Bulgarian season to start with Sofia derby

SOFIA - Bulgaria's football fans, who were not on the World Cup guest list, have something to look forward to at last with their league season getting off to an exciting start next weekend.

The two biggest clubs in the Balkan country - CSKA Sofia and fierce city rivals Levski - meet on the opening weekend of the campaign for the first time in the league's existence.

Both teams are eager to forget last season's disappointment when Litex Lovech clinched the title to become only the second club to upset the balance of power this century.

"No doubt, it's the biggest game in Bulgarian football," Pavel Dotchev, coach of 31-times Bulgarian champions CSKA, told Reuters. "It's like a cup final.

"There's always a unique atmosphere, everybody is talking about this game - the fans, the media - and they're doing this not only in Sofia. You can't compare it to any other sports event in Bulgaria.

"I took part in this derby on several occasions as a player and I still have great memories. Now I'm looking forward to tasting it as a coach," said former Bulgaria defender Dotchev, who played for CSKA in the early 1990s.

"We know it'll be only the first match of the season but still we realise that the winners will get a huge psychological boost."

FAN VIOLENCE

The "eternal derby" - as the meeting between CSKA and Levski is dubbed - has long been known for its highly-charged atmosphere.

Fan violence in the stands and outside the stadium marred the game in the years after Communist rule was overthrown in Bulgaria in 1989, and attendance was low compared to the present day.

After three months with little to interest them in football - Bulgaria failed to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa - local supporters are eagerly anticipating Sunday's clash.

"It's been a long summer," CSKA fan Boris Parushev told Reuters. "We watched the World Cup on TV and it was fun but there's nothing better than being at the stadium and singing your favourite songs with your mates."

CSKA, founded in 1948 as an army club, quickly made their name at home and international recognition followed when The Reds reached semi-finals in Europe three times between 1967 and 1989.

"The team are not very strong nowadays but CSKA still have some of the most passionate fans on the continent," said Parushev. "I can assure you that we'll make our mark against Levski. It'll be a night to remember."

Optimism is high in Bulgaria after the top local clubs made a perfect start in Europe this season - four wins in four matches and no goals conceded.

Litex outclassed Montenegro champions Rudar 5-0 on aggregate to progress to the Champions League third qualifying round while Levski demolished Irish side Dundalk 8-0 on aggregate in the Europa League.

EMOTIONAL PLAYERS

"We're tough opponents in the Bulgarian league but it's always good to see that our teams have a decent chance to be successful in European competitions," said Dotchev.

"I think we still have many talented and quality players in Bulgaria but the biggest problem is that many of them are not m