Tuesday, 6 October 2009

CSKA Sofia vs OFC Sliven 2000

The Bulgarian capital, Sofia, is a confused, often contradictory mish-mash of a city – a wonky collaboration of different structures and layouts with a landscape suggesting both its chequered history and, seemingly, rather fragile self-image.

One of the oldest cities on the European continent, having existed for around 7000 years, and yet one of the youngest capital cities, Sofia’s striking Soviet neo-classical buildings sit alongside and engulf ruins from its Ottoman past and odd, Eastern-influenced religious follies that look an awful lot older than they really are.

Apparently harmless stray dogs roam the parks and streets, sleeping in the shade of trees and cars and going largely unnoticed by the locals (though we did manage to somehow pick one up around the Soviet Army Monument who followed us for a good twenty minutes across the park until we were forced to dive into a smoky café to lose him).

The roads are broken and slippery – trams and trolley-busses rumble along them as they have for decades with everything including them looking long in need of repair, except, of course, the post-Soviet, Westernised shopping malls and trendy bars.

Sofia this weekend was everything I expected it to be – slightly sad, slightly broken, rather beautiful, fascinating, alien and bursting with historical and cultural intrigue. The former Communist party headquarters, emblazoned with the exotic-looking Cyrillic script, brought back every photo I’d pored over as a teenager when teachers started to tell me about this exciting thing that had recently finished called the ‘Cold War’. I was only disappointed to find out that the huge red star that had once been on the building’s roof had been removed in the early nineties when people kept trying to set it on fire.

There was another reason I was here, however – the football. Soviet (and in particular post-Soviet) football, to me, seems to represent everything that fascinates me about the former Eastern Bloc countries.

During the Cold War, most Soviet countries’ main football teams were, like most other things, state controlled. This was reflected in their names, many of which – in cities like Moscow, Kiev, Prague and Sofia – retain them. The teams controlled by the secret police (first the notorious Cheka, then the KGB) were styled Dynamo, those representing the railway workers became Lokomotiv, the car industry teams were named Torpedo, while the army teams were named CSKA. Naturally, there was much more going on between the various clubs than just football – the clubs were as much organs of the state as anything else, while the consensus between football historians seems to be that football games were always seen as a place where the common man could turn up and speak as freely as was possible.

Rivalries between the heads of the various Soviet agencies were played out on the football pitch, while much of Russia’s satellite states’ populations saw their teams as their nation’s representatives in the USSR – naturally the Moscow-based clubs dominated the Soviet ‘Top League’, so when, for example, Dynamo Kiev won the championship in 1961 or, even more shockingly, little Dinamo Tbilisi of Georgia in 1964 and 1978, it was a matter of national importance – and a rare moment for the fans to feel truly separate from Russia.

After the fall of the USSR, however, things changed enormously for former-Soviet football – as it did for everything else in the Eastern Bloc counties. No longer state-controlled or funded, the past 20 years in almost every fledgling, individual league has seen teams struggle for funding, lose promising players to the big leagues of England, Italy and Spain, and, crucially, become rife with corruption while its infrastructure crumbled. Much like the nations themselves.

The two main teams in Sofia, and indeed in Bulgarian football, are Levski – named after Vasil Levski, the revolutionary who fought to free Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in the mid-nineteenth century – and CSKA, the former Soviet Army team. Both teams’ grounds are based in the huge, overgrown city park once known as Freedom Park (now Borisova Gardens), a sprawling collection of long-drained ponds, dangerous looking playgrounds and weathered busts of Bulgarian and Communist heroes.

Levski Sofia’s Vasil Levski Stadium, also the national stadium, is a relatively well-maintained 43,000-seat arena whose impressive façade faces the Soviet Army Monument and also hosts the city’s basketball club. Hidden behind it however, no more than 100 yards deeper into the park, is the Bulgarian Army Stadium (formerly the People’s Army Stadium), home of CSKA Sofia – the most successful of Bulgaria’s clubs and, as the club’s online literature would have it, historically the best-supported. You wouldn’t think it to look at the ground.

A crumbling concrete monstrosity, the Bulgarian Army Stadium holds 22,000 and can be accessed from four ancient, rusted turnstiles around each side. There is a modern entrance and an ‘official club store’ (little more than a park-keeper’s cabin), but other than that the stadium, from most angles, looks all but abandoned. Covered in the graffiti of CSKA’s many firms of hooligan ‘Ultras’, tickets cost between 2 and 8 lev – or £1 and £4. Two lev will get you access to the intimidating-sounding (not to mention characteristically Soviet) ‘Sektor G’ – the home stand of the hardcore supporters.

We were a little apprehensive, understandably, and bought the 5 lev (£2.50) medium-priced tickets – which sent us to Sektor B (pronounced ‘v’). Sektor B turned out to be 30 or so rows of bird shit and sunflower seed-covered seats (hence at the top of each stand old folks sell pieces of newspaper to sit on for a couple of stotinka each), but we were right at the edge of the pitch, and able to sit where we liked. The stand was sparsely populated, as indeed was the whole stadium for this Sunday evening Bulgarian Premier League game: while the Bulgarian Army Stadium comfortably holds 22,000 people, the average attendance for a league game is around 5,000. Sunday’s attendance, in fact, seemed like far less than this.

That’s not to say there was no atmosphere – far from it. The CSKA Ultras were out in force, filling one section of Sektor G and jumping up and down continuously, singing their hearts out and even lighting flares in the second half:

It’s hard not to compare the experience of seeing CSKA with going to a top-flight match in the UK – indeed it’s in many ways very funny to do so. I have a feeling that the fans sat around us on Sunday, smoking and constantly chewing on sunflower seeds, would express jealousy that in our league we get to watch some of the best footballers in the world, in some of the biggest and most luxurious stadia. I, on the other hand, might express my own jealousy that they get to wander into their local park and watch top-flight football for less than the price of the hot dogs they were selling outside.

The quality of the football was also, to my surprise, not as low as I had expected. Fitness levels were high and while some players looked tired – CSKA had been in Rome only three nights before for a Europa League match – it certainly was no worse than Championship football. The quality of the refereeing, on the other hand, was a little more suspect – many of the crunching tackles would certainly have warranted yellow or even red cards in the Premiership, while here there was only one card shown all game. There was also the fact that the referee blew the whistle for half time when a corner was due to be taken – to much jeering and bemused laughter from the generally jovial crowd (the biggest laugh coming when a ball floated into the ‘Sektor b’ stand, smashing one of the old plastic seats to bits).

CSKA won 1-0, and after a pleasant stroll back through the park, we were back in town in time for dinner and a couple of cheap local beers. The atmosphere at the match had been friendly, funny, exciting and entirely alien from any experience of the game I had had before. Suffice to say, I found what I was looking for in Bulgaria.

1 comment:

  1. This actually makes me want to go to a game in Bulgaria.