Sofia Lauren

Due to the nature of my job I am used to getting up early. Frequent travelling on budget airlines means accepting 4am check in times and thus waking up at 3am is an almost weekly occurance. That is not to say I like the early starts or lack of sleep, but I accept it as part of life. However, as I get older I find my recovery time from these trips is now longer than a few years ago. It may be that I miss my big warm bed, and the allure of CMF but getting up (and notice that I left out the “it” there!) is becoming harder and harder. So after the 26 hour day on Wednesday in Minsk I had hardly returned to my normal sleeping pattern before I was up again at 3am for my very early morning flight to Sofia.

This was a trip that had essentially been paid for by Easyjet after their flight screw up in the summer when they delayed my flight to Geneva by three hours. Andtry as they do they nearly ruined this for me. At 5.30am I sat with a couple of dozen other passengers at Gate 25 in Gatwick’s South Terminal only to be told that our gate had actually been changed, and was in the process of closing at Gate 34 which according to their maps was a twenty minute walk away. I hate  Gatwick wih a passion. It is a really poorly designed airport with blind corridors and long walkways that hardly aid any passengers. So we all took off at full speed and eventually made the gate, where initially we were told we could not board as we were too late. With more and more passengers arriving, all telling the same tale they had to back down and allow us to board for the 3 hour flight to Sofia.

The plan initially when I booked the trip was to take in the Levski versus CSKA derby, one of the most passionate derbies in European football. I tried for weeks to find out about the game, and more important, how to get accreditation for the game but all of my emails to both clubs and the Bulgarian FA were unreturned. Hardly a good plan to piss off a football writer on his first visitor. I got a friend from work, whose husband was Bulgarian, to call the club and he was told that there was still no guarantee that the game was being played on that weekend at all as CSKA “didn’t” feel up to it. So sure enough a few weeks later it came as no surprise to see the whole fixture list change, and my initial trip of games at Levski and Lokomotiv were replaced with nothing. That is right, no games. They had not only moved the games around but pushed them all back to 4pm on the Sunday, some two hours after I was due to leave Sofia. I did find a game on in the B-League, at Akademia Sofia who were one of the older clubs in the city, but that would hardly be a good return for a weekend away.

I toyed with the idea of moving my flights but could not see how an extra night’s accommodation plus the risk of flying with Poland’s finest – Wizzair was worth the cost. So I consoled myself that second division Bulgarian football may not be that bad, and I could try and at least get some pictures from the other stadiums in the city. Four days before I was due to get up at 3am again a brief check online showed that Levski Sofia had moved their game back to the Saturday and so the trip had some meaning again – a double header on the Saturday, and an opportunity to do some ground hopping on the Sunday morning.

Sofia is a capital city blessed with football clubs. Currently in the top division there are four clubs – Slavia, Lokomotiv, Levski and of course CSKA. Add to this a couple of second division team including Akademia and a traditional national stadium set close to the city centre and you have a great destination for catching a game or two on most weekends. Add into the mix the low cost economy with cheap and plentiful (if a bit old and slow) public transport, excellent basic food and a mix of post Communist and Ottoman empire architecture andyou have the perfect recipe for a great weekend away.

The three hour jolly jaunt on Luton’s finest touched down at Sofia’s old Terminal One just before 11am local time, plenty of time for a bit of sightseeing around the old city, check in at the hotel and even the opportunity to watch the early game from the Premier League at a suitable Irish Bar before the first game kicked off at the Akademia stadium in the south east of the city.

I had been warned that ticket inspectors were prevalent on the buses to and from the airport, so I made sure I had a valid ticket. Problem number one. Where do you buy a ticket from? The airport arrival area was swarming with Taxi touts, all looking to make a fast Euro from newly arrived uneducated visitors, yet the signs for any public transport were missing.

I approached a number of locals, all who shrugged their shoulders and walked on by. I decided to head for some authority so approached a policeman, who took me under his gun laden wing and escorted me to a small kiosk in the departures all, pushed straight to the front of the queue and demanded the man behind the counter sell a ticket “for my English friend”. So for 4Lv or the equivalent of £1.60 I had a all day pass for public transport in the city.

The 84 bus departed from outside the terminal and took us on a tour of the locality, passing crumbling motorways, building sites that appeared to have been abandoned and right in the middle of it s huge Porsche show room, complete with armed guards. So far the notorious ticket inspectors had not appeared but as we approached a stop on a housing estate, an old lady got up as if to exit and suddenly brandished her shield in my face in a move that any FBI agent would have been proud of. She tutted disappointingly as I showed her my ticket as it was all in order, but she did not have to wait long before she found some other unsuspecting Englishmen on the bus without tickets and took glee at fining them 7LV each.

The bus continued its merry way through the outskirts of the city, with the huge Mount Vitosha always looming overhead, withthe first patches of snow already visible. You could see the Communist influence on these areas with huge tower block estates, intermingled with local markets with literally hundreds of people buzzing around. The old and creaky trolley buses are full to the brim as they went up and down the main highway into the city, belching pollution in their wake.

My first stop was to be the Borisova Gardens which was home to the stadiums of CSKA Sofia, the ex-Red army team, and the national stadium, the Vasil Levski Stadium. The gardens were a wonderful mix of tall trees, turning golden in the middle of Autumn and perfect picnic lawns. The smaller of the two stadiums, the CSKA Stadium was unsurprisingly wide open, with people wandering in and out as the team mingled with supporters, ready for their coach journey trip to their away game on the Sunday afternoon. The stadium was a classic ex-Soviet structure with tall imposing floodlights, sweeping banks of seats behind the goals and one solitary roof that covered the VIP section, as if the climate here was Caribbean rather than Communist. CSKA had been one of the most feared teams of the 1970’s and 80’s when they won the Bulgarian title on thirty one occasions. They frequently made it in the latter stages of the European Cup, including the campaigns in 1981/82 when they met Bayern Munich in a classic semi-final.  After a 4-3 home victory in the first leg hopes were high that they would become the first every Bulgarian team to reach a major European final, but the team crumbled in the Olympic Stadium, losing 4-0. 

Just a minute’s walk north of the stadium, through the trees is the national stadium, the Vasil Levski. Just a few days previously the stadium had hosted the Bulgaria versus Italy game where the Italian fans had caused controversey by burning a Bulgarian flag during the game. The Italian authorities quickly tried to distance themselves from the incident, blaming local Italians from Sofia as the culprits, as if their own domestic house is in order! The stadium is also used for Levski Sofia’s bigger games, including the derby versus CSKA and their frequent games in the Champions League. However, this season a surprise defeat to BATE Borisovof Belarus in the final qualifying game denied them of a money spinning group with Real Madrid and Juventus.

The stadium is perfectly framed by the mountain in the distance, and on a nice day watching football here would be a real pleasure. The stadium is again similar in design to the majority of Eastern European ones, although the fences and running track would hinder the view from supporters in the lower seats.

The stadium sits at what is considered to be the edge of the city centre. Just across the road is the Orlov Most Square where the Soviet Army Memorial dominates the skyline. From a distance the tall memorial looks impressive but up close you get an impression of what makes this city so strange. The memorial is covered in grafetti, some not so polite but at least demonstrating the local’s grasp of the finer points of the English language. The whole park was in desperate need of repair. Most of the benches were broken and huge holes were just left uncovered on the path ways. The reason for most of the debris was apparent on the corner of the square as a poster showed that this would be the site of a new Metro station, “Coming soon in 2006”.

Sofia is one of the oldest capital cities in Europe having been founded around 7,000 years ago. It is a mix of Eastern European Communist buildings with impressive Ottoman empire style. It is also one of those countries that everyone has heard of yet many would struggle to find on a map. I had never been near this area of Europe up until a few years ago, but had become hooked on places like Macedonia, Romania and Serbia as they struggled to come to terms with the new Europe and shed some of the beauocracy of their former Communist past. I continued to head north east towards the city centre, passing some impressive buildings including the University, Bulgarian Parliament and the most impressive building in the city centre, the Alexander Nevsky Memorial Church. This building is without a doubt the most magnificent icon of the city. It was designed by Alexander Nevsky Pomeranstev, an architect from St Petersburg who designed the church in the style of a number of Greek and Russian ones, complete with huge gold-leaf domes. Outside the church a small market had been set up to tempt tourists with memorabilia from the ex-communist days, including “genuine” KGB hip flasks, fighter pilot helmets and cases full of fake Rolex’s.

The city was full of parks and gardens littered with statues, benches and unfinished monuments. It has the feel of an outdoor city, although it was the first capital city I could think of that did not have a major river. Cities evolved over a period of centuries using the river as both a defensive measure but also a major trading route. The east of the city centre was where the major administrative buildings were including the National Theatre, Opera House andthe Presidential Palace. This was where my hotel was located, with an excellent view of the Party House. I was not here for long as I wanted to try and find the Lokomotiv Stadium, which appeared to be just off my comprehensive map.

The compact commercial centre was well served with trams and buses, and had the feel of a country on the edge of economic freedom. Taking a look around the cracked pavements, potholes, cheap looking shops and the miserable looking faces you can understand why the European Union have pushed back Bulgaria’s membership to at least 2009. The concept of “no win, no fee” litigation obviously hasn’t reached Sofia yet judging by the lack of investment in the pavements, and I would hate to think what burden is put on the national health service by injuries caused by the paths.

I jumped on a number 12 tram and continued north, past the main railway station and into the housing projects. The tram deposited us passengers in what can only be described as a factory, with huge chimneys all around and heavy machinery littering the roadway. Apparently the stadium was close, so I relied on my trusty Google Maps to show me the way. Unfortunately, on the day the satellite passed overhead this area of the city, the pollution from the factory spread a cloud over the whole area. Brilliant! I headed back to the main road, and headed northwards, looking for a tell tale sign of a stadium. as luck would have it I could see some monstrous floodlights in the distance. These were indeed the floodlights of Lokomotiv Sofia, and after a ten minute walk I reached the stadium, which in keeping with the rest of the outskirts was in an almost state of ruin. Almost every window had been broken, every wall covered with graffeti and every entrance showing the signs of fire damage. Welcome to the home of 21st century Bulgarian Premier League football. Inside the stadium it was a different story, and two covered stands swept from corner to corner, smartly lined withred seats. Behind each goal was a bright red bus, painted in the logos of the club. It is hard to imagine that stadiums like these are allowed to host domestic games, let alone European ties on the occasions, such as in 2007/08 when they reached the UEFA Cup first round, losing to French team Rennes.

I now had to get my skates on if I wasn’t going to miss my first game of the day in the southeast suburbs, close to the airport. I needed to change bus a few times but managed this with ease, and the most complex of routes only took me thirty minutes before I was outside the home of Akademia Sofia. This second division game was initially going to be the high point of my weekend until the fixtures changed late in the day and Levski’s game was made available as the early evening fayre.  And good job too.

FC Akademia Sofia 1 PFC Rakovski Sevlievo 0 – Saturday 18th October 2008 4pm

At least the arriving airplanes amuse the crowd

At least the arriving airplanes amuse the crowd

The stadium was simply one big covered stand with bench seats anda few rows of terracing behind each goal. Entry was free and so most of the “locals” had turned up to kill a few hours in the city. This included a group of a dozen chavs, complete with Burburry baseball caps, and their token girl who from the back looked like Kimberley Stewart, but had what appeared to be a Rod Stewart 70’s wig. She was obviously not fussy which one of the group groped her, as long as she got her cigarettes which she smoked continuously. At frequent points during the dull first half she disappeared downstairs with one of them, returning a few minutes later looking more dishevelled than before. Having visited the gents toilet before the game I cannot believe that she thought this was the place for a romantic, or even commercial liason as it was possibly the most appalling convenience I had ever seen. If you have ever seen pictures of prisons in the far east, such as the Hanoi Hilton, then that gives you an idea as to the décor here.

The stadium had a perfect view of the area towards the airport, and with the fayre on display so poor, watching the planes coming and going was the high point of the game. Having played many seasons at Sunday League level, some in the highest leagues I am familiar to the style of play that typifies a Sunday League player. In front of me were 22 of them. The pitch didn’t help as it was full of bobbles and divots, as too did the huge open areas behind the goals, although I do not think it was necessary to have 22 ball boys around the pitch.

The stadium didn’t have dug outs for the coaches and reserves. Instead it had park benches and parasol umbrellas. How very pedestrian! The game itself was completely forgetable, and in fact based on the small, almost silent crowd I had no idea who was who or even what the away team were called! The only notable point of interest in the first half was when a late tackle resulted in two opposition players being stretchered off, and the resultant melee that saw the goalkeeper sprint 70 yards to become involved and get the first yellow card of the day.

The only goal of the game came just after half time when a mistake in the dark blue shirted defence allowed the light blue centre forward to head home. Queue the Ricky Martin song which drove our little Stewart family trollope wild and gave her another excuse to jump on one of her gang, as if she really needed one.

I headed off at the final whistle to catch the 72 bus from outside the stadium, that would take me north in the direct of the home of Levski Sofia, that was to be my second game of the day.

Levski Sofia 2 PFC Belasitsa Petrich 0 – Saturday 18th October 2008 7.30pm

Bulgarian football at its most passionate

Bulgarian football at its most passionate

The journey north initially looked complicated as there was no direct form of public transport running between the two stadiums, and the dirty great railway line providing a suitable barrier to stop a thirty minute walk.  The bus deposited me on the edge of the motorway slip road, and not for the first time in a trip abroad, I simply followed the locals in transversing the railway tracks, remembering my green cross code as I stepped over electrified rails.

Levski Sofia are the best supported team in Bulgaria, and most successful of the modern period.  Their twenty five national league titles have been spread over their eighty year history, although they are the current form team after winning the title five times so far this century.  They have also been a regular in the Champions League, and even making the Group Stages in 2007 where they faced Barcelona, Werder Bremen and Chelsea, although the games were actually played across town in the National (Vasil Levski) Stadium.  One visit to the stadium and you can see why they cannot host games of such a calibre here.

From the outside all looked relatively normal.  Lots of police in riot gear patrolled the park outside the stadium, but as I approached the ticket windows, either side of the main entrances of the west stand, they seemed more interested in throwing paper airplanes than any crowd control measures.  As I approached the ticket windows I could see why the inactivity was warranted.  Despite by best efforts at finding out details of the game, it wasn’t a 6.30pm kick off, but a 7.30pm one.  So after buying a seat in the covered main stand for a laughable 4Lv (£1.60), I had nearly 90 minutes to kill.  I opted to go into the supporters bar next to the entrance which offered a real log fire, some home cooked grilled meat kebabs and an atmosphere of Boheme.  I settled down with my food and watched a couple of episodes of Michael Scott inspired mirth in the fantastic American Office. 

With 15 minutes until kick off I headed inside and took a seat one row from the back of the stand, in a section with absolutely no one in.  To my left was the away supporters section.  Now I have no idea where Petrich hail from but judging by the one supporter who had made the journey, I can only assume it was in some far away corner of the country withno public transport.  With a few minutes left until kick off I encountered one of those crazy unbelievable scenes from the Fast Show where a couple decided that the only seats they wanted in the whole empty section of approximately 1,000 seats was directly behind me.  And stay they did, munching bird seed throughout the whole game.

I can understand to some extent why they may have chosen my section to sit in.  It was the best of a bad bunch.  Weeds grew through the concrete steps in most places and many areas would have been condemned in England.  The stadium was opened in the early 1960’s and doesn’t appear to have been renovated or modernised in any way.

The game on paper was going to be a cake walk for Levski.  Coming into this game Petrich had lost all but two games in the season so far (those being draws) and had only scored one goal.  Levski on the other hand were second in the league and had scored seventeen times.  And so the parade started.  From the first whistle Levski pounded the Petrich goal.  Chances soon went begging as time after time the impressive Soares found space down the right and put in some excellent crosses.  In the eight minute a header from the Levski centre forward Hristov hit both posts and bounced away, only for the resulting clearance to find its way back into the box for the centre forward to head home at the second attempt.

Despite their best efforts Petrich could not get the ball into the Levski penalty area.  The poor home goalkeeper must have been absolutely freezing as he simply sat for long periods sitting against the goal frame with a bored face.  In fact it wasn’t until the 44th minute that Petrich actually managed to take the ball into the area, when a back pass from the halfway line was under hit although the keeper was still quick enough to clear his lines.

Soares was definitely the star of the show, coming very close to doubling the lead with a fantastic overhead kick from the edge of the penalty area that was only stopped by an equally good save.  However, Soares was to have the last laugh when he scored a second goal on twenty six minutes with a smart volley from a rare left wing cross.  Two nil should have been the start of something more impressive, but they huffed and puffed without creating anything else.  In the second half Petrich came into the game a bit more, but one thing started to show though.  Petrich’s centre midfielder was a chap called Beto, a Brazilian who was in the mould of Patrick Viera.  He was also the most fouled player on the pitch, regularly being hacked down without being offered any protection from the referee.  Obviously the colour of his skin had nothing to do with the ignorance of the continuing foul play by the referee, but it certainly did with the abuse he started suffering from the Levski fans behind the goal when he went over to took corners.

With less than two hundred fans in this part of the stadium, how on earth can the club simply ignore this blatant Racism.  Yet time and time the choruses of boos and monkey chants could be heard throughout the whole stadium.  That in itself was a good enough reason for me to leave.  If the club, or even the league as a whole is not prepared to take a hard stance on the issue then at least I can show my feelings on the subject by walking out.

I headed back down Reka Veleka towards the tram stop, taking very careful steps so as not to fall down the various broken manhole covers.  I wandered past the ladies of the night, queued up on the side of the road waiting for business.  In keeping with the general appearance of most young people in the city they were hardly stunning, and very poorly dressed.  Perhaps the local men had a fetish for Croydon facelift hair, Sam toweling tracksuits in purple and yellow and a complexion that could have only been achieved using a Black and Decker sander, but it certainly wasn’t appelling to me.  As luck would have it I avoided the approaches of the monsters by the arrival of my tram, and within ten minutes I was back at the Hotel Arte. 

Despite temperatures outside just above freezing I somehow had managed to get a hotel room with a temperature gauge stuck on Sahara, and so I endured a very uncomfortable night, punctuated by the noise of the traffic outside.  I woke up early on the Sunday and resisted the urge to try and sneak in a visit to just “one more stadium” and instead headed to the comfort of a big armchair in Costa Coffee opposite the National Theatre for a Latte and a ham and cheese panini.  As with everything in the weekend, timings were perfect as I arrived at the Airport Bus terminal andone just arrived.  With everything on time, and some spectacular views over the Alps I was back in the fold of the Little Fullers in no time at all. 

“Where have you been Dad?” Asked Littlest Fuller

“Bulgaria darling”“We have a Great Uncle called Bulgaria” she replied

 

“No darling, Great Uncle Bulgaria is a Womble”“We have a Great Uncle Womble?” came her quip

 

Not quite.  You have a Great Uncle Brian.  Bulgaria is a country and I went to the biggest city, called Sofia!”

“What was Sofia like Dad?” Asked LaurenLeaf

“Pretty in places, but messy elsewhere” I answered “It needs a lot of cleaning up as they don’t look after their streets or buildings at all”

“Bit like our play room then” Answered the biggest Fuller

“Exactly.  So if you do not want your central funding witheld then I suggest you get up those stairs now and start tidying up!”

About the Akademia Stadium – 18,000 Capacity
The 18,000 Akademia Stadium is one of the most noticable structures in the south east of the city andcan be viewed from the airport some five miles away.  It is essentially one huge covered stand that can seat 15,000 fans in relative uncomfort.  All of the seats are plastic bolted to the concrete steps.  Views are unobstructed andthe whole area opposite is open to the elements, offering some excellent views over the suburbs to the airport.  Behind each goal are a few rows of concrete steps. 

Who Plays There?
The stadium is home to 2nd division Akademia Sofia.  The club were formed in 1947 by a group of students and have spent most of their history in the lower reaches of the Bulgarian leagues.  This season is their first back at this level for quite along time.  They have won the non-defunct Balkans Cup in 1974 when they beat FC Vardar.  They have also played in the UEFA Cup on two occasions, and most famously beat a star studded AC Milan team in the 2nd round of the competition in 1976, featuring such stars as Gianni Rivera andthe current England Manager Fabio Capello.

How to Get There?
The stadium is located in the south east of the city and can be reached by Bus line 72 which stops directly outside the stadium, and runs every 10 minutes or so during the day.  Tram 20 runs just to the south of the stadium from the centre of the city.  Allow 30 minutes for any journey from the centre.

How to Get a Ticket?
Tickets for most games are sold on the gate of the stadium, costing 2Lv for a seat anywhere.  If you arrive 15 minutes into the game you can simply walk in free of charge.

About the Georgi Asparuhov Stadium – 29,880 Capacity
The wide open spaces of the Georgi Asparuhov Stadium are rarely filled these days.  Since it opened in the 1960’s very little work has taken place to modernise the stadium and so now it is really showing its age.  It used to have a running track but now this empty space is just a vast expanse of concrete.  There is a small terraced area to the north which is home to any away supporters who may turn up.  The home fans are located in the open seated area to the south.  The stadium’s colourful seating does make it look more modern that it really is.  The stadium once held over 60,000 for a European Cup Winners Cup game although any high profile games are now played at the National Stadium in the Borisova Gardens.  It is named after a former player who was killed in a car crash. 

Who Plays There?
The stadium is home to Levski Sofia, currently the most successful team in Bulgaria, and the only club to have qualified for the Champions League Group Stages.  They were formed in 1914 and since then they have never been relegated.  They now have twenty five National Championships including five in the past eight seasons. 

Since 2000 the team have won the championship on 5 occasions. However, they actually made a slow start to their footballing life. After being formed in 1911 by a group of students, the club had to wait ten years before the formation of the Sofia Sports League before they could compete on a semi-professional stage. The first National Championships took place in 1924 and the club were chosen to represent Sofia. It would be nearly 10 years before they won the National Championship though, repeating the feat on 5 occasions in the 1940’s.

In 1949 the club’s name was changed to Dinamo on the orders of Stalin who wanted to see all of the top teams in the Soviet empire called Dinamo (hence Dinamo Kiev, Dinamo Moscow, Dinamo Berlin and Dinamo Dresden amongst others). However, once the rule of Stalin’s Russia was lifted in 1957 the club re-adopted their Levskiname. The following decade was marked with inconsistency on the pitch as the club invested in its youth policy.

These young players started making their mark in the late 1960’s as Levski picked up Championships in 1965, 1968 and 1970. This conveyor belt of talent continued to come through the youth academy at the club during the late 1970’s and 1980’s as the team won 5 more titles up until 1985. In that season, Levski met CSKA in the Bulgarian Cup final. In a game marred by crowd trouble, and fighting on the pitch which saw player sent off andclashes withthe referee, both Levski and CSKA were forced to change their names (to Vitosha and Sredets respectively) and a number of players from either side were banned for life. The 1985 title was also taken away from the club.

These sanctions were overturned within a few months but it wasn’t until 1989 that Levskiwere able to regain their name. The 1990’s were a similar story of success on the pitch as the club won three titles in a row from 1993, as well as five Bulgarian Cup Finals. These were followed up with the success we have seen recently in the 2000’s.

Europe has still proved a bridge too far for the club. They have reached the European Cup Winners Cup quarter-finals on three occasions, and a similar stage in the UEFA Cup twice – the last time being in 2005/06 when they lost to Schalke, having beaten Marseille, Auxerre, Udinese and Artmedia enrouteto the last eight. In 2007/08 they went one step further by reaching the Champions League Group Stages where they were drawn with Chelsea, Werder Bremen andBarcelona.  Unfortunately the team simply could not compete with the bigger clubs and lost all six games, conceding 17 goals in the process.

How to Get There
The stadium is located in the east of the city, close to the main railway line.  It is well served by bus lines 78 and 70 that run from the main railway station along Boulevard Glivnista as well as tram line 22 that runs from Avenue Aleksandar Dondukov passed the Nevsky church.

How to Get a Ticket?
There are very few games that are played at the Georgi Asparuhov that require advanced ticket purchase.  Major European games and the big derby versus CSKA are played at the National Stadium, confusingly called the Levski Stadium in the Borisova Gardens.  On a matchday tickets are sold from the small ticket windows either side of the entrances on the East and West side of the stadium.  Tickets for the covered seats cost 4Lv (£1.60) andfor behind the goal they are 2.5Lv (£1).

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