Bluestripes in Bulgaria

Vi har fått en reseberättelse skickad till oss av vår Engelske vän Liam från Levski away i somras. Texten är publicerad i ett Tranmere Rovers-fanzine, och ämnad för engelska läsare i första hand. Men likväl intressant och kul läsning för oss. Håll till godo och Cheers to Liam för texten.

Bluestripes in Bulgaria: Levski Sofia v. Djurgardens IF

By Tranmere fan and European football follower Liam Scarth

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 20.53.46In October 2015 I travelled to Sofia, Bulgaria to watch a friendly fixture between Levski Sofia, and my Swedish team, Djurgardens IF (DIF). It was more than just a friendly however, the game marked a significant anniversary for one of Bulgaria’s most prominent football clubs, a moment to celebrate Levski’s 50th anniversary of playing on the European stage. On October 3rd, 1965, the two clubs had met for the second-leg of a European Cup fixture. Fifty years and seven days later, at the exact same venue – the Vasil Levski National Stadium – the game was played again. However, in those decades between the two fixtures, Levski, Bulgaria as a nation, as well as the football environs at the foot of Mount Vitosha, have faced significant adversities. Levski’s story would be profoundly affected by rule of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP), as well as the inevitable transition struggle for one of the poorest European Union members. For the DIF faithful, it was a welcomed Euro awayday. Albeit only a commemorative exhibition, the game marked the eleventh DIF excursion into territories that once were, east of the iron curtain. Playing previously in Poland, the then socialist state of Yugoslavia, the Republic of Serbia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, and of course Bulgaria.

Writer Jonathan Wilson, who wrote the fantastic book Behind The Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football, argued that in the wake of 1945, ‘Bulgaria’s architects seem to have opted to make their capital (Sofia) as functional and as ugly as possible’. Indeed, that was very close to the impression I got, as my taxi from the airport edged ever closer to the heart of Sofia. Pathetic fallacy may have played a part, with non-stop rain all weekend, however I couldn’t help but feel many of the narratives within the mainstream media, regarding contemporary Bulgaria, were fairly justifiable. Gaining EU accession in 2004, and full membership in 2007 – only attained after 4 reactors were shut down at the aging Kozloduy Nuclear Plant – Bulgaria has reportedly been beset with organised crime and corruption influencing results at the ballot box, through illicit business. To such extent, Germany and France threatened to stop the Schengen migration agreement if the Bulgarian authorities did not clamp down on internal organised crime.

Part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of the 19th century, nationalist sentiment on the terraces of Sofia’s clubs today are perhaps a yearning for more simple times of transparent, and grounded politics. Levski’s name, in honour of Vasil Levski who was hanged by the Ottomans in 1873, a prominent member of the resistance movement which eventually overturned Ottoman rule, epitomises nationalist fervour that has once again taken hold. Unfortunately however, like most post-communist nations today, nationalist ideals fall victim to discriminative extremes. And in the context of Sofia, with a population of 56,000 Roma gypsies a mere 3 miles outside the city, in the Fakueta district, divisive lines within society are becoming depressingly more distinct. Interestingly, in an interview with the Express, linguist Naruana Hill observed that, ‘in Soviet days, it was a matter of pride to integrate Roma gypsies within society’. Implying incompetency within the current government itself. Prejudices toward minorities, just as they riddle the hardcore factions of clubs in post-communist Moscow, Kiev and Bucharest, are largely identifiable for factions of Sofia’s football fans as well. If I failed to spot the celtic cross white power graffiti adorning a wall approaching the Vasil Levski National Stadium (not actually Levki’s home, that being the Georgi Asparuhov stadium), I would soon notice the Nazi SS Totenkopf skulls on the scarfs of some Levski supporters. I fervently object to it, naturally, but I’m not one to see no reason in why Bulgarians of my age, entering a tough, unforgiving world – even tougher for a developing EU nation – turn to hate fuelled polarised ideologies.

Levski Sofia’s most active area of the stadium during home games is ‘Sektor B’, with Ultras Levski at the heart of the sector, orchestrating chanting as well as monumental pyrotechnic shows. Levski’s contemporary colours, logos and supporter organisation insignias are more cemented than ever, however, that has not always been the case. Founded by students in 1914 as Sport Club Levski, it was clear that when communism took hold of the eastern Balkan peninsula, post-WWII, a club named after a man who is remembered in both moderate and far-right nationalist folklore, would inevitably be treated with suspicion. Thus, in line with the Stalinization of all aspects of life within the USSR, Levski were renamed as Dinamo Sofia in 1949. Under ten years later, after the thaw of Stalinization initiated by Khrushchev’s famous 1957 speech, Dinamo was scrapped and Levski was reverted. But not for too long. From 1969 until 1985, Levski’s fans had to make do with supporting a team known as, Levski-Spartak – a happy medium between the heritage of the club, and communist ideals, once again, shaping sport. A chaotic Bulgarian cup final, versus fierce rivals CSKA Sofia – representing the Bulgarian army – would be the next reason Levski would be stripped of their original name. Now part of a conspiracy theory, against the clubs progression amongst some Levski circles, despite CSKA facing the same punishment for the player violence incidents of the 1985 cup final. A conspiracy that also includes the death of Levski player Georgi Asparuhov in 1971, which despite being an accidental car crash, some Levski fans speculate it was orchestrated covertly by the communist government to weaken their team. As part of the harsh discipline measures put in place by the communist government, to quell such violence displayed in the 1985 final, Levski then became Vitosha Sofia. No longer named after a nationalist hero, instead the mountain that overlooks the city. The clubs name until the fall of the USSR.

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Vasil Levski mural

For Levski supporters, similar to their 100th anniversary fixture versus SS Lazio – linked by fan friendship, the commemorative fixture versus Djurgarden was a chance to celebrate the strength of the clubs original identity. Which despite numerous hardships and oppression, is now stronger than ever. Travelling from the UK with a UK based Swedish Djurgarden fan, we met up with the other travelling Swedes in a side street bar, prior to being escorted by the militaristic appearing Bulgarian police. The money paid for tickets and match programmes, according to DIF’s SLO, went towards Levski’s current grass roots projects, helping to build astro-turf football pitches in deprived suburbs of Sofia. An extremely worthy cause. Which will hopefully help prevent the isolation of Sofia’s youth – who through such helplessness, often turn to crime or far-right activities.

The bar was full with a good number of DIF’s hardcore who had made the trip east, predominately Ultra Caos Stockholm (UCS), who had travelled as a group via Belgrade. Speaking to others, I soon learned a smaller group of DIF lads (in a group, if I remember correctly, named after Sweden’s version of Buckfast, Caprice Kir) had flew to Skopje, Macedonia and then travelled four hours in a taxi. An adventure, I suppose you could say. Some of the ultras looked sprightly, looking forward to the march to the stadium, others were catching some sleep on benches; clearly nursing hangovers. Hangovers that had soon vanished, once the call of ‘schizophrenia’ from one ultra, prompted a pretend brawl – a favourite in DIF’s supporter scene, so much so that there is even a banner to show it. Aware of the unpredictability of Levski’s fans, who on the day were actually extremely hospitable, the Bulgarian police, equipped with a jeep to guide the escort, were guarding the bar. As the march of DIF’s travelling fans reached the road bending past the stadium gates, Levski’s fans gave us a standing ovation – fitting in with the spirit of the day. After the brief shelter for the escorted horde from the down pour, during the security checks, DIF’s away sector soon took shape; banners draped, ultras assembled, stickers progressively splattered on every given surface. Just in time for Levski’s ginormous pre-match tifo, two banners draped by ultras sitting on the main stand roof, fighting the adverse weather conditions, depicting Levski’s 1965 squad. Wearing the iconic strip, royal blue shorts and socks, with a sky blue jersey – fittingly, the same kit Levski wore on the day. As with all stadiums with running tracks, I find that if the action on the pitch isn’t very gripping, all sorts can catch your eye on the spongy red perimeter. DIF’s various supporter liaison, media and management staff strolled around, taking in the unique experience. As well as extremely eccentric teenage stewards, who despite the job description they were obviously briefed with, videoed pyro, clapped in unison with Sektor B and gazed in amazement as DIF went through the song book.

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Chaos in Sektor B

Amidst the firemen, first aid staff, crazy stewards and DIF staff, I noticed two guys walking towards our section during the half-time break, with a sizeable blue bin bag. Of course, in line with the festivities of the day, two of Levski’s ultras had strolled, at free reign, the entire length of the running track to ensure UCS were stocked up on pyro for the second-half pyroshow. And what a show it was. On about 50 minutes, the balaclavas were handed out, the pyro was distributed. With a bang and spread of smoke from Sektor B, the DIF ultras, now spread out across the entire section, fired up the red flares. Mirroring, albeit not in proportion or in colour, the smoke that was bulging from every orifice of Levski’s terrace. Although the large majority of Levski supporters were eager to welcome us, showing interest in DIF’s supporter culture, on the side stand some Levski fans thought it was wise to unveil a Hammarby flag. The oddball hipster team of Stockholm, well supported by Sweden’s agricultural populace; for those reading that are in the dark with regards to Swedish football knowledge. Needless to say, some members of UCS were pretty riled and soon began to mount the segregation, however, they were soon brought to reason by DIF’s liaison staff. Despite their failed efforts, the Hammarby flag, unbeknown how to me, ended up ripped to shreds and partly burnt on the away end fence. The only place it belonged on the day.

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In good company: the travelling DIF horde

With so many festivities taking place in and around the stadium, the outcome of the game itself really didn’t have any great significance – although it was clear that the Levski players were going hell for leather, to gain a respectable score line. Which eventually was a 2-2 draw, a much more evenly fought match compared to Levski’s 6-0 victory against DIF in the original fixture, at the Vasil Levski stadium. The DIF players applauded the away block after the final whistle, which by this stage was also occupied by a crazy grey haired Levski fan repeatedly asking the nearest possible Swede, to join him for a run on the pitch. Despite his failed efforts, he did manage to ‘videobomb’ himself – so to speak – onto the footage of DIF-TV, whilst midfielder Kevin Walker was being interviewed. Certainly an unforgettable character. After UCS had their group photo behind their various banners, the DIF fans headed back to the warm and dry of Sofia’s bars. Raising a glass at long last to, at long last, an awayday in Europe. An unforgettable experience, and an important day for Levski Sofia and their partisan supporters, who’ve continually stayed resilient through their illustrious, yet turbulent history.

 

 

 

 

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