A Tale of One City: Sofia

A Tale of One City: Sofia

It’s a warm afternoon in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria. Emerging from the metro station, an enveloping heat surrounds me as I take in the scattering of tables selling an eclectic mix of cold drinks, national flags and scarves. Despite this seeming normality, however, there is also an air of tension in the April air.

Across the road sits a steel-plated truck, armed with a water cannon and surrounded by a dozen uniformed officers. A stone’s throw away is the Vasil Levski Stadium, host in a few hours’ time to a football match between CSKA Sofia and their bitter rivals Levski.

Despite the recent domination of unfashionable Ludogorets, who are on course to secure their seventh successive title, the Sofia giants are undoubtedly the two biggest clubs in Bulgaria. CSKA hold the record number of titles at 31, while Levski are the only side to have never been relegated from the top flight. The country’s great footballing names such as Dimitar Berbatov, Hristo Stoichkov and Stiliyan Petrov have all played for CSKA. Levski boast their own icons in the form of Emil Spasov and Nasko Sirakov.

Levski are the older of the two clubs, founded in 1914 and named after revolutionary national hero Vasil Levski. CSKA officially came into being some 34 years later, created as a sports club for the army. The derby itself has its roots from a time when Bulgaria was under communist rule, with CSKA accused of being favoured by the regime, particularly during their run of nine consecutive titles between 1954 and 1962.

Predictably violence is commonplace, with the match held at the national stadium in order to assist police and limit damage to either ground by away fans. The 1985 cup final between the sides descended into a mass brawl between the players, resulting in both clubs being temporarily disbanded and life bans handed to several players, including Stoichkov. Meanwhile, in 2000, a 30-year-old man was killed by a bomb during disturbances in the city centre.

It’s these sorts of stories that attract foreigners such as myself to the derby, with the perceived atmosphere making it a must on any football bucket list. Most of the blame for such violence is attributed to ultra groups, both of which are unmistakably nationalistic.

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Prior to travelling to Sofia I’d been warned it was a stupid idea, and started to wish I’d listened to such advice during our first encounter with either club. Strolling the short distance across Borisova Gradina Park to CSKA’s stadium in search of tickets, we encounter countless graffiti of swastikas alongside pro-fascism and pro-racism stickers.

Outside the main concourse, we were approached by a heavily tattooed, shaven-headed figure. Dressed all in black with an ultras t-shirt on, he spoke little English, posing an intimidating figure that served to put me even more on edge. “No. Not here. No tickets. Now go”. With my friend James being black, whether or not this was an issue of race or a genuine misunderstanding is up for debate.

According to the European Commision and written in The Independent, Bulgaria is cited as one of the most racist nations in Europe, and football is sadly never far from this. Both clubs regularly encounter punishment for their fans’ behaviour, with banners in the past mocking UEFA’s Say No To Racism campaign and celebrating Adolf Hitler’s birthday.

Despite the startling regularity with which racism occurs, it is worth noting that despite this and the signs we saw, neither of my friends received any direct form of abuse during our time at the match or in Bulgaria.

Having eventually secured tickets from a booth outside the Vasil Levski stadium, we decide to arrive just before kick-off. On our search for tickets, even the police appeared sceptical, with one officer warning us: “Be extremely careful, it can get very violent”. Upon disembarking from the metro, the normal suburban scene that greeted us just hours before had vanished. The sights and sounds of a European capital had been replaced by the audible hatred of the Eternal Derby.

The presence on the ground was now concrete. Police tape and metal barriers turn the streets surrounding the ground into a maze of narrow channels. The car park outside the stadium is full of vehicles bearing the Жандармерия writing of the Gendarmerie. On approach to the stadium we pause to take photos, however we were quickly stopped by a policeman who seizes our phones and forces us to delete them. Meanwhile, several officers use batons to subdue a man outside the stadium’s security fences, and a thorough search is required prior to being allowed through this into the outer concourse.

Original Series  |  A World of Ultras

By the time we managed to get in, the clock was on about 20 minutes, with CSKA having raced into a two-goal lead courtesy of a penalty from Fernando Karanga and curling strike by Henrique. The stadium is disproportionately empty considering the din outside, however the spectacle in the stands is worth the 15 Lev – approximately £6.50 – entry. Our seats meant we were closer to the ultras of CSKA, and naturally being on top in the match meant they were in fine voice.

A drab first half was brought to a close without any real incidents of note, and overall the quality of football was low. As a testament to the sport being a game of two halves, though, the second period included everything you would expect from a derby. From kick-off Levski looked far more dangerous, with January signing Paulinho and former Manchester United winger Gabriel Obertan running the show.

A goal back was quickly found through Ivan Goranov, heading in Miloš Cvetković’s cross, with Levski posing far more of a threat. In response, the CSKA fans alight a line of flares in an attempt to spur on their team. It is a truly captivating sight, although Paulinho equalises for Levski shortly after. With proceedings now level on the pitch, it is over to the fans to gain the upper hand for their team.

Shortly after equalising, a homemade explosive is thrown by the Levski ultras in the direction of the CSKA fans. It lands by one of the lines of officers adorning the stairs to prevent a surge from either set of supporters. The resulting explosion is reported to have lodged glass into the face of a policewoman. Immediately after, an ambulance surges along the running track to the site incident, quickly escorting the officer out of the stadium.

With tensions rapidly rising in the stands, and both teams going in search of a winner, the violence spills over onto the pitch in the 83rd minute. Levski striker Sergiu Buș looks to usher the ball out of play, although in doing so is whacked in the heels by CSKA’s Geferson. Falling theatrically to the floor, Buș then gets up and pushes the Brazilian to the ground, presumably in retaliation to something he said.

Both players receive their marching orders, and for Geferson this is an unexacting task. Buș, however, doesn’t have it so easy, requiring a ring of riot police raising their shields to get off the pitch. Bottles and seats are aimed in the direction of the Romanian as he leaves, while a group of CSKA fans bang furiously on the tunnel’s Perspex roof and walls.

Original Series  |  A Tale of One City

The match ends in a draw, a result that leaves CSKA eight points behind Ludogorets and seemingly hands the Razgrad outfit the title once again. Exiting the stadium was surprisingly easy, with the waves of police and Gendarmerie trucks used to funnel fans back into the city.

With the ultras kept in the stadium approximately half an hour after the final whistle, there were no reports of significant violence outside the ground. A possible cause of this is the frequency of recent derbies, with this the fourth fixture in under two months, which could have served to neutralise the excitement.

The following day we returned to the Army Stadium in search of souvenirs, however once again ran into the same confronting ultra, prowling the gates of the ground like a pit bull. He approached us, pointing at my friend’s blue top. Despite explaining it was not Levski and actually Enfield Town, a club in English football’s seventh tier, we were told that we’re not welcome and were forced to leave.

Being unable to find the official club shop, we resorted to the unofficial ultra-run version. Inside the walls are various t-shirts, although I was after a sticker to add to the collection I have on the back of my laptop. Handed a bundle to sift through, about halfway in I encounter a series of swastikas with the club name around, and quickly hand them back.

While there is no official link to the club, the store being located less than 100 metres from the stadium’s entrance, coupled with the graffiti, raises serious questions. CSKA must know such things exist, yet seem happy to continuously turn a blind eye to it.

This is a problem by no means restricted to the old army team. As mentioned, Levski fans have also delivered their fair share of racism, and we spotted swastika graffiti across town at their Georgi Asparuhov stadium. It seems such sights are the norm in Bulgarian football – in Sofia at least – and unfortunately no amount of UEFA disciplinary action looks set to change that. As a man told us at Sofia airport on the way home: “In Bulgaria we do not stick to the rules.”

By James Kelly  @jkell403

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