Got passport, will travel. This series profiles Englishmen playing their football abroad. Episode 1 profiles Viv Solomon-Otabor, 23, who left Birmingham to join Bulgarian side CSKA Sofia in the summer.
The city of Sofia proved to be the launchpad for Bulgaria’s two best footballing talents.
Hristo Stoichkov won his first major honours with CSKA Sofia- lifting three successive league titles, four Bulgarian Cups and a Bulgarian Super Cup- before joining Barcelona and becoming a Ballon d’Or and European Cup winner.
Stoichkov was winding down his career in Japan by the time Dimitar Berbatov graduated through CSKA’s academy to play for the first team, winning the 1999 Bulgarian Cup during his debut campaign.
Viv Solomon-Otabor was too young to remember either Stoichkov or Berbatov’s achievements in Bulgaria although, as a Man United fan growing up, he has fond recent memories of the latter.
But he’s now walking in Stoichkov and Berbatov’s footsteps, having traded Birmingham City for Sofia in the summer.
At the age of 23, the London-born winger has jumped on the increasingly-popular bandwagon and traded English football for a shot at glory abroad.
“I was in the last year of my contract at Birmingham and they offered me a new deal,” Solomon-Otabor explains.
“There were quite a few options floating around, but then CSKA made their interest known and came in with a good offer.
“They tried hard to get me, which opened my eyes to the possibility of moving out there. I spoke to my family for weeks and then we all came to the decision that I should sign for Sofia.
“I had always thought about playing abroad at some point during my career and if the opportunity came up I was always going to be open to it.”
Solomon-Otabor hasn’t been afraid to travel during a career which has already seen him named Birmingham’s Young Player of the Season in 2016.
He spent time at Hampton & Richmond and Crystal Palace before taking up a scholarship at Birmingham.
Loan spells at Oxford City, Bolton, Blackpool and Portsmouth then punctuated his time at St Andrew’s, while he trained with Nigeria ahead of their preparations for the Olympic Games in Rio.
It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that Solomon-Otabor has taken the move to Bulgaria in his stride.
“There aren’t too many differences on the pitch. Off the pitch it’s the same. I live in a nice house, the only major differences are the language and the fact they all drive on the left-hand side,” he laughs.
Sofia’s haul of 31 league trophies is a Bulgarian record, although they are currently on an 11-year drought, with a dominant Ludogorets claiming the last eight titles.
More recent success has come in the Bulgarian Cup, which Sofia are again record recipients of, with the club last victorious in 2016.
Despite the barren run in the league, Sofia boast a squad containing full internationals from six different countries, as well as Geferson, who was called up to Brazil’s 2015 Copa America squad, and Evandro, a former Brazil Under-20 forward who came through with AC Milan’s Lucas Paqueta and Real Madrid’s Eder Militao.
The cosmopolitan nature of CSKA’s squad is something Solomon-Otabor touches on when he says: “A lot of the players have stood out since I’ve joined.
“I’m not the only foreign player, we’ve also got players from Brazil, Portugal, Spain and Africa who are very good.”
Solomon-Otabor has already made his full debut for CSKA, starting for the first time against Arda Kardzhali and then playing the full 90 minutes of the 2-2 Sofia Derby against draw against arch-rivals Levski.
It’s an indication of manager Ljupko Petrovic’s faith in Solomon-Otabor that he was willing to trust the youngster in such a big game, and an early reward for the bravery the 23-year-old displayed in leaving England.
For Solomon-Otabor, playing regularly should be a factor in any English footballer considering a move abroad.
“If there’s an opportunity to play football week in, week out then I would encourage players to take it. You’ll improve as a footballer and learn more about your game,” he explains.
As for the future, Solomon-Otabor says: “My plan is to play at the highest level for both club and country.”
Helping CSKA to a first league title in 11 years would be a strong step in the right direction.