Bulgaria was welcomed into the family of rugby league playing nations in September of this year.
A visiting team from Serbia, Radnicki, took on a local side in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, on September 10.
But that game, which the visitors won 44-16, was the culmination of work that had begun thanks to a chance encounter on a Greek beach, earlier on in the summer.
Zeljko Delic, the founder of Red Star Belgrade and an enthusiastic proselytiser for the 13-man-code, happened to see a bloke playing with a rugby ball on a Greek beach.
“It all started few months ago in Greece, on the beach, I noticed rugby ball in the sand, picked it up, and asked around, ‘Whose ball is it?’,” Delic explained to Love Rugby League.
“A guy responded saying he was from Bulgaria, and his appearance suggested that he was a union hooker, which he confirmed when I asked him.
“Apparently it was Vladislav Parizov, a big soldier of Bulgarian rugby union, a decorated player and Bulgarian international, and also the captain of Locomotiv Sofia.
“To cut a long story short, after less than a minute he realised that he played his first ever game of rugby union versus my side 20 years back in Belgrade.
“It was an emotional moment for sure, and a proper icebreaker for the story that will follow.”
As Delic relates, that chance encounter went on to have significant consequences.
“We connected via social networks and I started casting the spell of rugby league and got his attention,” Delic continued.
“It didn’t take us long to realise that we can do something extraordinary together.
“The Serbian Rugby League granted me the funds to develop this further, and in early September my colleague and big soldier of rugby league Vladan Kikanovic and myself were on the road to Sofia to spend four days with lads from Locomotiv Sofia, to teach them the basics of rugby league and to prepare them for the first ever game of rugby league on Bulgarian soil.
“We picked a formidable opposition for the Sofia lads for this special occasion, and that was Radnicki Nis, a club located only 170 km away, and a member of the Serbian first division.
“They are an experienced but also a really young side. The Sofia boys took the whole thing seriously and we had more than 20 guys on every training session.
“Having a significant experience in rival code of rugby, the Sofia guys didn’t have many issues mastering the basics, and the whole build-up to the game was something I never experienced.”
Delic acknowledges that he found the whole experience in Bulgaria highly rewarding.
“Previously in my rugby league career I had a privilege to be a part of historical games,” he said.
“I was at the first ever games in Hungary and Bosnia and in God knows how many towns in Serbia, but this was something completely different, and my role was obviously different.
“You could imagine my surprise when Tihomir Simeonov, slick veteran prop and basically a guy who provides a lot of magic in order for this club to exist, and who is, above all, a master of all the chemistry that defines one team, unpacked their new kit for this occasion.
“It was an old Hull KR kit with some additional print promoting local sponsors.
“I informed my mate Mark Pullen [Hull KR fan and key man in Serbia RL development] about it at he was laughing, he was pleased but saying if they are wearing this they ain’t gonna win for sure.
“It was a funny remark, but this game was not about the winning.”
What the game was about was a superb rugby league experience, which will hopefully bear more fruit in the Balkans in the years to come.
“On the Locomotiv side I had 25 players in the squad, eager to experience rugby league,” Delic added.
“After the first half things were as expected, Radnicki Nis had a healthy lead 32-0.
“But in the halftime break, the Bulgarian lads looked each other in the eyes and stormed the pitch with a completely different attitude in the second half.
“They scored three tries before running out of steam in last five minutes of the game. They even won the score in second half 16-12, that gave them the tally of 16-44 at the end – not bad at all for the first time.
“The big passion and courage that I witnessed gives me confidence that this guys will be strength to reckon with in the future.
“Bulgarian rugby league is on the way and there is no turning back.
“We hosted them on September 24 in Belgrade with our combined team, they couldn’t bring best players and it was pretty much one sided game , but it gave them a good benchmark for the future operations.
“You will hear much more and positive from Bulgarian rugby league in close future and I’m proud that I was lucky to contribute.”