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Attendance Figures in the Last Matches of 2017 Reveal a Struggle Between Competing Visions for Turkish Society

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Attendance figures for the penultimate week of the first half of the 2017-2018 Turkish Super League varied greatly, and—according to data cited by Hurriyet—the the total attendance (minus season-ticket holders) of 72,453 paying fans for the 16th week fixtures represented the single biggest week of attendance in the Turkish Super League since the contraversial Passolig system was implemented. The previous record came in the 6th week of the 2017-18 season, when 55,248 fans purchased tickets. This means that the average attendance for the 16th week’s nine matches was almost 15,000 fans; a total of 130,920 fans (including season-ticket holders) attended the matches making for an average attendance of 14,546 fans league wide. While this is certainly an encouraging figure, showing that fans are still willing to attend matches despite the draconian form of social control that the Passolig system entails, a closer look at the individual attendance figures will show that the struggle for cultural hegemony is still ongoing in Turkish football.

As I noted above, attendance figures varied greatly. The highest attendance—33,027 fans—was seen for the match between traditional giants Fenerbahce and bottom-placed Kardemir Karabukspor. The lowest attendance was for the match between strugglers Genclerbirligi and Kasimpasaspor—the team from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neighborhood—which saw just 1,599 fans in attendance. The discrepancy here should not be surprising; the traditional giants of Turkish football—Besiktas, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahce—traditionally maintain high attendance figures. The “invented” teams, on the other hand—like Kasimpasaspor—and traditional minor teams that face financial struggles—like Genclerbirligi, founded in 1923—struggle to maintain high attendance figures. This trend was clearly visible in the 17th week, the final week of fixtures in the Turkish Super League’s first half.

According to date from Ajansspor.com, the traditional sides attracted a healthy number of fans. The contest between Galatasaray and Goztepe in Istanbul saw 45,809 fans in attendance, the match between Atiker Konyaspor and Fenerbahce attracted 20,458 fans in Konya, while Besiktas drew 16,173 fans (filling 87% of the stadium) when they visited Sivasspor. These strong attendance figures show that the traditional powers of Turkish football are still able to attract fans regardless of where they play. Unfortunately, these high attendance figures only tell half of the story. In fact, when we look at other teams, it is clear that local teams—as well as “invented’ teams—fail to draw fans.

The “derby” between teams from two neighboring provinces on the Turkish Riviera, Antalyaspor and Alanyaspor, attracted just 11,785 fans. Antalyaspor’s new stadium—built by the government—was 54% empty in what should have been a hotly contested derby. And while Antalya failed to fill their stadium they still attracted over 10,000 fans, because they actually have fans (the team has played in the top flight of Turkish football for the better part of the last three decades), other teams were not so lucky. Contrast the attendance in Antalya with the attendance for the match between Kasimpasaspor and Basaksehirspor. Normally a city derby—between two neighborhood teams—would draw a large crowd. Especially when one of the teams involved, Basaksehirspor, is topping the table. Yet, in a city of over 15 million people, only 2,265 Istanbullu fans attended the Istanbul “derby”. It is in this match that one can see just how “invented” Istanbul’s new teams are; neither of them have fans or any real football culture. That one of the teams in question should be topping the table—yet not even draw 3,000 fans in a city with a population of 15 million—is absurd to say the least.

 

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Last Week In Istanbul I Caught a Glimpse of the Recep Tayyip Erdogan Stadium During Kasimpasaspor’s Match With Istanbul Basaksehir. The Two Invented Teams Failed To Fill the Stadium in What Should be a Local “Derby”. Image Courtesy Of The Author.

 

Yet this was not the only absurdity of the final week of the first half of the 2017-2018 season, since there was an even lower attendance! In the match between Osmanlispor (Ottoman Sports Club) and Akhisar Belediyespor; Ajansspor reported an attendance of 199 (!) but their figure may have been generous since Oda TV reported an attendance of 181. Regardless what the true figure is, that a top flight match in a football crazed country like Turkey should attract less than one thousand fans is embarrassing to say the least. The reasons for such a low attendance figure, however, can be traced back to politics.

Both Istanbul Basaksehirspor and Osmanlispor [Ankara] are “invented” teams, so to speak; both were invented by the ruling AKP government to provide alternatives to the teams that currently hold a hegemonic position in Turkish football (Besiktas, Fenerbahce, Galatasaray in Istanbul; Genclerbirligi and Ankaragucu in Ankara). Due to their lack of any “real” fan base (fostered out of a neighborhood or class identity in the manner of many European clubs), these artificially created teams struggle to attract fans. Osmanlispor’s struggles have been compounded by a power struggle within the Turkish political establishment. When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan forced out the mayor of Ankara, Melih Gokcek, on 28 October 2017 it meant that Osmanlispor had lost a major benefactor. Mr. Gokcek’s 23-year long reign in Ankara coincided with a lot of social engineering in the form of urban development (the odd structures he built in Ankara have become legendary; among them were a dinosaur and a giant robot–the latter got him sued by the Turkish Chamber of Architects and Engineers for wasting taxpayer money on . . . a robot statue in a traffic island).

 

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The Fact That I am Even Typing the Phrase “A Giant Robot on a Traffic Island” is Certainly Absurd–But Perhaps Not as Absurd as the Fact that Hard-Earned Taxpayer Money Was Spent on This Monstrosity; It is the Ultimate Insult to Ankara’s Working Class. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/turkish-mayor-sued-over-giant-transformer-robot-statue-10169516.html

 

But giant robot statues were not the only thing that Mr. Gokcek spent taxpayer money on. He also spent money on getting Osmanlispor’s previous incarnation—Ankara Buyuksehir Belediyespor (the municipality’s team) promoted to the top flight of Turkish football. After a conflict of interest (as Mr. Gokcek took over ownership of one of Ankara’s oldest teams, Ankaragucu), Ankara Buyuksehir Belediyespor became Ankaraspor and ultimately Osmanlispor (the neo-Ottoman undertones should be unmistakable here; it is a topic I have written about before). Mr. Gokcek even spent time sending municipal employees to Osmanlispor games in a bid to boost their attendance figures. Now that new mayor Mustafa Tuna is in office however, the municipal employees are no longer going to the stadium, which explains the low attendance figures for Osmanlispor’s final home match before the Turkish Super League’s winter break. Ankaragucu fans delighted in the development, of course, joking on Twitter that more than 200 people watch the municipality’s backhoes during construction.

 

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Ankaragucu Fans Amuse Themselves on Social Media With the Apalling Emptiness of Osmanlispor’s Stadium. Images Courtesy Of: https://odatv.com/osmanli-yikildi-2712171200.html

 

While it is refreshing that this corrupt politician’s meddling in the sports world is finally coming to light, it remains to be seen if the attempted social engineering of Turkish society through sport can be reversed. Istanbul Basaksehir is currently leading the Turkish Super League at the halfway point despite being unable to make it out of a weak UEFA Europa League group consisting of Hoffenheim, Sporting Braga, and Ludogorets Razgrad, suggesting that the team’s success is purely domestic. Also, not only is Istanbul Basaksehir the team with the highest rate of successful completed passes in the Turkish Super League, it is also the team which has committed the least amount of fouls this year. These observations suggest that while Istanbul Basaksehirspor are certainly a good side, they might also be getting by with a little help from the (Turkish) referees as well. Time will tell just how far this particular social engineering project will go, since there can be no doubt that the failure of the Osmanlispor project will have repercussions in Turkish football going forward.

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Anderson Stadium at Providence College: New England Revolution-Rochester Raging Rhinos (3-0)

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Almost a month ago I attended a U.S. Open Cup match at Providence College’s Anderson Stadium between the MLS’ New England Revolution and the second-tier USL’s Rochester Raging Rhinos. Among the almost two thousand spectators cramming a college stadium on an early summer afternoon I could not help but realize that—in some small way—this match served as an allegory for wider U.S. society amidst its current polarization. It was a David Vs. Goliath match, with a much richer MLS side facing off against a second division opponent (realistically, the outcome was never in doubt). Since the result was so predictable, I turned my attention to the fans—the most sociological aspect of a soccer match.

 

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Early Summer In Providence. Images Courtesy Of M.L.

 

The U.S. Open Cup is one of the most storied cup competitions in the world, even if it takes place in a country that does not value football. This year there have even been a few Cinderella stories, like the amateur side Christos FC. Given the history of this cup competition, one that is over one hundred years old, the fans had come out in full force for one of the few matches that the New England Revolution have ever played in Providence, Rhode Island.

The “hardcore” fans, on the other side of the field from where I stood, were vocal in their support while also advertising their increased politicization (a subject I have written about in the past). Some fans were waving a rainbow variation of the “Flag of New England”, an interesting meshing of Revolutionary War America and current LGBT movements, while on my side a priest (likely from the Catholic Providence College) was taking in the match. In that moment, I wondered if the LGBT activist/fans on the other side of the field—and the Catholic priest on my side—had ever had a conversation with one another. The likely answer is that they have not, and that the two should watch the match from opposite sidelines was an allegory for some of the issues we see these days in the polarized climate of the United States. If people holding opposing points of view do not even speak with one another, then how can they empathize with one another?

 

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Soccer Brings All Walks Of Life Together. Images Courtesy Of M.L.

 

This lack of communication, of course, is not specific to the United States; it exists throughout the global “West”. We believe in the myth of globalization bringing us closer together by cutting down the cost and time of communication; in reality society is just as fragmented as ever—people at a dinner table prefer interacting with their phones to interacting with their fellow diners. In Europe—and to an extent in the United States—the idea is that “pluralism” will bring a more diverse society and thus bring us closer together. This myth has been debunked by the ghettoization of non-whites in the United States and Muslims in Europe; just because “different” people are made to live in separate areas does not make a society more “diverse”, it just means that the disparate parts of society are not actually talking to one another; they are in fact drifting apart, rather than coming together.

This kind of situation—where communication between different social groups is discouraged—fosters a society where individuals are not able to make the connection between personal troubles and societal issues that C. Wright Mills once explained. The only way to make such sociological connections is through communication, something that is sorely lacking in the technocratic world of the modern-day West. As I watched the sunset over Providence behind one of the goals I thought about something my dentist had told me, when I said I was studying Turkish soccer: she asked me if “I was afraid to go there because it is dangerous”…clearly, she had not communicated with anyone from outside of her bubble. It is not, of course, completely her fault. But it is a characteristic of the individualistic society that has taken root in Western cultures.

 

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Sunset Over Providence. Image Courtesy Of M.L.

 

In order to actually get to know others, we must—as I have argued before—first travel. Former U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel makes some great points along these lines in an article he wrote for The Players’ Tribune, when he describes playing for Galatasaray in Istanbul (I have bolded the pertinent parts):

 

For one thing, on the pitch it was just an incredible game. It was quick and intense and it pushed me as a keeper. We won the Turkish Cup that year and qualified for Champions League. Off the field, it was absolutely phenomenal. For a kid from Bay Village, Ohio, to go and live in a Muslim country was an eye-opening experience.

 Which brings me to the sheep.

 We were walking to a game right after Ramadan was over, and the fans were holding a sheep. On a list of things you don’t expect to see on the soccer grounds, I’m pretty sure a live sheep would be somewhere near the top, but there it was. I had no idea what was about to happen, while the rest of my teammates couldn’t have been less fazed. There was a lot of yelling and then the fans just slit the sheep’s throat — right there in front of us. Blood everywhere. They dipped their hands in it, and swiped it on their forehead as a sign of good luck. Then they asked us to do the same.

 This wasn’t something that most Americans would consider normal, but it was absolutely brilliant to be a part of. I had teammates who, during Ramadan, had to fast during daylight hours even as professional athletes. We’d be at training and a call to prayer would go off and certain players who were very religious would stop their training, go pray and come back to the pitch. Once you learn that that’s how things work, it’s not a big deal, but in the U.S. you can go through your whole life in a little bubble. But when you live in these places, you find out that these people are very good human beings. It was incredible. It was understanding other cultures. It was a phenomenal thing to see.

 

Friedel goes on to explain, “I had two choices: Learn Turkish or don’t understand a word that anybody was saying. So three days a week, I took Turkish lessons”. Mr. Friedel should be commended for his willingness to communicate with—and assimilate into—a culture that was so different than his own. It is a lesson that all of us—whether football fans or not—would do well to heed. There are a lot of perspectives out there, the only way we can begin to understand them is by communicating with those who we might—at first—not think we have anything in common with.

 

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Brad Friedel Appearing for the United States National Team. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.theplayerstribune.com/2016-6-26-brad-friedel-soccer-copa-america/

 

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Brad Friedel (R) In Turkey (Please Note the Classic Adidas Shirt Designs). Image Courtesy Of: https://onedio.com/haber/galatasaraylilarin-duygulanarak-bakacagi-nostalji-goruntuler-512738

Capital City Blues: Cebeci Inönü Stadyumu, Ankara, Turkey (Ankara Demirspor); Ankara Demirspor-Anadolu Uskudarspor (0-2) BONUS: Ankara Demirspor Home Shirt 2012-13

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Walking down Ankara’s Dikmen Boulevard you know you are in a capital city. The drab blocks of government buildings go on for as far as the eye can see. The General Directorate of the Police. The Finance Ministry. The Coast Guard. The Department of Navy. (The Irony of the last two being located in a land locked city in central Anatolia not withstanding). The Parliament. The Prime Minister’s Residence. The State Water Management. The Highway Department. Its all here. I shudder at the thought of the red tape that must line the hallways of those drab buildings as I walk on towards Kizilay Square, the center of life in the capital.

I walk on down the streets in the shadows of the state apparatus to the Cebeci Inonu Stadium. Built in 1967 it was Ankara’s first large stadium and, with a capacity of 37,000, it is surprisingly Turkey’s sixth biggest. Of course, I would later learn that at least half of that capacity is unusable due to urban decay—but the facts are the facts, according to the Turkish Football Federation.

Crossing from the Cankaya into Cebeci district it feels like a time warp. Even the Uludag Gazoz signs on the coffee houses remind me of a bygone Turkey, the Turkey I grew up in.

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The stadium is a forlorn sight rising into the blue sky ahead of me as I delicately traverse the crumbling steps. It looks like a bomb exploded somewhere nearby and I’m unsure of what to expect as I walk beneath the rusting sign that reads “Inonu Stadyumu”. I pay my three Lira for a ticket at a booth that makes me feel like I’m visiting a prison. Once I’m through the obligatory pat down I’m in the stands along with another 17 souls (I counted) on a clear Monday afternoon. I head to the top of the stands and look out at the dilapidated sections of Ankara spreading out below me. All sections of life must live in those apartments, who knows what kinds of marriages and childhoods are being lived? I shudder at the thoughts and turn to back my seat in order to stand at attention for the National Anthem. Its lyrics echo through the emptiness, it feels like a funeral.

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As the match kicks off I can the players yelling instructions to one another, its like I’m on the field. “Come back back BACK!” yells the Ankara Demirspor goalkeeper trying to keep his defense focused. It is no use, and just three minutes in Cagatay Ceken puts the visitors up 0-1. The stands are silent and all the noise comes from the home team’s bench as the irate Ankara Demirspor coach attempts to rush the field, held back by his assistants. The choice words he has for the referee echo through the stadium and up to me but the goal will not be disallowed.

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After the first ten minutes a few more fans trickle in, including a small group of young kids who could only be playing hookey for this rare weekday afternoon fixture. With nothing much to watch on the pitch I turn my attention to the moss growing out of the concrete stands, thinking to myself that it must be a rare species.

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At half time I head down to the gates for a water but, alas, there is no café. In fact, there is just a gate with a few security guards who look bored out of their minds. I ask for water and the female shrugs.

“Its outside, but I can get you some. It costs a Lira”.

I hand her the coin between the metal bars and she returns, handing me a plastic cup. As I drink it down eagerly, I watch a fellow fan pass some money through the bars for a simit, a sesame covered bagel. I think that this is what prison must feel like.

“There is no system like this,” says the male security guard looking at me.

“There is no stadium like this,” is my reply and we both laugh.

 

Indeed there is not be. Even the concourses feel like a prison, despite the sunlight flowing through. I take the halftime break to explore the innards of the stadium—the chipped paint tells me that this stadium’s days are numbered. I’m just glad to have gotten the chance to visit another place that will soon fall victim to the urban renewal sweeping Turkey, such demolition and construction serve as ready sources of income for a government looking for investment to keep the economy going.

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The second half witnesses a few more fans in the stands, taking the total to just over 70 (again, I counted). Sadly the extra support fails to jump-start the Ankara Demirspor players who seem to be stuck in third gear—it is surprising, since the team is currently in the playoff spots. Ankara Demirspor pay for their inability to turn the screw and Uskudar Anadolu add a second goal in the 74th minute through Seyit Ali Akgul. Down by two goals the fans know that there will be no return and decide to spend their energy berating the team—what else can they do?

After the final whistle I head to the player’s exit in order to inquire about an Ankara Demirspor shirt. As one of Turkey’s most famous teams (they were founding members of Turkish football’s top tier for its first season in 1958-59). I felt like it would be a necessary addition to the collection, and I make an appointment to meet one of the team’s officials the next morning at the Ankara Demirspor grounds.

 

As befitting such an historic team, Ankara Demirspor’s history is fascinating. There are two interesting Turkish Language websites that outline the histories of all of Turkey’s various “Demirspors”: http://www.kentvedemiryolu.com/icerik.php?id=301 and http://demirsporlar.blogspot.com.tr. My thanks to Mr. Yavuz Yildirim and the blogger Mustava for their valuable insights, some of which I will translate for English language readers below:

Ankara Demirspor were founded in 1930, but at that time there were already a few Demirspors in Turkey. Such teams are, of course, the teams of the railways. In many ways they are similar to the eastern European railway teams such as Lokomotiv Moscow, Lokomotiv Sofia, Lokomotiv Plovdiv, Locomotive Tblisi, CFR Cluj (Romania), and Zeljeznicar Sarajevo to name a few. As Yavuz Yildirim notes, the such Demirspors were a critical way of tying the country together after the founding of the new republic in 1923 since they connected the industrial strength of an emerging country to the cultural aspect of a sports club becoming a symbol of the country’s modernization. Generally, these clubs were formed in major cities along the rail network according to the 26th element of the Youth and Sports General Directorate law numbered 3289 (it is still in effect today) which states “factories and foundations with more than 500 officers or workers must make sports facilities and hire a coach for the physical education of their personnel.” (“memur ve işçi sayısı 500’den fazla olan kuruluşlar ve fabrikalar, öncelikle kendi personeline beden eğitimi ve spor yaptırmak için spor tesisleri yapmaya ve antrenör tutmaya mecburdurlar.”). The reason for such a law was simple: To keep the country’s youth fit in order to preform national guard duties in interwar period of instability—in many ways this is similar to the rationale in the former Soviet Union for the formation of Lokomotiv, Torpedo, Dynamo, and CSKA teams which were all tied to important industries and entities critical to the state (Please see my article on the history of Lokomotiv Plovdiv for more on this).

According to Yavuz Yildirim’s piece there were (in 2007) 38 Demirspors throughout Turkey. The same article claims that in 1942 the following Demirspors were in operation: Haydarpaşa, Derince, İzmit, Bilecik; Ankara, Irmak, Çankırı, Karabük, Çatalağzı, Zonguldak; Balıkesir, Bandırma, Soma, Tavşanlı, Kütahya; Kayseri, Sivas, Zile; Samsun, Çetinkaya, Divrik, Yerköy; Malatya, Diyarbakır, Maden; Adana, Fevzipaşa, Mersin, İskenderun, Ulukışla, Afyon, Konya , Uşak; İzmir, Manisa, Alaşehir, Nazilli, Çamlık; Denizli, Dinar; Sirkeci, Edirne; Erzurum; Sarıkamış, Erzincan; Eskişehir; Mudanya; Edremit. Alongside these cities various other Demirspors are in operation currently, such as Kars Demirspor and Kocaeli Demirspor—they all play in the amateur leagues of their respective provinces. Of the Demirspors, only Ankara Demirspor and their famous cousin—Adana Demirspor—are in the professional leagues.

 

On Tuesday morning I am at the Ankara Demirspor grounds before lunch. A sign advertising the team’s wedding packages greets me. Who (other than maybe me) would want to get married at a soccer team’s grounds by the Ankara Region train depot is beyond me but, I suppose, some people have interesting tastes. Since I won’t be getting married any time soon, I hope they find people to fill the reservations as I walk on past the train repair yard trying to avoid a couple stray dogs that are looking a bit too menacing.

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Inside the offices I meet the team’s personnel manager for a tea and am presented with an amazing Ankara Demirspor shirt. The TCDD (Turkish Republic State Railways) sponsor is fitting, along with a rear sponsor from the Ulastirma Bakanligi (Ministry of Transportation). The colors are striking and top off a truly amazing shirt. I send my unending thanks to all the folks at Ankara Demirspor for the tea and the shirt, truly Turkish hospitality at its best.

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Yusuf Ziya Öniş Stadium, Sarıyer, Istanbul, Turkey — (Sarıyer): Sarıyer-Beşiktaş (0-4) Matchday

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A few more photos from the Sarıyer-Beşiktaş Ziraat Turkish Cup Group Stage match at the Yusuf Ziya Öniş Stadium:

 

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Beylerbeyi 75. Yil, Beylerbeyi, Istanbul, Turkey — (Beylerbeyispor SK and Anadolu Üsküdarspor): Anadolu Üsküdarspor-Beylerbeyispor (0-1) Matchday

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Despite not being on the same level as Besiktas’s Inonu Stadium or Fulham FC’s Craven Cottage, the Beylerbeyi 75. Yil is still a beautifully situated stadium. Despite its current dilapidated state, it is clear that with a little bit of a make over the 75. Yil could become a fairly decent ground. The all-seater (which is missing more than a few seats) has a capacity of 5500. For anyone looking to get away from the urban sprawl in Istanbul for a few hours a trip to the Beylerbeyi 75. Yil to see a match, followed up by a fish meal on the Bosphorus, makes a good afternoon trip. The stadium is right off the Bosphorus bridge, following the “Welcome to Asia” sign. It is about a 15 minute walk from the Boğaziçi Köprüsü Metrobus stop, or a similar 15-20 minute ride via dolmuş from Üsküdar’s port–the stadium is a five minute walk inland from Beylerbeyi’s center. Here are a few more pictures from the derby between Anadolu Üsküdarspor and Beylerbeyispor.

 

Stadion Lokomotiv/Lauta, Plovdiv, Bulgaria – (PFC Lokomotiv Plovdiv): Lokomotiv Plovdiv-Botev Plovdiv (1-1) Matchday

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Some more pictures of the Plovdiv derby in the Bulgarian Cup quarterfinals. For more information on the stadium please see my Stadion Lokomotiv/Lauta pictures posted earlier, taken during a visit before renovations were completed.

 

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Vasil Levski National Stadium, Sofia, Bulgaria–(Bulgarian National Team): Levski Sofia-CSKA Sofia (0-3) Matchday

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Some more shots of a snow covered Vasil Levski National Stadium taken during the Eternal Derby between Levski Sofia and CSKA Sofia. Bulgaria’s national stadium hosts international matches, UEFA Champion’s League matches, and the Bulgarian Cup Finals with its capacity of 43,230. As is fitting for a National Stadium it is also very easy to access, located in Sofia’s oldest park, the beautiful green Borisova Gradina, in central Sofia near CSKA’s Balgarska Armia Stadium. Construction on the Vasil Levski National Stadium was completed in 1953 after the demolition of two former stadiums on the territory–Levski Sofia’s Levski Field and Yunak Stadium. After the destruction of Levski Field the team was given land outside of the city center where they constructed the Georgi Asparuhov. Since then the stadium as seen a few large scale renovations, most recently in 2002. This year, Ludogorets Razgrad–a team with few fans that have come out of nowhere to appear in the 2014 UEFA Champions League–are playing their European matches here (41,000 came out to see them face Real Madrid). The images are interesting in that they follow the course of events–from snow covered pitch, to cleared pitch, to the fans building up in numbers, to the developments of both teams’ choreos. Also, the way the snow rests on the branches of the trees behind the stands is purely beautiful.

 

 

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