"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.|
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|
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).