The rain in Mainz falls mainly on me

Every year in early December I head off to Germany to catch a match in some proper winter weather, visit a Christmas Market and generally enjoy the opportunity to drink some decent beer, eat some decent sausage and pay a visit to my friend Beate. In the past I have taken in Hamburg, Stuttgart and last year Bremen. As I was rapidly running out of grounds to visit in the top flight of German football I cast my net to some of the more “obscure” destinations, and as luck would have it I saw the chance for a 2 day 2 game trip, taking in a Friday night match in Mainz, south east of Frankfurt and on the Saturday head down south for Karlsruher against my favourites Werder Bremen. Ryanair provided the cheap flights to Frankfurt Hahn, and after a snowy landing in Germany/France/Luxembourg I boarded the coach for the transfer to Frankfurt itself. The initial flight took 57minutes from north of London, yet this airport is a 100 minute journey from the city it takes its name from. How Ryanair can still call it Frankfurt is a mystery to everyone. If crab sticks cant be called crab sticks anymore then someone should petition for the renaming of this airport to one of the closest major towns – Worms!

I spent the rest of the day having a look at some of the other stadiums in the area. First a visit to the home of FSV Frankfurt who are currently in the Bundesliga 2 for the first time in their history. They are currently rebuilding their old stadium into a very smart looking 12,000 arena and so are currently filling less than a 10th of the Commerzbank Arena every other week. Next up was a visit to the very old-English style stadium in Offenbach, home of the Offenbach Kickers who are also in the 2nd division before finally heading west to Wiesbaden for a sneak at the Brita Arena, one of the newest stadiums in the 2nd tier.

It is amazing how tiring it is walking around all day but there was no time to rest as I had a packed evening, starting with a trip to see FSV Mainz. It wasnt all work work work though as I did find time for a very pleasant lunch in Frankfurt in one of my old haunts in Romer. You see dear reader you may not know that I used to spend a day a week in Frankfurt for work purposes. Well, ok a bit of an exageration – it wasn’t quite Frankfurt itself, more like a small suburb called Morfelden which is know for its huge US Air Force base but I was here nearly every Monday for a year and spending so long in one place means you get to know the places where the locals eat and drink. My pepper steak was washed down by a few glasses of Frankfurt’s famous Afpleweiss – similar to cider but much more potent. After lunch it was time to put the walking shoes back on and burn some calories.

The city centre is impressive though. It is not called Mainhatten for nothing as the huge towers of Commerzbank and the Messeturn combine to give most American cities a run for their money in terms of sky scrapers. It is also home to more sex shops that I have ever seen. All around the central station you can find a shop to cater for all tastes, including Football Jo’s. There are shops with “cruising lounges”, “relax bars”, “non stop video cabins”, “Erotik experience rooms” and my favourite (in terms of name I hasten to add for CMF’s purposes!) “titty wank parlour” – I am sure they apply the Ronsil marketing principle here.

So after a quitck trip to the hotel I was off again in the pouring rain up the steep hill overlooking the town to the Bruchweg Stadion. This game was only going to be a warm up for the feature event later in the evening as the surprise leaders (still) of the Bundesliga, 1899 Hoffenheim, were travelling to Munich to take on a resurgent Bayern who had all of a sudden leapfrogged Leverkusen and Hertha to sit in second place.

FSV Mainz 05 0 SpVgg Greuther Furth 1 – The Bruchweg Stadion – Friday 5th December 2008

After the party in Mainz

After the party in Mainz

FSV Mainz came into this match riding high on top of the Bundesligsa 2nd division, after some excellent showings at the Bruchweg so far in 2008. It had in fact only been a short time ago that not only were enjoying local derbies against Eintract Frankfurt, instead of FSV Frasnkfurt in the Bundesliga but also had a UEFA Cup run.

The stadium bounced with noise from thirty minutes before kick off. An early evening start on a Friday night was an excellent way to start the weekend for the home fans and then had again turned out in force on a wet night. With this being the final game before Christmas the fans had got into the festive mood by wearing twinkling red Mainz hats which gave the impression of thousands of little devils winking at you.

The stadium has the feeling of being built by an over enthusiastic child from his mechano set at Christmas. Four covered stands have been pieced rather than built, and two corners temporary structures had added to the capacity. However, for what it lacked in aesthetic appeal it was compensated for by the sheer noise and passion of the home fans.

They nearly had something to cheer about early into the game as midfielder Srdjan Baljak appeared to have beaten the flat Fuerth back line but his smart volleyed finish was in vein as a very late flag ruled the 5th minute strike out, Ten minutes later and Aristide Bance the strange haired centre forward side footed wide after another incise break by Baljak down the left. Why do black footballers think it is trendy to dye their hair, like Bance, blonde? In a word they look stupid. Personally I think the reason Roy Keane walked out on Sunderland was that he could not cope with seeing Cisse’s ridiculous hair on a daily basis. These players would not last 5 minutes in park football, let alone someone such as that idiot who plays up front for Arsenal, Bendtnor with his pink books. When I eventually reach the top of the tree in the Football Association then I will outlaw three things from the game immediately. Firstly, out would go the ability for a defender to blatantly obstruct a forward chasing the ball into touch. Secondly, variable kick off times – stick to the model used in Germany and Italy – set times for games each weekend and no variation. Finally, coloured boots. I wouldn’t ban them totally, but you could only wear them if you get a certain amount of international caps, and then on a sliding scale – perhaps Red if you played 10 times, Blue for 20 etc.

Mainz did not make it easy for themselves in the first half. They frequently lost possession in the final third, although the three bookings for Fuerth in the first twenty minutes does also explain away some of their tactics for a game which was important to them to push up towards the play off spot. Chances came and went but it was to no avail in the first half as they wasted them without actually calling the goalkeeper into action.

Apologies for the sidetrack here but what is it with Germany and V’s? Why eliminate this vital letter from the alphabet? Did they never see the 1980’s alien thriller or was it called something different here? How can they respectably advertise “Wodka” in their stadiums? Come on guys, adopt the V, it will make life so much easier for you in the long run.
As the half wound down I engaged in some conversation with my neighbour who it appeared was a bit of a local celebrity. Apparently Mr Siegfried Melzig was quite big in the 1970’s and 1980’s, learning his trade in East Germany before going on to manage the likes of Kaiserslautern and the great Lokomotiv Leipzig side. He was very engaging with his stories and was as pleased as punch when he realised that I knew a little bit about the game, as well as that I had once visited Hastings, where his wife served a rich man (it later transpired he meant she was an Au Pair and not a Concubine, although I am sure most men who have the idea of employing an Au Pair would secretly rather they also provided a few value add’s).

Obviously the team had quite rocket at half time as the first thing they did was shoot from kick off. It amazes me that in training modern players can do such amazing things as hit the bar on purpose from a corner four times in a row, yet in a match situation it all goes to pieces. Whilst this effort was on target it was hit as a lob and so the keeper had enough time to go and get a hot dog before comfortably catching the ball. Neither team could get into a rythem after the break though and the first twenty minutes were littered with wasted passes and needless fouls as both teams traded yellow cards.

What struck me was despite the pace of the game, neither side had a player who could put their foot on the ball, slow down the play and bring others in. For want of a better player, the game lacked a Michael Carrick or a Scottie Parker. Both defences moved the ball quickly, and the wide midfielders were energetic but there was no cutting edge. The Mainz midfielder Karhan did get the fans on their feet with a lovely curling shot that bounced off the top of the bar on the hour mark but I think it was more luck than judgement. Bance went even closer with his headed effort in the 70th minute but again the bar stopped him putting the home team into the lead.

This was going to be one of those typical West Ham performances from Mainz. No lack of heart or energy but no real quality where they needed it, What made it so amazing as the game edged towards a nil nil draw was that both of these teams were the joint leading scorers in the league, averaging over two goals a game, so we were due goals…….and finally we got one. With the 4th official putting up his board to signify the start of injury time, Fuerth exploited a gap down the right hand side, a low cross beat the defenders and there was a Fuerth player unmarked to drill the ball home. At last Mainz were stirred into life and immediately they stepped up a gear – too little too late though, and although they did have the ball in the net from a corner, Bance had impeded the keeper and it was ruled out to the howls of derision from the home fans, which soon turned into whistles aimed at the offiicals as the referee brought the game to an end.

At least Mainz would stay top irrespective of other results, but with a tricky tie away at Oberhausen to close the first half of the season with, it was Fuerth who went home with their tails up, knowing that they were once again back in the play off hunt. I stayed for a quick coffee to warm my fingers before heading off back down the hill. When I eventually left the stadium about 40 minutes after the end of the game it was amazing to still see thousands of home fans outside, drinking and eating from the refreshment stands. There seemed to be no rush in going home, again something very alien to us in England.

After a brief check in with CMF and the Little Fullers I found a very hospitable hostelry and settled back for “Super Friday” on the TV which of course failed to live up to the hype, as they always do with Bayern winning thanks to some generous refereeing again. Still it was a pleasant evening. Mainz is an attractive little town, with lots of old buildings and secret alleyways, lined with shops and restaurants. They had tastefully decorated the old town for Christmas and it certainly was an appealling place to spend an hour or two before I returned to my room.

I managed a decent nine hours sleep and immediately grabbed my Ipod that had been charging overnight. Fatal mistake number two (number one had been assuming that my coat pocket was waterproof and leaving my passport in there in the heavy rain the day before) as it appeared that my laptop had somehow managed to convert all of my audio and video files to an unreadable format. So I could see that they were on the Ipod but couldnt listen or watch them – fatal. When I am away my Ipod is my life support system and carries me through moments of boredom, of which there are plenty. It is also essential for blocking out the bollocks that you are often forced to lisetn to as a train, bus or airline traveller from other passengers. I frantically searched the internet for an answer, but only managed to salvage the contacts file – what consolation that would be to view on my long trip back to the airport in the middle of nowhere later.

So I headed off into the old town again, wandering around the small Christmas market and having a cup of Gluewine for breakfast – perfectly nutritionally balanced I am sure, before heading on my first train of the day to Mannheim, temporary home to the phenomeon that is 1899 Hoffenheim. Whilst they are building their new stadum in the village of Hoffenheim some ten miles to the south, the team have been playing at the Carl Benz Stadion, home of Mannheim 07 from the newly created Bundesliga 3. The stadium is easily reached from the city centre by tram, unless of course you do what I did and get on a Saturday special that ran to the industrial estate. Eventually I realised and called up my trusty Google Maps for some directions. I could go the indirect way, back the way I came but what the hell – cross country, traversing what looked like a big car park. Sometimes it pays to pan out a little bit more because that car park turned out to be Mannheim Airport. So back I went again and chose the less dangerous route across a motorway and the railway line.

As unluck would have it Mannheim were actually playing at 2pm versus Ulm, which meant that there was no way I could sneak into the stadium, but instead had to buy a ticket for the game, irrespective of the fact that I would be long gone by the time it kicked off. Still it did give me the option to have a chat with a few of the Mannheim ultras who were setting up their flags and banners on the Subtribune. They did try and convince me the atmosphere here would be better than at Karlsruhe but when he revealed the average gate was less than a third of the stadium capacity I declined. The stadium itself is similar in a way to Hillsborough with three equally tall covered stands that rise up sharply from the pitch, and one single stand on its own at the far end. I could imagine that on its day it is a very atmospheric stadium. If all is on plan with their new stadium, Hoffenheim will play their last game here in February 2009.

I had a train to catch so I was off back to the station, and having given over another 20 Euros for my lightening quick train I was off again, to the seat of the German Federal appeal court, Karlsruher about 50 miles, yet only 23 minutes to the south of Mannheim.

Karlsruhe is a strange place. There seems to be a major lack of public transport for such a big place. The station is quite a way out of town with a single S-Bahn line running up to the old town, but nothing remotely close to the stadium. The centre point of the town is the huge Schloss, or Palace for those who do not understand German (me!). From this central point the roads fan out, southwards into the modern town and in every other direction into the woods. Conveniently, the Wildpark stadium is not to the south where all of the bars, restaurants and pubic transport are. No, it is located on the north east curve of the outer ring road, which means you either have to hike through some pretty trecherous woodland to get to the ground or take a taxi, which on a day when the Christmas markets were in full swing meant a 20 minute 20 Euro trip.

The stadium is a real odd affair. Once upon a time it had an athletics track, but this has now been partly replaced by the building of a huge main stand. The three other “sides” of the track still remain, meaning the fans in the uncovered curves behind the goal would not only get cold and wet for this one, but also had appalling views – especially those in the front row where a high fence also added to the view. The older of the two side stands was where the bulk of the Karlsruher fans congregated. This stand looked like a remnant of Landsdowne Road with a lower tier split into two , with standing room at the front in a paddock, then a small upper tier covering the upper part of the lower tier. Bremen had almost filled their corner of the stadium,and it was noticeable before the game how much of a friendly banter there was between the two sets of fans.

My seat was at the top of the main stand which was not only a climb in itself but had the narrowest of rows, which make passing along the line almost impossible, especially with those not so slim German journalists. Obviously built for functionality and not comfort!

Karlsruher SC 1 Werder Bremen 0 – Wildpark Stadion – Saturday 6th December 2008

Its a bit open on the away terrace

Its a bit open on the away terrace

Werder Bremen have been my favourite German team for quite a while. Its a combination of the great coloured kits, including my all time favourite chocolate and lime green, or their attacking style. They have been perennial top scorers in the league, often conceding as many as they score, and year after year they seem unable to keep hold of their best players yet still they are there or there abouts under the attack-mad coach Thomas Schaaf.

Today was no exeption and after a rousing reception for both teams Werder almost caught Karlsruher on the hop when ex-Chelsea flop Claudio Pizarro lobbed the ball over the keeper and onto the post before the twenty second mark had passed. Ten minutes later it was the turn of Karlsruher to come close as Sebastain Freis firstly lobbed over when clean throughand then seconds later decided to dive instead of staying on his feet when he only had the keeper to beat.

Sorry – just a thought here. Why is vodka, wodka when Volkswagon is Volkswagon and Volksbank is Volksbank? What is wrong with those “v”‘s? No sense whatsoever. Sorry to interrupt the flow at this point but it had been bugging me since yesterday.

Both teams continued to create chances. First the Brazilian midfielder Diego volleyed wide for Bremen after an excellent Frings cross and then Karlsruher’s own South American Antonio da Silva curled a shot inches wide. Surely we couldnt be in for another game like last nights?

Werder’s attacking style was always going to give Karlsruher a chance on the counter attack but they simply could not get the final ball right, time after time seeing crosses overhit or through balls not played hard enough. Whilst the game could never be described as physical in the first half, referee Winkmann took every opportunity to spoil play with his very strict interpretation of anything deemed to be a shoulder charge or a slight push meaning the score as level at half time.

Karlsruher had the first chance in the second half to take the lead as Edmond Kapllani was able to rise unchallenged on the edge of the six yard box from a free kick but his header rolled wide of the post. Two minutes later Freis diverted a shot narrowly over the bar as the home team looked to grab the advantage from a Bremen team which had lost the will to fight.

Yet still the game remained goal less. The referee further endeared himself to the home fans by brandishing a couple of yellow cards for challenges that could have quite easily gone the other way. And there was me thinking that such a display is reserved for the visit of Bayern Munich. Still at least Kapllani can be thankful for the linesman after he was flagged offside before he tapped wide from 3 yards on the seventy minute mark, although he was unaware of the flag at the time.

Both teams continued to create chances in an entertaining second half but neither had a player who had remembered their shooting boots. In an almost repeat of the game last night the deadlock was broken on 85 minutes when a drilled shot across the goal struck Stefan Buck and the ball spun over the line via the keepers hand to give Karlsruher the lead.Bremen threw everything at Karlsruher, knowing that they could ill afford to lose the game. Pizarro decided it would be an apt time to lose his head and struck out at the Karlsruher goalkeeper as they tussled for a ball on the goal line. With their main striking option Almeida already in the changing room due to injury, the Peruvian (or is it Peruwian?) joined him and Werder were down to ten men. Karlsuher hang on and the noise at the final whistle was certainly more than a sense of relief rather as results elsewhere lifted Karlsruher from bottom to 4th from bottom, leapfrogging Energie Cottbus, Bochum and Borussia Monchengladbach in the process and end their nine game winless run.

So that was it for me. I decided to walk back to the station, following the crowds around the Schloss gardens and into Marktplatz where the Christmas festivities were in full flow. I still had a seven hour journey ahead before I was back in my comfy bed, and with no Ipod it was sure to be a long and tiring trip. Still I can’t complain. I’d had a beer or two, a couple of sausages and some football and avoided the perils of Beate so I was happy. Planning for Christmas 2009 starts tomorrow!

About the Stadion am Bruchweg
One of the major factors that have resulted in success for the club has been the intimidating atmosphere the fans generate at the compact Bruchweg stadium. It is the smallest stadium in the top division, but like Leverkusen and their small and compact BayArena, tickets are like gold dust and the match day atmosphere is very noisy. In fact the club have recognised that the fans are the team’s 12th man. The ground is made up of four separate stands, all single tiers and very close to the action. It has the feel of some of the smaller English grounds such as Northampton Town’s Sixfields.

The Bruchweg has been home to the club since 1950, and stayed the same for over 50 years until the clubs ambitions were set above the Bundesliga 2nd division. A programme of redevelopment started in early 2003 which saw all of the stands increased in size, plus new roofing sections for two of the stands. A history of the ground can be found in German on the club’s website

How to get a ticket for the Stadium Am Bruchweg
In their last Bundesliga season every single match was a complete sell out at the small Stadion am Bruchweg. Only Bayern Leverkusen can match this achievement in the Bundesliga. However, you may be able to secure a ticket in advance from the ticket office in Dr Martin Luther King Weg (+49 6131 905190 or by clicking on Tickets range from €18 to €33 if you are lucky enough to be offered a ticket.

How to get to the Stadion am Bruchweg
The stadium can be reached by bus from the town centre on lines 6, 54, 55, 56, 57 and 58 on matchdays. Travel is free for match ticket holders. Close to the ground there are a number of car parks including the University of Mainz, close to the A60 Autobahn and the multi storey car park on Albert Schweitzer Strasse on the K3 road from the town centre.

About the Wildparkstadion
The Wildparkstadion is a classic “old school” football stadium, very much in the mould of the old Volksparkstadion in Hamburg, or the Parkstadion in Gelsenkirchen. It retains many of its original features today such as the running track, banked seats behind the goal and the huge floodlights.

The stadium has been home to the club since March 1922 when a merger between two local clubs (FC Phoenix and VfB Muehlburg) necessitated a bigger arena. In the mid 1950’s the stadium was expanded to hold over 50,000 fans. A further redevelopment in 1978 saw the Gegentribune increased in size to 17,000 places, and the overall capacity to 60,000. The passion of the local fans saw the national team play games here on occasions, and still they have remained unbeaten on eleven occasions since their first game here in the 1950’s.

The main grandstand was redeveloped in the early 1990’s, and a move to all seater reduced the capacity to its current level. There have been plans drawn up for a significant redevelop again, with the end curves being brought closer to the action, and roofed although at this stage there are no concrete plans.

How to get to the Wildpark Stadion
The stadium is located north of the main city centre on the other side of the beautiful Schlossgarten. The most direct way to reach the stadium is to walk through the park, around the right hand side of the lake and the ground will be in view. There are no real public transport options close by, although taxi’s do wait on the edge of the ring road after the match.

Getting a ticket for the Wildpark stadion
With the club back in the Bundesliga again, tickets are very rare indeed for most games and you should try and obtain your ticket before you travel. For the bigger games against the likes of Bayern Munich, Stuttgart, Schalke and Leverkusen expect tickets to be sold out long in advance. For the lower profile games, tickets in the Kurve start from €15. If you are lucky enough to be offered a ticket in the main Haupttribune then you will pay €40. A standing place on the Genegtribune is €12. Tickets, if available, can be purchased from or from the stadium itself.

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).