Second division trio ready to rock the cup

Sofia: With supporters including former members of Uriah Heep and Black Sabbath, ex-soccer internationals and a local mayor, three lower-league clubs are confident of rewriting the record books in the Bulgarian Cup.

Never before have two teams outside the top flight contested the tournament`s final. That could change, with three second-division clubs reaching Wednesday`s semi-finals and unfashionable Beroe Stara Zagora the only top-division survivors.

"I`m not going to be surprised at all if two B Group (second-division) teams meet in the final," said Tsonko Tsonev, the flamboyant president of Kaliakra Kavarna, one of the upstart clubs.

"We beat Cherno More who reached the final on two occasions in the last four years to prove once again that provincial sides are able to halt the supremacy enjoyed by so-called big clubs," Tsonev, who is mayor of Kavarna, told reporters.

Kaliakra, Chernomorets Pomorie and Chavdar Etropole competed in the amateur leagues for decades before establishing themselves in Bulgaria`s second tier in recent years.

Tsonev, a big hard rock and heavy metal fan, has done much to turn the Black Sea resort of Kavarna into "the rock capital of Bulgaria" with a host of world-famous bands performing in the town recently.

Football is Tsonev`s other passion and his club boasts the support of John Lawton, who fronted rock band Uriah Heep in the late 1970s, and who has an apartment in Kavarna. Former Black Sabbath vocalist Glenn Hughes, an honorary citizen of Kavarna, owns a team shirt, Tsonev says.

"Nowadays, fans of all ages and from different countries look forward to Kaliakra matches," Tsonev said. "It`s so emotional and our cup success has created even more enthusiasm."

On Wednesday, Kaliakra, who played in the semi-finals two years ago, visit Chernomorets Pomorie, who have reached the semi-finals for the first time after knocking out Minyor Pernik.

The match will be played on the artificial pitch in Pomorie, another Black Sea town with a population of fewer than 15,000.

"We know we`ll be playing on an artificial surface but I don`t see any issue with it," said Tsonev.

"We have a artificial training pitch so we`re well-prepared. You know it`s a passing surface and I think we have several very skilful passers in our team."

The Pomorie-based club, who are seventh in the Eastern B Group, believe their home advantage will give them an edge in their bid to win the cup and claim a Europa League place.

"There are no poor teams at this stage of the tournament but the best thing for us is that we`ll play at home," Chernomorets chief executive Kaloyan Panayotov said.

Chernomorets have a vastly experienced coach in Petar Hubchev, the former Hamburg and Eintracht Frankfurt defender who was a key figure in the Bulgarian team that reached the 1994 World Cup semi-finals in the United States.

"We have to stay grounded," said Hubchev. "Of course, we`ll have an advantage playing at home but we`re a very young team and we don`t have to be distracted."

Tiny Chavdar Etropole produced the shock of the quarter-finals last month when they beat Slavia Sofia in a penalty shootout.

Chavdar had made little impression in soccer until Bulgaria great Hristo Stoichkov decided to set up a youth academy in the town a few years ago.

Stoichkov`s efforts are producing results and the club has set up close ties with several Spanish clubs and former European Cup winners Nottingham Forest.

The reward for reaching the semi-finals for Chavdar, the lowest-ranked side among the last four as they are 10th in the Western B Group, is a home clash with Beroe and the atmosphere in Etropole is buzzing.

"If you look at Etropole you`ll see that the whole town is dreaming," said Chavdar coach Boris Angelov. "Everybody is talking about the match."

"They say that Beroe are favourites and it`s true but we`ve already knocked out Slavia and this is a positive thing for us that will be in our minds," added club president Emil Dimitrov. "We don`t fear anyone."

Angelov, a former national coach, was at the helm of Beroe in the 1990s.

"This match is a present for me because I have very good memories about Beroe and the town," he said. "I spent two wonderful years there and they were very happy days that I experienced there."

Beroe fans, among the most passionate in Bulgaria, are less happy, however, as only 400 of them will get into the 2,500-seat stadium in Etropole.

Ilian Iliev, coach of Beroe who were Bulgarian champions in 1996, is aware of the level of expectation in the little town and knows Chavdar are ready to stand up to his side.

"They`re tough opponents and it`s really difficult to beat them, especially at their stadium," said Iliev. "But we`re the better side and I have no doubt that we`ll make it to the final."

Bureau Report

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