Sunday, 23 April 2017

CSKA Sofia v Ludogorets. 23/04/17

"This chap has just said he wants to kill terrorists and journalists. I'd keep your occupation to yourself."

CSKA Sofia 1-1 Ludogorets. Balgarska Armia Stadium.
Sunday 23/04/17
Never before had I left a game of football early due to the temperature. Not at Torquay United on New Years Day 1997 when half the Brighton support took to running laps of a car park behind the goal in an attempt to warm up. Not even at Boothferry Park, Hull on a Tuesday January evening in 1996 for a 0-0 draw. Although my mother would not have been too impressed had we have missed any of that game given she got in trouble for my truancy from school. I mean, what eight year old doesn't want to go to Hull away?

Take a bow then CSKA Sofia. Only an hour of their First Professional Football League - or Bulgarian top flight to you and me - game versus Ludogorets had passed when we decided enough was enough. The game was 0-0, neither side had done anything noteworthy in an attacking sense and Balgarska Armia Stadium was easily the coldest place on Earth at that point in time with the possible exception of the North Pole. Please note the term possible. Back to the pub it was.

Sofia sightseeing - one head...
and one church
This was our last night of three in Sofia on a stag do. It had been full of the normal sort of Eastern European stag do occurrences - lost wallets, blocked toilets and plenty of sick from the stag. They'd even been some sightseeing carried out which lasted all of about an hour. Even this was remarkable from my point of view given that I'd done virtually everything there was to do in Sofia when England visited in 2011. Which amounts to not very much.

My memories of the city from that 3-0 win under Fabio Capello largely consisted of cheap yet horrible beer, spending four days in 30 degree heat wearing jeans as I had neglected to consult a weather forecast and a distinct lack of places to drink, to the point where we had to resort to getting a beer in a fetish club run by a Janet Street Porter look-a-like.

Oli liked his Kamenitza
Scott struggled with his
Either we had not really done a very good job in exploring last time or Sofia has markedly improved in the intervening five and a half years. Central to this weekend of drinking was bul Vitosha, a long street stretching from the Sveta Nedelya cathedral towards the mountains in the distance. On this street were a plethora of bars which we were only happy to give around £1.30 for a pint to. 

One of the best pubs we found broke one of the golden of holidaying - never go to an Irish bar unless you are in Ireland. The Irish Harp was however excellent with good food, local beer and an extremely amenable barman named Boris. Boris gained instant hero status on the Friday night when he put Brighton's game at Norwich on the big screens and he came to be an extremely useful guy to talk to about Sofia. 

His strongest piece of advice came when we asked him what a game at CSKA would be like. The original plan had been for all the stag party to head to the football as a way of saying we had actually done some sort of activity rather than significantly boosting Bulgaria's GDP through sales of Zagorka. Boris was extremely unphlegmatic in his response. "CSKA are mad. If you go and watch them you will get f**king killed."

Floodlight porn at the Vasil Levski Stadium
This, along with an 8pm kick off on a rather chilly Sunday, was enough to put off eight of the party, meaning just two made it to the Buglarian Army Stadium- Oli and myself. So saying our farewells to the group - possibly for the last time if Boris was correct - we headed off.

The stadium is situated just behind the much larger Vasil Levski National Stadium in Borisova gradina, a large park about a 15 minute walk from the centre. It was simply a case of rock up, buy a ticket from a little both for £2 and drink some cans of beer with the locals outside.

Oli parts with £2 for his ticket from this excellent ticket facility

The entrance to the Bulgarian Army Stadium
Security was tight to get in. Riot police were everywhere and there were two thorough searches, one outside the turnstile and one once in the ground. If we were going to die, we wanted to do it in style and so we joined the hardcore CSKA support on the terrace behind the goal. There was no food or beer inside this section of the ground which was a shame as after climbing the steep and crumbling steps to the top of the stand it became very apparent very quickly that a beer coat would be needed given the falling temperature. 

The Bulgarian Army Stadium was the definition of typical Eastern European Stadium. Fantastic floodlights reaching high into the sky, a single tiered bowl and a running track separating pitch and supporters. It holds 22,995 supporters yet the dwindling appeal of Bulgarian football was evidence as the place was largely empty, a crowd of 4,200 being recorded officially and even this looked to be an Arsenal style fabricated attendance. Both ends were terraced with less than 100 Ludogorets fans stationed in a penned off corner at the opposite side. The main stand had the luxury of a small central roof and perhaps best of all, the teams had separate tunnels from which they entered from. That put the Army Stadium in credit even before you filtered in the quite beautiful mountain back drop.

The lovely mountain backdrop of the Army Stadium
In with the CSKA support
Bulgarian Army Stadium
We soon made friends with one CSKA fan who, on first impressions, would definitely have been considered a man who could easily have organised our Bosman free transfer to the grave. Some of his opening lines included "I am a Nazi", "Not being able to get a beer is worse than the Holocaust" and "I hate terrorists and journalists". Don't tell him your job, Scott. 

Krazovir as we Christined him was actually extremely friendly if you ignored the fact that he was clearly a raging racist and quite possibly mentally unstable. He had even heard of "Brighton Albion" and took a keen interest in the fact we had been promoted to the Premier League. He introduced us to several of his friends, taught us a number of Bulgarian phrases to hurl at the opposition and officials and even invited us for a beer "and some drugs" after. By this point 40 minutes of mind numbingly boring football had elapsed and the early signs of frostbite were already starting to show, so we politely declined and said we were thinking of leaving at half time. 
Two players tunnels = big plus marks
Bulgarian Army Stadium under lights
Krazovir understood this approach by agreeing that "Bulgarian football is s**t". His advice however was to stay until just before the hour mark, when the CSKA support would unleash their flares, fireworks and "home made bombs". You had us at flares Krazovir, let alone home made bombs.

That did however mean staying another 15 minutes in which nothing of any note occured. We hadn't gone expecting to be wildly entertained but given that Ludogorets have won the previous six titles in a row and CSKA are the most successful side in Bulgarian history, we kind of expected at least something to happen. The Bulgarian League splits in two for the final quarter of the season, with the top six playing off for the title and the bottom six battling to avoid relegation. If this was the standard of the Championship Round - and the two sides who finished third and top in the the regular camapign, no less - then Christ knows how bad the Relegation Round must be. *Adds to list for next season* 

Things did seemingly get better once we'd left if Soccerbase is anything to go by. Predictably, CSKA took the lead a matter of minutes after we'd departed through a Petrus Boumal penalty. That was cancelled out by Marcelinho's 75th minute equaliser as nothing could seperate the play off leagues top two.

The black banners signal the flares are on their way...
Imagine how warm it must've been in the middle of that...not jealous
We moved to the other side of the terrace at the start of the second half, partly to get a better look at the display and partly in the hope that the main stand may provide a wind break and with it a little less cold (it didn't). 60 minutes of play finally elapsed and right on cue, the CSKA support unfurled a huge black banner. That was followed by the terrace being turned into a wall of fire - a mightily impressive display and, if I'm honest, a pang of jealousy that we weren't in the middle of it if only for heat purposes.

Disappointingly, the home made bombs were seemingly not actual bombs
As their flares expired, the CSKA support threw them onto the running track where they smouldered and the smell of smoke filled the stadium. Krazovir was right, it had proved to be well worth staying for but finally, cold won the battle and we were retreating back to The Irish Harp.

Boris seemed genuinely surprised when we arrived back at The Irish Harp via our own two feet rather than a hearse. He wasn't surprised to hear the game had been terrible and with El Classico now on the big screens, told us we could watch some real football now. 

But give me Krazovir, pyrotechnics and CSKA Sofia over a game on television any day. The real football was at Balgarska Armia Stadium. The only thing El Classico has over it is that presumably it wasn't -30 in Madrid. So just next time we at a game in Sofia, can we have some Spanish weather please? 

CSKA Sofia: Georgi Kitanov, Stanislav Manolev, Nikolay Bodurov, Anton Nedyalkov, Bozhidar Chorbadzhiyski, Ruben Pinto, Petrus Boumal 1 (Kristiyan Malinov), Arsenio, Gustavo Culma (Kevin Koubemba), Fernando Karanga (Kevin Mercado), Kiril Despodov.

Ludogorets: Renan, Cosmin Moti, Cicinho, Jose Luis Palomino, Gustavo Campanharo, Anicet Andrianantenaina (Juninho Quixada), Wanderson (Lucas Sasha), Nathanael Pimienta, Marcelhino 1, Jonathan Cafu, Virgil Misidjan (Claudiu Keseru).

Attendance: 4,200

Sunday, 9 April 2017

FC Ingolstadt v Darmstadt 98. 09/04/17

"You know Nigel Farage, the Brexit bloke? Yeah, you look like him"

FC Ingolstadt 3-2 Darmstadt 98. Audi Sportpark.
Sunday 09/04/17
The Bundesliga has been in fashion among English football supporters for over half a decade now. Cheap prices, terraces, great atmospheres and beer while watching a game have made Germany the number one destination for football tourists.

That popularity has apparently failed to reached Ingolstadt however. There was an incredibly bemused reaction to the appearance of eight English blokes on the south terrace for Die Schanzer's huge relegation clash with Darmstadt. This was perhaps best summed up by one blokes question of "Why the **** have you come to watch Ingolstadt? We never get English people here."

Audi Sportpark. Creatively named after the local motor company
It turned out that this bloke, as well as sharing an uncanny resemblance to Nigel Farage, was actually an Ingolstadt director. As far as opening remarks in a conversation with a board member of a football club you are visiting go, "You know Nigel Farage, the Brexit bloke? Yeah, you look like him" is perhaps not the best greeting you can make. Still, the Ingolstadt fans took it all in their stride. For them at least, Brexit doesn't seem to mean Brexit. Unlucky Theresa.

But back to the main question here: Why the **** had we gone to watch Ingolstadt? We were actually on a stag do in Munich but rather than do a normal stag do activity like paintballing, go karting or something that involves exercise and grossly unhealthy stuff like that, we decided to take in a football game. A wise choice, I'm sure you will agree. 

Drinking in Munich's Englischer Garten with Dortmund and
Bayern fans on the Saturday, including Busche. We all love a bit
of busche.
Englischer Garten fun and games
Watching either 1860 or Bayern Munich play would've been the sensible choice. But 1860 were away and Bayern were hosting Borussia Dortmund so tickets were scarcer than a vegetarian Bavarian. This was great news for me, having been to the Allianz twice already to see both Munich teams, as it meant the new ground klaxon could sound. 

And that new ground ended up being Audi Sportpark. Ingolstadt is about 45 minutes north of Munich by train and so with the obligatory train beers purchased - not that they were really needed after two solid days of drinking in Munich beforehand, which included a fantastic session in the Englischer Garten with Bayern and Dortmund fans the previous afternoon - we were on our way. 

Big fine coming the way of whoever
was in Munich and yet opted to buy a pack
of Heineken for the train...
Given the lure of Munich's beer and a fantastic train timetable cock up, we only arrived in Ingolstadt 30 minutes before kick off. Thankfully, the club seemingly had the foresight to employ Sebastian Vettell as one of their shuttle bus drivers and against all the odds we made it to the out of town stadium just in time for kick off.

Audi Sportpark was built in 2010 and is your standard new German stadium; single tiered in a rectangular shape, compact and with a great atmosphere. The current version of Ingolstadt were only formed in 2004 - since then they've been on a meteoric rise through the divisions which culminated with promotion to the top flight for the first time in 2015. Seeing that when the ground opened in 2010 when they were still in the third tier, it's on the smaller side for a Bundesliga ground holding just over 15,000. Being miles out of town, there is little around but the club are clearly trying to improve that with a traditional Bavarian wooden shed having been erected outside as a pub. 

The South Terrace
On the terrace in what turned out to be blistering heat
Inside and we were with the hardcore support on the terrace. It was an interesting mixture of people and not solely the flag waving ultras you tend to find dominating that sort of section of the ground at other German clubs. In amongst those types were kids scaling the fences at the front, old blokes puffing on cigars and yes, members of the board who look like Mr Farrage. No need to worry about the trouble that can come from taking photos or being football tourists as has become the case at some venues across Germany in recent times, everyone was welcome at Ingolstadt. 

Child scales fence, not put off by giant speaker next to him
There were other elements missing that you usually associate with German football. No man with a 1980's building site bullhorn stood at the front leading the singing for example. No, Ingolstadt lead the way in the use of modern technology, giving their top boy a microphone and a set of speakers strung along the front of the terrace. Welcome to the 21st century.

Some might expect this eclectic take on fan culture to dilute the atmosphere but Audi Sportspark was rocking despite the emoty soaces. This was probably helped by the importance of the game, with both sides in very real danger of relegation to Bundesliga 2 next season. The proverbial six pointer as the season draws to a close this most definitely was.

In with the Ingolstadt massive
Wild celebrations all round as Ingolstadt pick up the win
If we were watching a side that, come the end of the season deserves to get relegated then the same should definitely be said of the referee, a Herr Manuel Grafe. He would've been better of being named Manuel Gaff given the number of mistakes that happened over the 90 minutes. Had this been in England, the famous chant about the man in black being a word that rhymes with banker would've been ringing out from all four corners of the stadium given how attrocious he was for both sides. 

Thankfully, Herr Gaffe didn't affect the quality of entertainment factor of the game which ranks as arguably the best I've seen in Germany since my last match involving Darmstadt. On that day four and a bit years ago they drew 1-1 with Alemannia Aachen in the Bundesliga 3. On this day, they were on the wrong end of a 3-2 defeat that pushes them closer to the trap door back to whence they came. Make no mistake however, it has been quite the fairytale rise for both these clubs to the top flight of German football.

As you can see, I managed to take a lot of varied photos
The game went off at breakneck speed, Ingolstadt going 1-0 up through Pascal Gross. That didn't last very long and soon it was 1-1, Darmstadt equalising via Mario Vrancic. Herr Gaffe then decided he wanted to become centre stage, awarding Darmstadt one of the worst penalty decisions I've ever seen which Vrancic converted for 2-1. Almog Cohen made it 2-2 just past the hour mark and then Markus Suttner netted what turned out to be the winner with a quite beautiful free kick. Not content with that penalty decision, Herr Gaffe decided to flash two red cards with a matter of minutes remaninging to Darmstadt's Antonio Colak and the hosts Romain Bregerie. Blimey. That made it three wins in a row for Ingolstadt for the first ever time in the Bundesliga and took them to within a point of safety. For Darmstadt and their manager Torsten Frings - the former German international of fantastic mullet fame - it looks as though Bundesliga 2 beckons for next season.

What with this being a Sunday, we were on a tight schedule to get back to Munich afterwards and so had to foresake any sort of exploration of Ingolstadt itself. This was a shame as not only does the Danube pass through it, but according to Wikipedia it is the place where Victor Frankenstein creates his monster. Rather less excitingly, it is also home to Audi which explains the sponsorship deal behind the stadium. There was just time for a look around the club shop - given the apparent lack of foreign visitors, were we the first ever English supporters to buy Ingolstadt scarves - and to grab a selfie with the mascot Shanzi. We had no idea what Shanzi was meant to be so any answers on a postcard please.

Any ideas what this thing is meant to be?
Once back in Munich, we toasted our new found friends at Ingolstadt's hopeful escape from relegation by turning a Chinese restaurant into a karaoke bar until 3am. If English supporters rocking up at Audi Sportpark seemed bizarre to Mr Farage, Lord knows what he'd have made of them then singing Taylor Swift songs in-between plates of lemon duck. `

FC Ingolstadt: Martin Hansen, Romain Bregerie, Markus Suttner 1, Marcel Tisserand, Marvin Matip, Roger (Alfredo Morales), Pascal Gross 1, Sonny Kittel (Lukas Hinterseer), Almog Cohen 1, Matthew Leckie, Dario Lezcano (Anthony Jung).

Darmstadt 98: Michael Esser, Aytac Sulu, Sandro Sirigu, Immanuel Hohn, Fabian Holland, Mario Vrancic 2 (Leon Guwara), Markus Steinhofer, Hamit Altintop, Wilson Kamavuaka (Sven Shipplock), Antonio Colak, Felix Platte (Jan Rosenthal).

Attendance: 14,081