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Bulgarian Derby Daze Part 2: The Battle for Plovdiv: Lokomotiv Plovdiv-Botev Plovdiv 10.28.2014

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Before the excitement of the Eternal Derby can wear off I take the two and a half hour train journey from Sofia to Plovdiv for the first leg of a Bulgarian Cup quarterfinal tie and Bulgaria’s second biggest derby, The Battle for Plovdiv. As I watch the snow-covered countryside roll by me from the dirty window of the train’s last wagon, I know this is just the calm before the storm and that keeps me from being lulled to sleep by the beauty.

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In Plovdiv I head to the Old Plovdiv Hostel, a nice building in the old city with a friendly staff (one of whom has a keychain in the shape of a Botev shirt) that give me the run down on how to get a match ticket. Apparently the tickets could be sold out but, as the receptionist says, “If I use charm and looks I can find a ticket. My friend—very good looking—charmed the girl in the ticket office and she liked him so she found him a ticket.”

“Do you think . . . my face will work?” I ask smiling.

“Just comb your hair I think,” she says, returning the smile. I make a mental note of it and hope for the best as I head out, down St. Petersburg street to the Lauta Stadion, but not before catching the Botev faans drinking en masse on a side street under the watchful eyes of riot police.

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Lokomotiv Plovdiv (The Smurfs) were formed in 1926 as Sportclub Plovdiv after the merger of two Plovdiv teams Karadzha and Atletik (For more detailed history please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PFC_Lokomotiv_Plovdiv). Sportclub soon fell victim to Sovietization policies and consumed smaller ethnic clubs like Erevan and Shant (Armenian teams) and Parchevich (a Catholic club). This forced assimilation in sport changed Sportclub’s name to Slavia Plovdiv in 1945 when it became bigger as a result of the mergers, and eventually made it a founding member of the Bulgarian top flight in 1948.

Meanwhile, in a parallel history to Sportclub, the union of railway workers got a team in 1935—ZSK Plovdiv—and gradually became a force in Plovdiv’s footballing scene. ZSK soon became Lokomotiv Plovdiv after Sovietization, joining the ranks of other Eastern bloc teams such as Lokomotiv Sofia, Lokomotiv Moscow, and Lokomotiv Leipzig. But they were still mired in the third division.

That changed in 1949, when the Bulgarian Communist Party decreed that sports clubs would serve as fitness departments of important state enterprises such as the police, army, and railways. This was the same time that Levski Sofia became Dinamo Sofia in line with Stalinization. With politics now intertwined with sports, the smallest club in the city—Lokomotiv—were merged with the largest club—Slavia—by virtue of Lokomotiv being a team supporting a state enterprise, in this case the national railways, to become Torpedo Plovdiv. The chaos of the mergers took its toll, and Torpedo was relegated in 1955. It would take until 1961 for the club to return to Bulgaria’s top flight, but when it returned it would be finally known as Lokomotiv; the end of Stalinaztion meant that clubs no longer had to be related to specific state enterprises.

1964-65 saw the team make its best run in Europe, a run to the quarter-finals of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (the former UEFA cup), which was the beginning of a rise in the club’s fortunes domestically before a second relegation in 1980 While the team has been decidedly average on the field since then (despite a rare championship in 2012), it is notable that their fans were the first to organize in Bulgaria, founding an official fan club in 1988. The political regime at the time was not favorable to independent civil society organizations then, but it is still a good example of a football club being able to challenge a totalitarian state system.

On the other side of the derby is Botev Plovdiv (The Canaries), the oldest continuously functioning football club in Bulgaria, founded by students in 1912. The club takes its name from another Bulgarian national hero, Hristo Botev. Like Vasil Levski, Botev was also a nationalist revolutionary leader in addition to being a famous poet. After Levski’s death he led the 1876 April Uprising against Ottoman forces, returning from exile in Romania before being killed in battle.

Like other teams in Bulgarian football, Botev’s name was changed in 1947 due to Sovietization and endured a nine year period of being known by various acronyms (DNV, DNA, and SKNA) before a return to their original name at the end of Stalinization in 1957. The team again lost their name, which evoked the pre-communist period, from 1968 until the fall of communism when the team was known as Trakia Plovdiv.

The first of their two titles was won in 1929, four years after their first international match against Fenerbahce of Istanbul. They were part of the brand new Bulgarian A PFG in 1951 before suffering relegation in 1953. They returned the next season, and five years later their current Hristo Botev Stadium was completed. This paved the way to their first Bulgarian Cup title (1962), a second championship (1967), a second place finish (1963), and a run to the quarterfinals of the 1962-63 Cup Winners Cup, eliminating Shamrock Rovers and Steaua Bucharest before bowing out to Atletico Madrid.

The 1980s saw the team endure its best decade when they secured six top three finishes—despite not winning any championships—before again falling into mediocrity and ultimately collapsing four years ago. After 47 seasons in the top flight Botev were relegated at the end of the 2000-01 season. Although returning to the top flight the team was never a force, and in February 2010 the team was relegated due to financial problems. Luckliy for this derby, however, the team bounced back. Despite having started the 2010-11 season in the third division, an experienced squad managed 37 wins and one draw out of 38 matches which took them to the second tier before a return to the top flight in 2012-2013 when they finished fourth.

 

Outside the Lauta Stadium I am met with riot police, as is to be expected. This means that beer will not be an option tonight. I buy my ticket from the first ticket booth I see, to the left of the entrance gate. I later learn that tickets sold there are only for the uncovered stand, where the Lokomotiv fan groups such as Lauta Army and Lauta Hooligans congregate. For a more relaxed viewing experience get your tickets in the booth on the right side of the fan shop, along the foot path that leads to the covered stand—that is where tickets for the covered stand are sold.

The sky is a beautiful light grey as the sun sets in Plovdiv above the players preparing to take the field. I’m staring at some comical pictures of Botev coach Velislav Vutsov that are being given out to the fans and I’m left wondering what on earth they mean. Beyond me Lokomotiv’s fans make a choreography that, apparently, is for the club’s 88th anniversary. After the show, its time for football.

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The game is a back and forth affair with not a lot of quality. It is clear that Botev are the stronger side, but Lokomotiv are holding their own with their fans behind them. Every five minutes or so the fans in front of me heckle their rival’s coach, hurling insults at him that I wish I could understand—after all, the goat picture is still making me laugh. On the stroke of half time Lokomotiv’s veteran captain and four-time A PFG scoring champion Martin Kamburov takes a free kick beautifully, putting his side up 1-0.

 

The second half starts just as the first half started: beautiful girls in the stands and me eating sunflower seeds, huddling for warmth in the falling temperatures.

“WHHHHOOOOOOOOOOOSHHHHHHH……POT POT POT POT POT POT!!!!!!!!”

I’m immediately taken out of my daze as missiles are fired from behind the goal to my left, sending bright red fireworks into the night sky over the stadium. The Lokomotiv stand opposite me is ablaze, and I can see now why the ultras waited for night to fall to put on their show. Gradually the red dots in the sky begin to fall slowly, almost suspended in the air, like snow drops. Small parachutes open up and the red flares slowly drop onto the field. Even the players are no longer concentrating on the match—they’re all staring into the sky!

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After a short delay while the players pick the parachutes out of the sky play resumes—lucky for me, this derby will not be stopped like others in the past. Now it is Botev’s turn to light their flares. Their end, bathed in black and gold (the colors chosen to symbolize unity between orthadox and catholic students, respectively) now turns to orange.

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It is their final attempt to push their team on, and as the final whistle nears I decide to stay—I won’t leave early like in Sofia. I feel something—call it intuition—but I just get an odd feeling that something will happen. The minutes are ticking down, and the fourth official raises his sign—five minutes are added on.

 

Attacks go closer and closer for Botev and I think I know what will happen. A corner is sent in, the ball is knocked out for another corner. A great save by the Lokomotiv keeper keeps the narrow lead. Then another corner—and 1-1. Young striker and Bulgarian U21 international Alexander Kolev (http://www.transfermarkt.com/alexander-kolev/profil/spieler/239527) has equalized in 90+3. I knew it had to happen. Silence. Just the Botev players running to their fans—it is almost surreal. I follow the disappointed fans out into the night, the team to advance to the semi-finals of the Bulgarian Cup will be decided in December’s return leg. They are in a daze from the shock goal, I’m in a daze from two derbies in four days.

 

For those who are curious (like me) I have also included a poem by the aforementioned Hristo Botev:

To My First Love

Hristo Botev

Leave behind this song of love,

Don’t fill my heart with poison –

I am young but never knew what youth is.

And even if I knew, I don’t want to remember,

That, which I have hated

And which I have trampled before you.

 

Forget the time I cried

For your gentle glance and sigh:

I was a slave back then – dragging chains,

And for just one smile of yours,

Frenzied, I despised the world

And trampled my feelings in the mud!

 

Forget about the madness,

The warmth of love is now extinguished

And you can’t rekindle it in my chest,

Which is overcome by deep sorrow,

Where everything is covered with wounds,

And my heart of evil is shrouded with loathing.

 

You have a beautiful voice – you’re young,

But do you hear the forest singing?

Do you hear the destitute crying?

That’s the voice my soul craves for,

And there is the place that is calling for my wounded heart,

Where it is always drenched in blood.

 

O, don’t speak those words of poison.

Hear the moan of the forest and foliage,

Hear the wailing of centuries old storms,

How they tell word by word –

Tales of old times,

And songs of tribulations to come!

 

Start singing this song,

Start singing, young love, with sorrow,

Sing about the brother who sold his brother,

And how strength and youth wither,

How a lonesome widow cries,

And how homeless children suffer.

 

Sing, or hush and leave!

My heart is trembling – it will fly away,

It will fly away, my love – wake up!

There, where the land is rumbling and thundering

From shrieks that are chilling and evil,

And songs of epiphany over graves…

 

There… there the storm cracks branches,

And the sword enfolds them in a wreath;

The ghastly valleys are agape

Where grains of lead are screeching,

There death wears a gentle smile,

And the chilled grave offers sweet rest!

 

Ah, these songs and this smile,

whose voice will start singing?

While I am lifting a bloody glass,

Before which even love is silent,

And then, I will start singing myself

About what I love, what I long for and what I hold dear.

 

Translated by:

© Yana Raycheva

 

ДО МОЕТО ПЪРВО ЛИБЕ

Остави таз песен любовна,

не вливай ми в сърце отрова –

млад съм аз, но младост не помня,

пък и да помня, не ровя

туй, що съм ази намразил

и пред тебе с крака погазил.

 

Забрави туй време, га плачех

за поглед мил и за въздишка:

роб бях тогаз – вериги влачех,

та за една твоя усмивка,

безумен аз светът презирах

и чувства си в калта увирах!

 

Забрави ти онез полуди,

в тез гърди веч любов не грее

и не можеш я ти събуди

там, де скръб дълбока владее,

де сичко е с рани покрито

и сърце зло в злоба обвито!

 

Ти имаш глас чуден – млада си,

но чуйш ли как пее гората?

Чуйш ли как плачат сиромаси?

За тоз глас ми копней душата,

и там тегли сърце ранено,

там, де е се с кърви облено!

 

О, махни тез думи отровни!

Чуй как стене гора и шума,

чуй как ечат бури вековни,

как нареждат дума по дума –

приказки за стари времена

и песни за нови теглила!

 

Запей и ти песен такава,

запей ми, девойко, на жалост,

запей как брат брата продава,

как гинат сили и младост,

как плаче сиротна вдовица

и как теглят без дом дечица!

 

Запей, или млъкни, махни се!

Сърце ми веч трепти – ще хвръкне,

ще хвръкне, изгоро, – свести се!

Там, де земя гърми и тътне

от викове страшни и злобни

и предсмъртни песни надгробни…

 

Там… там буря кърши клонове,

а сабля ги свива на венец;

зинали са страшни долове

и пищи в тях зърно от свинец,

и смъртта й там мила усмивка,

а хладен гроб сладка почивка!

 

Ах, тез песни и таз усмивка

кой глас ще ми викне, запее?

Кървава да вдигна напивка,

от коя и любов немее,

пък тогаз и сам ще запея

що любя и за що милея!…

Bulgarian Derby Daze Part 1: The Eternal Derby: Levski Sofia-CSKA Sofia 10.25.2014

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

 

Stadion Georgi Asparuhov/Gerena, Sofia, Bulgaria – PFC Levski Sofia – PFC Lokomotiv Sofia Matchday (3-0)

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A blast from the past. Below are a few pictures from the first soccer match (and derby) outside of Turkey that I ever attended. It was a good introduction to what would become my passion, a contest between Sofia’s main side Levski and one of the city’s secondary teams, Lokomotiv at the Georgi Asparuhov Stadium. The disparity in stature between the teams played out on the field as well with Levski winning comfortably, 3-0. This stadium is currently undergoing some renovations and has had its capacity reduced to 18,000, but I am fairly certain that at the time of this match its capacity was closer to 30,000. Interestingly enough, this stadium holds the record attendance for a Bulgarian “A” PFG match at 60,000 fans. How that many entered is beyond me, but I’m sure it was a torrid time. While Levski usually tend to play their European home matches at the National Stadium, the Vasil Levski, this stadium is not so obsolete–Sting played a concert here in 2011.

Since this match is over seven years old at this point I don’t have a write up for it, but I do have a short piece I wrote for an undergraduate travel writing course at the University of Colorado regarding the shirt I was able to get, which is also posted in the Football shirts category. The writing is below, followed by a few match day photos.

 

We had tried everything. We had been to the team store before the game, but the lady had shooed us away, without so much as an explanation. We had been to the team store after the game, but this time not even the woman was there. Determined not to give up, I went back into the stadium just as everyone was clearing out. The late autumn sun was setting over Sofia, and it looked like that same sun was going to set on my little adventure to find a Bulgarian soccer shirt. Soon my friend Jill and I were left in the stadium, with only the television crews still cleaning up wiring. We walked down to the gate through which we had entered, but it was locked. We walked up to the stand and continued down the stairs, and out onto the playing surface. No one, it seemed, wanted to acknowledge our presence. It was as if we were foreign ghosts. We drifted onto the field and into the stadium towards the locker rooms, aimlessly. Soon, a man came out and ushered us out.

“No, only team,” He said in accented English.

“But, shirt, shirt!” I pleaded, tugging at my shirt.

“No English, out,” the man said, ushering us back out of the tunnel and he pointed up, towards where we had come, and the television booth. We thanked the man and walked to where he had pointed, to a rickety fire escape that was to be, theoretically, used by the television crews in the event of any unfortunate situations, which were never too far away from any soccer match in Eastern Europe.

We traversed down the fire escape and found ourselves outside, in the parking lot, in the midst of a sea of media. Players were being interviewed, and I was still tugging at my shirt, desperate to find someone who spoke English to whom I might direct my query. A kind old man saw my desperation and, quietly, took my arm leading me to yet another person. Despite not knowing any English, he knew exactly what I was looking for. Was this an example of Balkan bureaucracy I wondered, inherited from the Ottoman and Soviet Empires who were both former overlords of the grand city of Sofia? The old man led me to, what I recognized at least, was the press attaché, and said a few words in Bulgarian to the man.

“So, you want a Levski shirt?” asked the attaché.

“Yes, if that is possible,” I told him, explaining that I had looked all over the city and had been to the store at the stadium twice, both before and after the game.

“Why is it so hard to find a soccer shirt?” I asked him, finally.

“Because,” he paused, “This is Bulgaria”. We both laughed, and he called his brother to open the store. Within five minutes, I had experienced the kindness of the Bulgarian people and succeeded in what had only moments ago seemed impossible.

 

A sparsely attended derby:

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The Levski Ultras:

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The (at that point) newly installed scoreboard, complete with the Levski logo–the Cyrllic “L”:

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The (male) fans nervous for their side:

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The police sense a disturbance:

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Just some Ultras lighting flares, another day at a Eastern European ground:

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The sun sets on another derby day:

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