FBTG is travelling back in time to look at our maiden Balkan Adventure in Sofia, Bulgaria. Two of us were in town when CSKA Sofia played against Beroe, full name PFC Beroe Stara Zagora, at the Balgarska Armia Stadium.
All teams with the prefix “CSKA” or similar share something in common. These are the teams of the armies of former communist countries. In communist times, teams were not sponsored by private corporations (understandably), rather by nationally owned entities. Often armies, the police or secret service, metal works, transport unions, chemical works and other nationalised trades would be the companies “sponsoring” the teams, with the club and its players effectively representing the public entity in question. In reality, communist Football leagues were often staged managed. The governments were keen to demonstrate the strength and discipline of the regime and Football teams affiliated to central institutions like the military or the police force were something accessible to subject peoples that could be manipulated for this measure. As such, communist governments often made sure that the teams (often purposefully located in capital cities) that were sponsored by either the army or secret police were the ones to win the trophies. Now I don’t actually know much history about pre-1990 Bulgarian Football, but it is not surprising to know that CSKA Sofia is Bulgaria’s most successful club.
We arrived a few hours before kick-off and had a walk around the ground. We got to the club shop to buy tickets, and behind the counter were a few skinhead giants, clearly CSKA fans. Sector B seats for around 10€ a pop put us in the middle of the field, so that’s what we opted for. On the way out, something caught our eye. At the main club shop, the Ultras had covered the exterior paneling with stickers. But it was the content of the stickers that was the most alarming.
Celtic crosses, swastikas and fascist imagery, “Yes To Racism”, antisemitic slogans. We couldn’t help but stare open-mouthed. This was the official club shop, the first point of call for merchandise, club shirts, scarves and tickets, clearly left to operate by the club’s Ultras and hooligans. This speaks volumes about the nature of the relationship between Bulgarian Football clubs and fans. From Boothferry To Germany is not the first to write about this, but the Football clubs and the entire domestic Football industry in poorer, Eastern European countries depend financially much more on the Ultras and hooligans than their counterparts in for example England are. Could you imagine anything close to this scenario happening in the UK? Bulgarian Football clubs know that if they were to crack down on this behaviour, they would ostracise the only major source of income they have. That would result in the bankruptcy of many Bulgarian clubs and the death of the Bulgarian Football leagues. Instead, Football clubs simply have to be much more tolerant and lenient toward extreme behaviour by the fans. Now, we at FBTG are huge fans of fanaticism and Ultra culture, but international webs of Ultras and fanatics are largely critical of the atmosphere in UK grounds and the behaviour of British fans. The Greeks, Poles, Bulgarians, Russians etc making the criticism are conveniently ignoring the different systems of crime and punishment between the UK and their domestic countries. Their behaviour is not dealt with in anywhere near the same way as it is in the UK. Thus, Ultras in these countries have much more freedom to fight and use pyrotechnics than Brits, because they are much more likely to get away with it. Their criticism isn’t fully justified.
As the surrounding area began to fill with fans, we tried to by beer from a kiosk, seeing many others do so. Our tourist-level Bulgarian clearly wasn’t striking a chord with the woman serving, and eventually an English-speaker approached us to ask what the problem was. We gave him our order instead, but he proceeded to try and claim that beer was legally not permitted in the area on match-day.
“Mate, look, that guy has just bought 2 for himself” pointing at the customer before us in the line, now walking away.
“No I’m sorry, because there is a Football game today, they are not allowed to be selling beer now”. We decided, rather than try push our luck and call bullshit, to find a bar or similar down by the main road. As we left, there were distinct laughs behind us.
We had our drinks and came back for the game. Having literally got off a train hours earlier, we still had full backpacks. Body search was a farce. The security staff at the entrance to our sector took one look and visibly sighed. We were patted down and the boys took a very superficial look in the bags before letting us through, somewhat thankfully, as I’m sure the kitchen knife stashed deep down would’ve received a reaction from them. The game kicks off, with the Ultras curve to our right, the travelling Beroe fans to our left. They maybe brought between 100 and 200 in number, and although they sang throughout, they were nothing compared to the CSKA fans. On occasions, the chanting of the Beroe fans was clearly offensive, as fans around us would whistle and boo in their direction.
Campeones! Campeones! Campeones CSKA!!
The level of Football was low and scrappy, the game finishing 0-0. But the CSKA curve was really rocking. Dusk crept in and they treated us to a spectacular pyro show, which was greeted with applause from the fans in our sector. The game finished, the Beroe fans and players alike were celebrating. Clearly a point and a clean sheet at the Balgarska Armia Stadium was a big deal. But what happened next was something we have never witnessed in a Football stadium. The CSKA capo was freely allowed to walk onto the pitch and he forced the CSKA 11 to sit in directly in front of the curve. The CSKA fans collectively then spent 10 minutes targeting the team, sat defenselessly before them, with a tirade of insults and jeering. The noise was phenomenal, but equally intimidating. Being a player for one of these clubs must be very humbling. To know that the Ultras have the power to come onto the pitch and coerce you to sit whilst thousands others spit and hiss and berate you. A true adventure down in the Balkans.