CSKA Sofia became the first-ever third-tier Bulgarian football team to win the domestic cup after a 1-0 victory in the final against Montana on Tuesday.
With 31 league titles and three European semi-finals between 1967 and 1989, CSKA are the most decorated Bulgarian club and until recently were enjoying a series of landmark successes, including victories against Nottingham Forest and Liverpool in the early 1980s.
Yet, CSKA's players, staff and supporters hardly expected another one of these successes to come in this year's domestic cup. At the National Stadium 'Vasil Levski', 33 000 spectators saw CSKA add the 20th Bulgarian Cup to their trophy cabinet. However, it was their first one as a technically amateur football club.
After years of poor management, CSKA were demoted to the third tier of Bulgarian football at the end of last season following a serious financial crisis. The team found itself playing in an unprofessional league months after it sat on top of the elite division "A Group".
In the winter of 2014-2015, CSKA entered the break three points ahead of second-placed Ludogorets Razgrad only to resume their campaign with an extraordinary run of 10 games without scoring a goal. It was at that point when fears of bankruptcy and potential forced relegation began spreading before eventually becoming reality.
Despite finishing fifth, CSKA was denied the right to play in the top flight and Europe and then sent to the amateur 'South-Western V Group' facing an uncertain future. However, this downfall didn't bring an end to the club but instead instigate a recovery process building up to a famous domestic cup victory.
"CSKA is like a phoenix. We will not die, we will not go. As long as the world exists, there will be a CSKA", the club's museum director Aleksandar Manov recently said.
With hopes of returning to professional football soon, the Reds started off this season with a newly appointed manager in former player Hristo Yanev and an almost entirely new squad apart from captain Boris Galchev, who refused to leave despite the relegation. CSKA dominated the V Group winning 30 of their 31 games with a goal difference of plus 131 before the final round this weekend.
The club went into the cup championship as an underdog and took the longest possible route to the final starting from the regional rounds. Tuesday night's showdown with Montana, a club facing relegation from the A Group, was among the most unexpected title games the Bulgarian Cup had seen.
It was decided by Stanislav Malamov's 12th-minute header, which sent a record-breaking CSKA crowd into delirium.
"These players are giants and we have to pay tribute to them", said manager Yanev after the triumph. "Not many people believed in us and I congratulate everyone who came today to see what we did because without them we are nothing."
CSKA's future remains in doubt despite the triumph with the management and fans still searching for a solution to its massive debt problems. Despite winning the domestic title, the club won't play in Europe next season due to a lack of license. It is also yet unclear whether CSKA will be allowed a promotion to professional football, which the Reds feel they now deserve.
"We work hard. We have dreams. We want to grow", goalscorer Malamov said. "CSKA's place is in the A Group. Everyone, even the neutral fans, know that."