I am freezing. I can feel my feet swimming in the water that has collected in my shoes, I can feel them wrinkling with each passing minute in the dampness. The snow is falling harder now and the grounds crew seem to be losing the fight against mother nature. A group of Levski ultras stream onto the field directing obscene gestures at their rivals, the CSKA Sofia fans gathered together behind the opposite goal. I grip my plastic glass of tea—the color of urine—a little tighter and take a sip, curious as to what will unfold. It’s like a raindrop in the ocean, a small bit of warmth in the freezing air—it is two degrees Celsius.
On the overnight bus to Sofia I had read an article by a British journalist for the Guardian entitled “Never been in a riot? Get yourself out to a Sofia derby”. I’ve been in a few riots, but my curiosity was piqued nonetheless. Piqued enough, indeed, to be sopping wet in the middle of a snowstorm on the terraces of the Vasil Levski National Stadium on grey day in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. So, as I wait for the fans to slowly file in and take their places behind the goals, how about a little history?
The eternal derby is Bulgaria’s biggest football match without a doubt, pitting the two most successful Bulgarian clubs and local rivals Levski Sofia and CSKA Sofia against one another in a battle for territorial and political bragging rights. The two clubs have won 26 and 31 Bulgarian titles and 25 and 19 Bulgarian cup titles, respectively. The start of it all goes back to 1948, when CSKA were founded and won the title in their first season. The rivalry was cemented when both teams met in successive seasons—1949 and 1950—in the finals of the Soviet Army Cup, the Bulgarian Cup during the years of communist rule from 1945 to 1990.
Levski Sofia (The Blues or The Team of the People) were founded 100 years ago on May 24 1914 (For a more detailed history please see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PFC_Levski_Sofia), named after Bulgarian national hero and freedom fighter Vasil Levski. During the years after their foundation Levski became Bulgaria’s most popular team, winning many national titles as well as becoming the first semi-professional team in Bulgaria in 1929. After winning 5 national titles between 1946 and 1953 the team went into decline and were re-named “Dinamo” in line with Stalinization in 1949 (they reverted to Levski in 1957 which coincided with a return to success). In 1969 politics again intervened, when the team was put under the control of the Interior Ministry and re-named “Levski-Spartak”. During these years the team made three quarterfinal appearances in European cup competitions, and still stands as the only team to have scored five goals against Barcelona in European competition (A UEFA Cup Quarterfinal match in 1976 that ended 5-4 to Nevski).
The roots of CSKA Sofia (The Reds or The Armymen) date back to 1923 and an Army Officer’s Club, when the club was named AS-23 (Officer’s Sports Club Athletic Slava 1923) (For a more detailed history please see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PFC_CSKA_Sofia). After undergoing many mergers the team was officially formed on May 5 1948 when (then named Chavdar) it became the departmental club of the Central House of the Troops. CSKA were officially an “Army team”, like CSKA Moscow and Steaua Bucharest among others. This patronage from the Army paid off and the team won 9 successive titles between 1954 and 1962, before taking the present name of “CSKA” in 1962. Like Levski, the 1970s saw much success for CSKA in Europe—including eliminating three time champions Ajax Amsterdam from the European Cup in the 1973-74 competition. CSKA also saw success in the 1980s, making it to the semi finals of the European cup in 1981-82 after eliminating Liverpool before losing out to Bayern Munich. It is still the deepest run by a Bulgarian side in Europe.
But the sunny days in Europe that both sides saw in the 1970s and early 1980s would end abruptly in 1985, when the histories of both clubs changed after an infamous installation of the Eternal Derby. On June 18 1985 the two teams met in the Bulgarian Cup Final in the same Vasil Levski Stadium that am currently freezing in. CSKA won that match 2-1, but several fights—on and off the pitch—marred the match including a full on brawl. Afterwards the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party disbanded both teams and reformed them with new names and new management. Levski’s 1985 title was suspended and the team renamed Vitosha; CSKA became Sredets. Many players—including the famous Hristo Stoitchkov—were banned for life. But, like so much in Bulgaria and in life, nothing lasts forever. The suspensions were rescinded and both teams eventually returned in 1989/90; Levski regained their name and CSKA became independent of the Army following the fall of communism in 1992.
As I freeze, I can’t help but wonder if it would have been better if both teams had disappeared into history and spared me the need to see them play. But then the choreographies by both sets of fans as the opening whistle nears reminds me why I watch football. It’s the pageantry, the politics, and the history that brings me out to odd grounds in odder places, and the sight of the ultras who huddle together in the snow for warmth seems to warm me by osmosis. The CSKA end turns red as they lift red flags above themselves, unfolding a banner of a football made into a heart. The Levski ultras, not to be out done, lift blue, white, and yellow flags above themselves and reveal a banner with the chilling image of the grim reaper, eyes blazing orange by way of two well-placed flares.
With the snow cleared the teams finally take the field under a barrage of snowballs thrown by the fans below me (they had perfected their aim by taking pot-shots at the police as the field was being cleared). In fact, their aim was so good that one snowball apparently knocked out CSKA coach Stoycho Mladenov a few minutes into the match. It’s so ridiculous that I understand if you don’t believe me, just check out the Reuters story and NBC Sports’ piece–the aftermath is below.
Levski have the upper hand in the first fifteen minutes bolstered by their fans and CSKA’s distraction following their coach’s “injury”, and even go close with a few chances on the icy pitch but it soon becomes clear that CSKA is just weathering the initial storm. CSKA begin to string some attacks together that test the Levski backs and on the 22nd minute they finally find their goal, courtesy of Guinea-Bissau born winger (and former Chelsea and Liverpool youth team member) Toni Brito Silva. His celebration, running directly to the Levski fans below me, does exactly what it was intended to do—goad the home fans into embarrassing themselves and their club. Immediately monkey howls come down from all around me in an unfortunate racist response. But I’m not surprised, given the latest antics of Levski’s fans.
In their last match they mocked UEFA’s famous “Say No to Racism” campaign by unfurling a banner that said . . . “Say Yes to Racism”. The punishment was, predictably, a mere slap on the wrist as the Bulgarian FA fined the club 19,000 Levs—about 13,000 dollars. For me, beyond the conventional outrage, it is the pure hypocrisy of some Levski ultras in partaking in the overtly racist displays that offends me.
As discussed earlier, Levski Sofia take their name from national hero Vasil Levski. While he was fighting against Ottoman Turkish rule, he took his theories from the ideas of the French Revolution. Even a cursory look at his Wikipedia page (I don’t have my Bulgarian history literature handy at the moment) will show you his thoughts on Balkan ethnicities living together:
“We will be free in complete liberty where the Bulgarian lives: in Bulgaria, Thrace, Macedonia; people of whatever ethnicity live in this heaven of ours, they will be equal in rights to the Bulgarian in everything. We will have a flag that says, ‘Pure and sacred republic’… It is time, by a single deed, to achieve what our French brothers have been seeking…”
“We’re not driving away the Turkish people nor their faith, but the emperor and his laws (in a word, the Turkish government), which has been ruling not only us, but the Turk himself in a barbarian way.”
When a team takes the name from a thinker like this it only makes their fan’s racist behavior—in a stadium bearing that same thinker’s name—more disappointing . . .
I’m back among the monkey chants and anti-Israel flags (along with Lazio Roma flags, interestingly), freezing still, realizing that Levski have an uphill battle in front of them. On the stroke of half time CSKA add their second courtesy of young Romanian striker Sergiu Bus to make it 0-2, sending Levski to the locker room reeling and me into the cover of the stadium “café” for another cup of urine colored tea (this time a double portion in a beer cup).
The second half starts with a Pyro show from the visitors, along with message to their team to not let up: EAT SLEEP CSKA REPEAT. Even I can understand that one, and play pauses for a few minutes and I wait in the cold, waiting for the smoke to settle.
As play resumes, it is the Levski Ultras’ turn—they send out an array of flares, in their team’s colors, which the wind blows back in their faces. But it is a beautiful show nonetheless, complete with a Confederate flag.
With the fans distracted and the match heading south the police take the chance to line up in front of the stands, sensing that things could get rough. I have the same feeling and resign myself to leaving with ten minutes to play. I want to see the end, but the result—on and off the field—seems certain and I don’t want to be caught up in post match excitement like in Stockholm.
My prescience pays off—a pitch invasion was prevented following CSKA’s third goal in the 85th minute when I was safely walking back to my hotel, far from the police, stadium crowds, 55 arrests, and confiscated weapons. In the end, CSKA take the three points with a 0-3 victory and go seven points clear at the top of the Bulgarian A PFG after thirteen rounds. Levski are left in sixth place, eleven points off the pace—karma, no doubt.
For a look at my Levski and CSKA shirts please see the Bulgaria section under Football Shirts.
For video of the match and some interesting interviews from Ultras from both sides please see Ultras World on Youtube: