Tsvetan Sokolov: Tsetso’s fairy-tale rise to fame
Times are changing for Bulgarian volleyball with head coach Camillo Placi resigning from his position. One thing, however, should not change anytime soon: Tsvetan Sokolov's importance as a national team leader.
Although Bulgaria picked up just four points from their preliminary round matches in this year's FIVB Volleyball World League, 24-year-old Sokolov was still the fifth highest scorer among the world’s top volleyball stars, with 138 points to his name.
It’s hard to imagine Bulgaria, who finished fourth at the Olympics, without Sokolov in their world-class squad – and the story of his rise to fame reads like a fairy tale.
Young Tsvetan grew up in a village near the small city of Dupnitsa, which is famous in Bulgaria for its volleyball. It was here that Sokolov Junior first tried his hand at goalkeeping for the local football team. He was then introduced to volleyball by the former boss of the Marek Dupnitsa club, who tried to convince him on two occasions. At the age of twelve, Sokolov was already 1.90m tall, which prompted him to join in. The head trainer immediately recognised his exceptional talent.
Sokolov enjoyed the sport because of "the its dynamic element and the team spirit". At the age of 14, he had already made his debut in the men’s team and was soon selected for the junior national team. He then caught the eye on the international stage as one of the youngest players on show at the 2007 World Junior Championships.
Sokolov then moved from the small city in Bulgaria to the wider world of Italy and top club Trentino, where he made the step up from apprentice to champion. His most important teacher was fellow Bulgarian Matey Kaziyski. "Matey is my role model and now also a good friend of mine. He has always kept his feet on the ground and has shown me that you have to help the team in the most important moments," said Sokolov, referring to their special relationship. With Trentino, it took Sokolov very little time to win all the biggest titles, including the European Champions League and the FIVB Club World Championship from 2009 to 2011.
At the same time, the opposite spiker, who despite being 2.07m tall is also remarkably agile, became a key figure in the national team. In 2009, Sokolov won bronze at the European Championships. At his first Olympic Games in London in 2012, he had to settle for fourth place. With 129 points, however, he was the second highest scorer in the tournament.
"Tsvetan has exceptional potential," said his mentor Kaziyski. He has also surpassed his role model, at least in terms of his popularity with the fans. When the votes came in for Bulgaria’s player of the year, "Tsetso", to use his nickname, claimed a landslide victory with 10,099 votes. His closest rival Kaziyski received just 2178. The numerous Bulgarian fans are pinning their hopes on Sokolov to succeed at the FIVB Volleyball World Championship in Poland. The Bulgarian team has been blessed with success in the past and can count on a passionate following. They last won a World Championship medal in 2006, when they finished third.´
Given the team's current crisis, however, a result like the one in 2006 seems unlikely. But Sokolov is no stranger to extraordinary stories.
Despite his fame, he has always kept both feet on the ground and has expressed the wish that one day he will return to his home club Marek Dupnitsa. They have just won the Bulgarian Championship for the third time in a row under the guidance of coach Nayden Naydenov, who has now taken over as the interim national coach.
"Marek have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are the number one team in Bulgaria. The club’s policy of relying on young players and being patient with them is the best way forward," Sokolov commented. At some point, Sokolov wants to fulfil his dream of returning to his roots. "I was never crowned champion with my home club, but one day I will return with the Marek jersey and lift the champions’ cup. This is a must!". That would be another fairy tale with a happy ending from the life of international volleyball star Tsvetan Sokolov.