definitely motivates our players even more.”
The crowd itself will be pumped up to leave a lasting mark on a continental level. Ludogorets has been regularly ridiculed by Sofia rivals Levski and CSKA for having a substantially narrower fan base. But if famous foreign squads keep streaming to the northeast instead of the capital, Razgrad may have the last laugh.
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