We are down to the final two for the A-League season 2021-22. reigning champions Melbourne City take on cross-town rivals Western United in Saturday…
Hristo Stoichkov, Stiliyan Petrov and Dimitar Berbatov are just a few of the wizards Bulgaria has produced over the years.
For a country of its size to have appeared at several World Cups and even finish fourth on one occasion, that should be out of the realms of possibility.
It’s also where three young Australians now call home.
Milislav Popovic’s journey to the quaint town of Radomir – where he plays for FC Strumska Slava – is yet another story from a private Australian academy.
I have followed Popovic’s career since its infancy and he is now fully developed at six foot three with an absolute canon of a left foot, strength in the air and deceptive speed. He has the physique and skill set to be a great striker.
The Australian version of the AC Milan Academy in NSW has a great track record of getting children ready for careers in Europe due to its excellent training and coaches with connections.
Popovic began there as a ten-year-old and spent several years under the watchful eye of ex-Serie A player Andrea Icardi.
Icardi was able to land the talented then-16-year-old a spot overseas with Lazio’s primavera team. In that youth team was another well known Australian, Chris Ikonomidis.
His time at Lazio didn’t go as expected and Popovic was on the move, this time to Germany where he spent the next few seasons.
In Germany he was able to finally get decent game time. The only issue was for a player that possesses such wonderful ability, Popovic struggled to find the back of the net.
A very brief unsuccessful stint followed in Austria, before the Liverpool-born prodigy announced that he would be coming back to play for his home-town A-League team Macarthur FC.
But alas, his time in Australia proved to be another bust as the former prodigy struggled with injuries and game time.
Strumska Slava are by no means a major club when you talk about Bulgarian football, but with Popovic now fully fit, he has played in all their games this season and has scored three goals.
He also has two other fellow Australians in Peter Makrillos and Iliya Shalamanov-Trenkov on their own European adventure in Bulgaria.
Makrillos is one of the rare Australian players to have logged time at the legendary La Masia academy.
Although his time was short in Barcelona, he spent the next several years in England and also can include stints in Greece and Finland to his European resume.
This is his second season with Slavia Sofia where he is a fan favourite, after his goals and assists last campaign helped them avoid relegation.
Makrillos finished up as the best Australian attacking midfielder in Europe last season in terms of stats, eight goals and two assists in just 18 appearances. However there was still no Socceroos call-up.
The attacking midfielder has not been as prolific this season, but is still logging solid match time.
Iliya Shalamanov-Trenkov also left Australia in his early teenage years and has been in Bulgaria for the past nine seasons.
The talented goalkeeper had been on the books of historic powerhouse team CSKA Sofia, before transferring to his current club Litech Lovec in the Vtora Liga, where he is a mainstay in a side that is battling to avoid relegation.
The FDPF and Vtora Liga are scoffed at by most fans as poor farmers leagues and their UEFA co-efficients might back up that assumption.
For those not familiar with Bulgarian football, they are very technical competitions, but like most leagues in the Balkans they suffer from a lack of finances and infrastructure.
It’s a difficult place for any player not familiar with the language and landscape to make a success in, however all three of these young Aussies are bucking that trend.
They play in critical positions that the national team is short of. It’s highly unlikely they will ever get a look-in though, due to the associated stigma of the lack of quality in Bulgarian football.