Nilsen: Bulgaria Comfortable In Underdog Role

10 January 2009

Paul Nilsen is a freelance basketball journalist writing for various web-sites and publications across Europe.

They say that bookmakers rarely get it wrong. If that is the case then odds of 500-1 would appear to suggest that Bulgaria winning EuroBasket 2009 is more than just an outside shot, perhaps more in the realm of mere fantasy.

Even the prospect of simply leaving Wroclaw still alive and kicking in the competition has almost been written off completely by the odds fixers who just cant bring themselves to trust that Bulgaria could seriously emerge ahead of either Lithuania, Turkey or hosts Poland.

You could argue of course that merely talent levels and history places Bulgaria as rank outsiders for this tournament or then again the fact that their highly experienced and respected coach Pini Gershon only went on record last month to confirm his side were indeed underdogs.

With no pressure on their shoulders Gershon has hinted that they will be free to express themselves and that they can play without fear - something that can often be very underrated in tournament basketball.

For it is easy to forget that having no expectation suits Bulgaria just fine.

Those who can cast their minds back to the beginning of last summer will know that the odds on Bulgaria edging out an illustrious National Team such as Italy were also remote but they nevertheless managed it.

Whether this was due to their own hard work or a failure on the behalf of Italy is neither here nor there.

All that matters is that Bulgaria have their place booked and pasta isn't on the menu in Wroclaw.

Unlike most of the teams heading to Poland in September, Bulgaria don't have the luxury of an NBA talent or two that can help to pull off that shock win. An irony since Georgi Glouchkov was the very first player from the then Eastern Bloc to make it across the Pond and into the big league.

In fact he is now considered as having been a trailblazer for the immense amount of talent that was to follow in future years from Europe to the States and continues more than ever to this day.

At the time Glouchkov was something of a novelty and arrived in Phoenix during the eighties with a weight of expectation on his shoulders and the spotlight shining firmly in his face. He lasted just one season and not having lived up to the hype, returned to Europe to enjoy a successful career in Italy.

The links with the country that were effectively sent tumbling into the Additional Qualifying Round don't stop there since Bulgaria have a real gem in Ibrahim Jaaber who is currently the stand out player for Italian giants Lottomatica Roma.

Jaaber was a talismanic figure for Bulgaria during qualification racking up 16 points and 2.3 steals per game with his impact likely to spill over into EuroBasket 2009 if his continued good form of late is anything to go by.

When Euroleague resumed last week after a short break, the point guard was back on song with a 20 point haul for Roma in their defeat against Tau and he will definitely be the man that fans of this National Team will pin their hopes on.

The Ivanov brothers will also continue to help form the backbone of the team in Poland with Deyan enjoying life with KK Zadar averaging 12 points and 8 rebounds in the EuroCup while twin Kaloyan is helping ViveMenorca in their quest to survive for another season in the ACB.

Throw the experienced Todor Stoykov into the mix and the likes of CB Granada shooter Filip Videnov then things aren't maybe quite as straight forward as the label of rank outsiders might hint at.

You also have to factor into the equation Pini Gershon and his ability to master the art of psychology. He can definitely do understated and play that underdog role just fine. He can also do bullish and confident when he needs to, albeit very rarely.

It was fascinating to see his attitude last summer when with two games to play, Bulgaria were suddenly catapulted into a situation where a qualification place was within their grasp. He suddenly spoke confidently of his teams prospects and dealt with the issue of history not being in favour of Bulgaria in typically wry fashion.

He told reporters, "It was 40 years since the last win against Italy, but we won on the 30th of August."

It is hard to argue with that kind of pragmatism and with that in mind I ask you what price that we wont be hearing the same kind of statements in Wroclaw as qualification from the Group stages hangs in the balance.

So, while Coach Gershon does not have the NBA talents that he and fans of the Bulgarian National Team might have hoped would one day follow in the footsteps of the pioneering Glouchkov, they do still have a sure-fire star of the tournament and some much needed hard nosed European experience in their camp.

Whether they have will have enough to show that sometimes the bookies do get it wrong remains to be seen but with kingmaker Jaaber on the court and the wily Gershon calling the shots, are you brave enough to back against them?


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