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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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Bulgarian Derby Daze Part 1: The Eternal Derby: Levski Sofia-CSKA Sofia 10.25.2014

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I am freezing. I can feel my feet swimming in the water that has collected in my shoes, I can feel them wrinkling with each passing minute in the dampness. The snow is falling harder now and the grounds crew seem to be losing the fight against mother nature. A group of Levski ultras stream onto the field directing obscene gestures at their rivals, the CSKA Sofia fans gathered together behind the opposite goal. I grip my plastic glass of tea—the color of urine—a little tighter and take a sip, curious as to what will unfold. It’s like a raindrop in the ocean, a small bit of warmth in the freezing air—it is two degrees Celsius.

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On the overnight bus to Sofia I had read an article by a British journalist for the Guardian entitled “Never been in a riot? Get yourself out to a Sofia derby”. I’ve been in a few riots, but my curiosity was piqued nonetheless. Piqued enough, indeed, to be sopping wet in the middle of a snowstorm on the terraces of the Vasil Levski National Stadium on grey day in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. So, as I wait for the fans to slowly file in and take their places behind the goals, how about a little history?

 

The eternal derby is Bulgaria’s biggest football match without a doubt, pitting the two most successful Bulgarian clubs and local rivals Levski Sofia and CSKA Sofia against one another in a battle for territorial and political bragging rights. The two clubs have won 26 and 31 Bulgarian titles and 25 and 19 Bulgarian cup titles, respectively. The start of it all goes back to 1948, when CSKA were founded and won the title in their first season. The rivalry was cemented when both teams met in successive seasons—1949 and 1950—in the finals of the Soviet Army Cup, the Bulgarian Cup during the years of communist rule from 1945 to 1990.

Levski Sofia (The Blues or The Team of the People) were founded 100 years ago on May 24 1914 (For a more detailed history please see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PFC_Levski_Sofia), named after Bulgarian national hero and freedom fighter Vasil Levski. During the years after their foundation Levski became Bulgaria’s most popular team, winning many national titles as well as becoming the first semi-professional team in Bulgaria in 1929. After winning 5 national titles between 1946 and 1953 the team went into decline and were re-named “Dinamo” in line with Stalinization in 1949 (they reverted to Levski in 1957 which coincided with a return to success). In 1969 politics again intervened, when the team was put under the control of the Interior Ministry and re-named “Levski-Spartak”. During these years the team made three quarterfinal appearances in European cup competitions, and still stands as the only team to have scored five goals against Barcelona in European competition (A UEFA Cup Quarterfinal match in 1976 that ended 5-4 to Nevski).

The roots of CSKA Sofia (The Reds or The Armymen) date back to 1923 and an Army Officer’s Club, when the club was named AS-23 (Officer’s Sports Club Athletic Slava 1923) (For a more detailed history please see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PFC_CSKA_Sofia). After undergoing many mergers the team was officially formed on May 5 1948 when (then named Chavdar) it became the departmental club of the Central House of the Troops. CSKA were officially an “Army team”, like CSKA Moscow and Steaua Bucharest among others. This patronage from the Army paid off and the team won 9 successive titles between 1954 and 1962, before taking the present name of “CSKA” in 1962. Like Levski, the 1970s saw much success for CSKA in Europe—including eliminating three time champions Ajax Amsterdam from the European Cup in the 1973-74 competition. CSKA also saw success in the 1980s, making it to the semi finals of the European cup in 1981-82 after eliminating Liverpool before losing out to Bayern Munich. It is still the deepest run by a Bulgarian side in Europe.

But the sunny days in Europe that both sides saw in the 1970s and early 1980s would end abruptly in 1985, when the histories of both clubs changed after an infamous installation of the Eternal Derby. On June 18 1985 the two teams met in the Bulgarian Cup Final in the same Vasil Levski Stadium that am currently freezing in. CSKA won that match 2-1, but several fights—on and off the pitch—marred the match including a full on brawl. Afterwards the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party disbanded both teams and reformed them with new names and new management. Levski’s 1985 title was suspended and the team renamed Vitosha; CSKA became Sredets. Many players—including the famous Hristo Stoitchkov—were banned for life. But, like so much in Bulgaria and in life, nothing lasts forever. The suspensions were rescinded and both teams eventually returned in 1989/90; Levski regained their name and CSKA became independent of the Army following the fall of communism in 1992.

 

As I freeze, I can’t help but wonder if it would have been better if both teams had disappeared into history and spared me the need to see them play. But then the choreographies by both sets of fans as the opening whistle nears reminds me why I watch football. It’s the pageantry, the politics, and the history that brings me out to odd grounds in odder places, and the sight of the ultras who huddle together in the snow for warmth seems to warm me by osmosis. The CSKA end turns red as they lift red flags above themselves, unfolding a banner of a football made into a heart. The Levski ultras, not to be out done, lift blue, white, and yellow flags above themselves and reveal a banner with the chilling image of the grim reaper, eyes blazing orange by way of two well-placed flares.

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With the snow cleared the teams finally take the field under a barrage of snowballs thrown by the fans below me (they had perfected their aim by taking pot-shots at the police as the field was being cleared). In fact, their aim was so good that one snowball apparently knocked out CSKA coach Stoycho Mladenov a few minutes into the match. It’s so ridiculous that I understand if you don’t believe me, just check out the Reuters story and NBC Sports’ piece–the aftermath is below.

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Levski have the upper hand in the first fifteen minutes bolstered by their fans and CSKA’s distraction following their coach’s “injury”, and even go close with a few chances on the icy pitch but it soon becomes clear that CSKA is just weathering the initial storm. CSKA begin to string some attacks together that test the Levski backs and on the 22nd minute they finally find their goal, courtesy of Guinea-Bissau born winger (and former Chelsea and Liverpool youth team member) Toni Brito Silva. His celebration, running directly to the Levski fans below me, does exactly what it was intended to do—goad the home fans into embarrassing themselves and their club. Immediately monkey howls come down from all around me in an unfortunate racist response. But I’m not surprised, given the latest antics of Levski’s fans.

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In their last match they mocked UEFA’s famous “Say No to Racism” campaign by unfurling a banner that said . . . “Say Yes to Racism”. The punishment was, predictably, a mere slap on the wrist as the Bulgarian FA fined the club 19,000 Levs—about 13,000 dollars. For me, beyond the conventional outrage, it is the pure hypocrisy of some Levski ultras in partaking in the overtly racist displays that offends me.

As discussed earlier, Levski Sofia take their name from national hero Vasil Levski. While he was fighting against Ottoman Turkish rule, he took his theories from the ideas of the French Revolution. Even a cursory look at his Wikipedia page (I don’t have my Bulgarian history literature handy at the moment) will show you his thoughts on Balkan ethnicities living together:

“We will be free in complete liberty where the Bulgarian lives: in Bulgaria, Thrace, Macedonia; people of whatever ethnicity live in this heaven of ours, they will be equal in rights to the Bulgarian in everything. We will have a flag that says, ‘Pure and sacred republic’… It is time, by a single deed, to achieve what our French brothers have been seeking…”

“We’re not driving away the Turkish people nor their faith, but the emperor and his laws (in a word, the Turkish government), which has been ruling not only us, but the Turk himself in a barbarian way.”

When a team takes the name from a thinker like this it only makes their fan’s racist behavior—in a stadium bearing that same thinker’s name—more disappointing . . .

 

I’m back among the monkey chants and anti-Israel flags (along with Lazio Roma flags, interestingly), freezing still, realizing that Levski have an uphill battle in front of them. On the stroke of half time CSKA add their second courtesy of young Romanian striker Sergiu Bus to make it 0-2, sending Levski to the locker room reeling and me into the cover of the stadium “café” for another cup of urine colored tea (this time a double portion in a beer cup).

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The second half starts with a Pyro show from the visitors, along with message to their team to not let up: EAT SLEEP CSKA REPEAT. Even I can understand that one, and play pauses for a few minutes and I wait in the cold, waiting for the smoke to settle.

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As play resumes, it is the Levski Ultras’ turn—they send out an array of flares, in their team’s colors, which the wind blows back in their faces. But it is a beautiful show nonetheless, complete with a Confederate flag.

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With the fans distracted and the match heading south the police take the chance to line up in front of the stands, sensing that things could get rough. I have the same feeling and resign myself to leaving with ten minutes to play. I want to see the end, but the result—on and off the field—seems certain and I don’t want to be caught up in post match excitement like in Stockholm.

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My prescience pays off—a pitch invasion was prevented following CSKA’s third goal in the 85th minute when I was safely walking back to my hotel, far from the police, stadium crowds, 55 arrests, and confiscated weapons. In the end, CSKA take the three points with a 0-3 victory and go seven points clear at the top of the Bulgarian A PFG after thirteen rounds. Levski are left in sixth place, eleven points off the pace—karma, no doubt.

 

For a look at my Levski and CSKA shirts please see the Bulgaria section under Football Shirts.

For video of the match and some interesting interviews from Ultras from both sides please see Ultras World on Youtube:

 

The Derby of Northern Greece: Aris Thessaloniki-PAOK Thessaloniki

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“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”.

–       Bill Shankly

The former Liverpool manager’s quote says a lot about the game I love. For many—including myself—football is a way of life. There is a special way that a football match can elicit emotions and feelings that need no description, things everyone can relate to in their own way. Feelings like seeing flashing red and blue lights reflecting off a puddle on the dark asphalt, or the feeling of snow falling all around you on an empty street in February. It is like standing on the shore and looking out at the waves, or staring up at a clear night sky in the middle of summer.  These are emotions that can take everyone back to a specific moment in their past, both the good moments and the not so good. The cruel nature of memories knows no discrimination.

One night in December I was flipping through the channels and came upon a football match on CNN International—the Match Against Poverty. The charity match, live from Brazil at an ungodly hour in Turkey, pitted two teams against one another—Ronaldo and friends against Zidane and friends. Watching the host of former greats on the battered pitch released a flood of memories, and even though the football on display wasn’t the best, watching it had a profound effect on me.

Watching the jerky movements of the former greats, many of whom had lost a step or two on their runs, took me back to the days I had watched them, the days when life had seemed so simple before the trials and tribulations of jobs and relationships, in short “Life”. Those were the days I wanted back and—if only for 90 minutes—I had a small taste of them.

The trademark bald head of Zinedine Zidane, the French Algerian star made infamous by a head butt in his final match, was there. For me, Zinedine Zidane was watching the World Cup final of France 98 at my grandmother’s house on a quiet summer night on the Aegean coast. Bebeto and Romario were both there, the stars of Brazil’s winning team in the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States.  Bebeto and Romario take me back to that summer I truly caught the football fever, with everyone in Turkey calling me Tony Meola, after the goalkeeper for the US team. My dad always told me that the strange Italian name, with two vowels next to each other, was what explained the Turkish fascination with the name. I think they called me that because, as an American, I was only good enough to be stuck in goal when we played pick up games in the parking lot behind my house.

Two other Brazilians, Cafu and Djalminha, also made their appearances. Cafu is Italian soccer from the late nineties to the beginning of the new millennium, single handedly running the right flanks for AS Roma and AC Milan. Djalminha will forever be a fascinating name and the face of a Deportivo La Coruna that challenged the traditional greats of Spanish football by winning the championship in 2000. This championship came at the turn of the millennium, as I was starting my own collection of football shirts, and his long name was an interesting site on back of the classic blue and white shirts of Deportivo.

The Brazilian for me, however, that took me the farthest back was the troubled character of Mario Jardel, an example of how “Life” can affect us all, even professional football stars. In 2000, when I was 14, he came to Galatasaray in Turkey as the leading goal scorer in Europe and brought the European Super Cup to Istanbul. His clinical finishing was a joy to watch, and despite a lack of pace he always knew how to be in the right spot at the right time. And he always knew how to make the ball meet the net, no matter what. After Istanbul, however, he got homesick. A return to Portugal, where he had made his name, followed before his career declined. He had a weight problem and reportedly some marriage problems, and following Portugal he bounced around from England to Italy to Argentina to Brazil, then back to Portugal before Cyprus and then Australia. He then went from club to club in the Brazilian lower leagues, then back to Europe to Bulgaria where he played eight matches, and then returned to Brazil for his final act.

In this charity match his weight showed, and he was consistently late on runs and late on his touches, missing chances that would have been peanuts in his prime; the fact wasn’t lost on the announcers. It was strangely depressing to watch the once clinical striker looking like he would be better served in a weight loss clinic, and not on the pitch. Stumbling into the box, he receives a cross only to send it wide of the goal. Despite it all, it is watching matches like this that remind us of the trajectories of our own lives. Since first watching Mario Jardel calmly slip the ball into the Real Madrid net one August night in 2000, I now watch the same man struggle one December night twelve years on. Watching life played out on a green field a world away from me made me think: “I need to find a game and make more memories—and find a soccer shirt, naturally”.

In order to find “that game” (and shirt) I went where everyone goes for answers in this day and age. The Internet. Where could I find a memorable game? Luckily for me one month later was just such a game. On February 3 Aris Thessaloniki would be hosting PAOK Thessaloniki in the Derby of Northern Greece. It was the perfect local derby, as football rivalries are termed. Also, it was in Greece’s second city, away from the capital, which meant that along with a good dose of local football culture a good deal of local life would also be on display.  I decided to go, and see just how the derby would play out in the shadow of Greece’s crippling economic crisis in front of a population where more than one in four people are unemployed.

I knew the teams from the first time I had been to Thessaloniki six years ago. Aris of Thessaloniki, nicknamed “the yellows”, were founded in 1914. Named after the Greek god of war, Ares, Aris have had their moments of glory but—like their country—have seen better days (They’re currently battling against relegation to the second division). In total they have won three Greek championships and one Greek cup. Despite leaner years for the better part of the last three decades, the last five years have seen a rise in fortunes after shares were offered to fans—perhaps an odd coincidence considering Greece’s reputation as the birthplace of democracy—allowing them to vote in elections for the leadership of the club in exchange for some financial contributions. Currently, almost ten thousand fans are involved and this personal connection means that fans have a close relationship to their team. Of course, such a close bond between club and fans was cemented from the very foundation of the team—the club took the God of War’s name after the two Balkan wars pitting Greeks against Ottoman Turks, and is known as the team of the Greeks living in Thessaloniki since Ottoman times.

It is this clash of identities that forms the rivalry as Thessaloniki’s other team, PAOK, have a very different history, and one that their rivals like to remind them of. PAOK—or the Pan-Thessalonican Athletic Club of Constantinopolitans (or Panthessalonikeios Athlitikós Ómilos Kostantinopolitón)—was founded by Greek refugees who left Istanbul following the population exchanges at the end of the Turkish war of independence. The foundations of the club were laid in 1875 in Istanbul by the Greek community, but following the unfortunate events of the population exchange PAOK was officially formed in 1926 by the first players to emigrate to Thessaloniki. Following a merger with another local club in 1929, the team acquired its now (in)famous logo, the Byzantine symbol of a black two-headed eagle. The black on white symbolizing mourning for the home left behind in Istanbul, the eagle looking both east and west, back to the past in Asia Minor and into the future in Greece.

PAOK (a team that I admittedly have sympathies for) are known as the most famous team of Thessaloniki due to their successes on the field and their fan’s escapades off the field, both products of their intense rivalries with teams from Athens. It is a classic struggle between national center and national periphery. They have won two Greek championships and four Greek cups, and have had some famous victories over European clubs in continental competition. In Europe, however, PAOK have also left their mark in less glamorous ways. In the 1990s they were banned for five years following violence against Paris Saint Germain and their hooligan element has led to numerous stadium closures. For this reason, I was secretly happy that the match I would attend was not going to be in PAOK’s Toumba stadium.

I started the trip at the sprawling Istanbul bus terminal, letting my mind wander as I read the advertisements for destinations as close as the neighboring provincial towns of Kocaeli in Izmit and Malkara in Tekirdag to far flung international capitals like Vienna and Baku and everywhere in between. The possibilities were endless and my head was spinning but tonight there was only one destination and one coach—the 10pm bus by Metro to Thessaloniki.

I took my seat for the ten-hour ride and stared out into the darkness, watching the skyscrapers of Istanbul fly by as we glided down the E-5 trans-European motorway before exiting onto the smaller state highway winding through small Thracian country towns and towards the international border at Ipsala/Kipi. Like many others, the reason I enjoy international travel overland—despite the grueling nature of it—is the chance to internalize the movement. Four hours after leaving the bustling metropolis of Istanbul I was standing at a lonely border in the cold dark air at 2am, where small snowdrifts dotted the concrete between waiting tractor-trailers. After an hour on the Turkish side of the border waiting for the passport formalities—and watching the Turkish customs officials take (might I add, the four most suspicious people in my mind) off the bus for a random inspection, we hopped over the border bridge to Greece. The railings on the bridge were red-white-red before a red and white hut next to a matching blue and white hut marked the border; the railings became blue-white-blue. This was not the border of a red state and a blue state, but instead the border of Christianity and Islam, the European Union and (to many of the uninformed) the “Middle-East”. It’s hard to imagine Edirne as the “Middle-East”, but sometimes old prejudices die hard.

In Greece the same formalities were followed, passports were stamped and random inspections ensued; duty free alcohol and cigarettes were bought and we all huddled in a chill that can only mark the dead of night. After everything was completed the driver and his assistant herded us wandering sheep onto the bus and I attempted to grab some shut-eye during the final four hours of the journey. Sleeping was difficult, as can be expected on a coach, and I curiosity got the better of me as I peered out the windows at the Thracian towns of Alexandropoulis and Komotini. As I watched a group of four young girls walking home in Alexandropoulis at an ungodly hour, I was once again reminded of how close—yet how far—modern Turkey and Greece remain despite all that has come and gone. Personally, I chalk it up to the Christian and Muslim divide, but others can debate that topic further. My subject is the football.

The assistant’s call of “Selanik! Selanik,” roused me from my light sleep and with bleary eyes I peered out the windows into a bleak urban landscape on a grey morning. These were the colorless outskirts of Thessaloniki. I grabbed my backpack and jumped off the bus, getting directions to the local bus station for a ride into town while ignoring the taxi touts.  The graffiti on the highway overpass opposite the bus station told me I had come to the right place—“PAOK” was scrawled in black across the grey concrete.

80 Euro cents and one ride on bus number 8 took me to the train station and back in time—this had been my first view of Thessaloniki in December of 2006 when, as many storekeepers would tell me later, the city was alive.  I followed my map towards the main thoroughfare of Egnatia and towards my hotel, located north of the Aristotle square.

“Is this your first time in Thessaloniki?” asked the front desk in that familiar tone that front desks have, ready to give me all the information one small hotel map can provide.

“No, its my second time actually,” I explained. “But the first time I couldn’t do some things. I couldn’t get the shirts of PAOK and Aris. And I couldn’t go to a match. I’m hoping to see Aris-PAOK on Sunday.”

This was clearly not the expected answer, and it shown in the man’s eyes.

“So, you came here for the football?”

“The football.”

The football?” he repeated, unsure.

“The. Football.” I nodded, sure.

“Well, be careful in that case,” he laughed, before taking my bags and explaining the way to the stadiums. Apparently both PAOK’s Toumba and Aris’ Kleanthis Vikelidis—or Harilaou, as it is colloquially known from the eponymous neighborhood—were on the same bus line, 14. I nodded but knew I would prefer to walk. It’s the only way to take in a city and embed its geography into one corner of the mind for use in the future. It was a useful tactic since, after six years, I ended up coming back to Thessaloniki.

I left my bag at the hotel and had a quick “traditional” Greek breakfast of a coffee and cigarette, minus the cigarette. It was only one Euro. Rested up, I headed east down Egnatia, following my poor yet overpriced map past the landmarks of the ancient Arch of Galerius and the Macedonia University into what could be termed more suburban areas. These were the areas farther from the Aegean and Thessaloniki’s famously chic waterfront, where I envisioned the “real” people living. The multitude of empty shops and closed businesses were a sign of the times, as were the expressions on commuter’s faces at the bus stops and the empty bottles of Johnny Walker Red Label in the windows of Figaro Club. Strewn along the sidewalk were what looked like purple 500 euro notes—I stooped down and picked up one of the cleaner ones. Upon closer inspection I saw a picture of a girl in lingerie, looking seductively behind her while displaying her behind—an ad for Le Cabaret. I suppose that when times are tough sex sells well, and even better when made to look like cash money.

Stuffing the amusing advertisement in my back pocket I continued on towards Harilaou, noticing the rising floodlights of the Toumba stadium on the hill above me that marked my progress. After ten more minutes the lights of the Harilaou came into view at the end of the narrow boulevard I had been walking like the light at the end of a tunnel. As I approached I saw the colorful pictures of the fans displayed on the stadium walls, but my eye immediately went to the Aris sign missing the “s”. It had been some rough times indeed. I followed the signs underneath the stand towards the Aris megastore, in order to find the jersey and tickets, half of my mission for the day.

In the store I picked out a yellow Aris shirt made by the American manufacturer Under Armour and the size that would fit me had to be taken off a mannequin as the store was conspicuously under-stocked. I supposed 40 Euros was a steep price in an era of 26 percent unemployment. As the lady heat pressed number 20 and Gianniatis (in Greek characters, interestingly) onto the shirt I decided to inquire about tickets.

“Were should I sit?” I asked, knowing that that is half the battle of being safe at a derby. You don’t want to be in the heat of the action and get caught up in extra curricular activities, but you don’t want to be so far from it that you don’t feel the atmosphere and get the adrenaline pumping. The Harilaou was sufficiently compact enough that all four stands are intimately close to the field, so I wasn’t too concerned. Still, intelligence is intelligence.

“Bring a mask for the gas,” she said getting straight to the point, “and do not sit in sections one or three. There can be some….situations there.”

I understood that much.

“Ok, so where is safer?”

“Section seven is good,” she said. I assumed it was the covered stand she was referring to, since generally the most expensive tickets—and thus less violence prone fans—are located in the covered stand while the more fanatical fans congregate behind the goals. You never know when it will rain, after all.

I thanked her for the advice and after paying for the shirt went back outside in order to get the tickets. The signs directed me towards a ticket booth that was closed, but there was a piece of paper taped to the iron. After matching the word for ticket from the booth to the word on the paper, I made out the word “ARIS CELL” in English characters and reasoned that the tickets would be sold at the ARIS CELL store. Indeed they were. In line were other young men who looked my age, including one with a girlfriend—which reassured me, and when it was my turn I asked for “section seven”. I gave the girl working a twenty Euro note, and she gave me the ticket along with a second warning to bring a mask for the gas. It was clear that it would be an interesting derby.

Walking outside, the man with the girlfriend asked me where I was from, and I told him.

“You came here just for the match?” he asked incredulously, as his girlfriend smiled shyly.

“Yes—I like going to derby matches,” I said trying to make myself sound credible before asking, “Are you from here?”

“No, Mykonos.”

“So you came here from Mykonos for the match?”  I replied, and his laugh told me that we were both equally ridiculous. Before parting ways I got my third warning.

“Have fun—and bring a mask.”

I thanked him and left wondering where on earth I would find a mask. I hadn’t seen any carpenters around, neither was this China and there was no SARS outbreak.

Bright yellow Aris bag in hand—and looking like a very easy target for any rival football fans—I retraced by steps to where I had seen the turn off for the Toumba stadium on my way to Harilaou. I headed right where I thought I should and headed up hill, into the Toumba district. The black 4-1 and matching PAOK scrawled on the shutters of a closed newsstand told me I was on the right track—it was the score by which PAOK had defeated Aris during their first meeting in September.

I followed the streets as if in a maze, turning left and right in the shadows of towering residential apartment blocks. I noted to myself how Greece had truly been spared the experiences of the Iron Curtain. These towering blocks were concrete, for sure, but unlike their counterparts in much of post-communist Eastern Europe there were small shops, driveways, and colorful awnings on the ground floors of these apartment blocks, giving the neighborhood a quiet residential feel in the (Western) European sense, a sense that is lacking even in Turkey.

Once free of the maze I found myself on the corner of a rather large boulevard, parallel to the main ring road. Between these two highways stood the towering concrete mass that is the Toumba Stadium. On this warm winter day—feeling more spring than winter in Greece—the Toumba looked less intimidating, especially due to the presence of a small farmer’s market in the parking lot. Small trucks were parked all around with crates of vegetables and tables of olive oil in front of them, as customers strolled around taking advantage of the spring weather. I ignored the organic goods on sale and headed straight to the store, purchasing a black Umro PAOK shirt, numbered 28 with Katsouranis in Greek lettering written across the back in white lettering. After completing my mission I stepped outside to examine the stadium and check out one of my favorite things: Football related graffiti.

In contrast to the yellow and black smiley face marked “Aris LSD” at the Harilaou, in front of PAOK was a grey and black unsmiling face with devil horns, below which was written “Welcome too [sic] Toympa [sic]”. The two clubs were indeed in stark contrast.  Nearby was a mural of the skyline of Thessaloniki with “PAOK West Side” written above it. This was the PAOK’s claim over the city’s geography, I would see a similar claim from Aris before the match.  “RABBIT [sic] WIEN DEAD” and “FUCK RAPID” were to be seen occasionally, a violent reference to the UEFA Europa League qualifier between the two sides back in August that knocked PAOK out of Europe, and cost them thousands in sponsorship dollars as well. It was, clearly, a bitter blow to the team’s pocketbook and to the supporter pride.  Other murals conveyed the more common messages of “Ultra Violence PAOK” and “PAOK Hooligans Fuck The Police” while a particularly well done piece read“SALONICA CREW”, with the middle of each word separated by a black on white version of the club’s two-headed eagle badge which contained, at the center, a skull.

The most striking—and most chilling—piece of art, however, was a lesson in the geopolitics of football. It was a mural of a top-hatted gravedigger, gaining leverage with the front foot while jamming a shovel into the ground in front of a mound of dirt. On either side of him were two crosses, beneath him—in the “ground”—was written “PAOK GROBARI” in large letters, both words separated by the smaller message “Orthodox Brothers”. In the store I had noticed the presence of the PAOK badge side by side with the badge of another black and white colored club, Serbia’s Partizan Belgrade. Grobari is a nickname for Partizan’s fans meaning “undertaker” in Serbian; it was given by their arch-rivals Red Star Belgrade, themselves friendly with PAOK’s other main rival, Olympiakos Piraeus of Athens. It seemed that these two “Orthodox Brothers” had a close relationship as some teams in Europe have. Indeed, at the match it was possible to see the flags of Borussia Dortmund from Germany and of Bulgaria (for the club Botev Plovdiv, I reasoned later) in the Aris stands. These two clubs have a good relationship with Aris, since they all share the same electric yellow and jet black colors.

After the taking in the “art gallery” I decided to hop into a nearby bar to see what people’s views on the match were. It was just one in the afternoon, but there was a small crowd drinking coffee, ouzo, and beer. I took a beer and sat down to rest, munching on the complimentary potato chips. The barman, noticing my yellow Aris bag, laughed.

“You should hide that around here!”

“Yeah, I figured as much. But look—I got a PAOK shirt as well!” I explained, pulling out my black PAOK bag. At that, one of the patrons (who had been drinking ouzo) came over, interested.

“I came here for the football match.” I explained and watched him—literally—do a double take. “What will happen?” I asked, looking to engage the barman and customer.

Looking at me the barman nodded slowly as if to reassure me, “Aris, Aris.”

Just then the ouzo drinker butted in.

“PAOK! PAOK! PAOK!” He started yelling, thrusting his fist in the air with each mention of his team’s name. “He is an Aris man,” he said nodding toward the bar, “but he doesn’t remember what happened in the fall. PAOK! PAOK! PAOK!”. We would see on Sunday night, around 930pm, who would be proved right.

That night I decided to go out in Thessaloniki to sample the city’s vibrant nightlife, said to be some of Europe’s best. I took in some quick souvlaki at the local spot To Etsi where my PAOK bag got a respectful thumbs-up from the cook, before heading to the Partizan bar, a suitably hip spot sporting a Run DMC quote on the wall. After a couple Jim Beams and cokes I headed down to the famed Thessaloniki water front.  There over a Jack Daniels and coke I was told that PAOK was sure to win. “Tomorrow will not be a game. It will be slaughter. Do you know what happened last time? Four to one. But it doesn’t matter. By six I will have drunk so much ouzo that I won’t care who wins!” said one particularly confident fan, who told me to come to see the same fixture next year at the Toumba. I told him I would certainly try. After the PAOK fans cleared out I asked the bar-tender his thoughts, while he offered to take a shot with me, on the house. Such is Greek hospitality.

“I don’t care—I’m an Iraklis fan.” He said simply, detached from the derby. His position, however, was not enviable. Iraklis were the city’s third team, currently mired in the second division playing to mostly empty seats in the cavernous seventy-thousand capacity Kaftanzoglio stadium. Like so many he held hopes for better days. I only held hopes for tomorrow.

Match Day

I walked down Thessaloniki’s dark avenues towards the Harilaou.  At six thirty I saw the floodlights in the distance, and I felt a feeling calling me. It was excitement and apprehension, caution and reckless abandon all at once. As I got closer a low din got gradually louder and the roads got congested as my nostrils started burning from an old familiar sour smell. It was tear gas, and I hadn’t brought the mask. I passed the first row of riot police and found myself on a pedestrianized street next to the stadium in the midst of a carnival atmosphere. It seemed that I had avoided the worst, only the lingering scent of the gas remained in the air as a reminder. I followed the crowds of fans clad in yellow Aris shirts, past street vendors selling souvlaki and beers. I grabbed myself an Amstel from one of the trucks and marveled at the palpable excitement; watching the fans, a few sober and many drunk, I noted how many had come with significant others. In Turkey, women tend to avoid the stadium like it’s the plague. Here, however, there were a fair number of the fairer sex, and it added to the carnival atmosphere. Such excitement need not be gendered. It was a derby and it was also a party, a celebration of a city’s identity.

After milling around in the streets amongst the supporters I decided to head into a small café named “Aris”. Inside were throngs of yellow and black clad supporters swigging Amstels, their eyes glued to a TV screen showing highlights of other matches from the weekend. On the walls were posters for various Aris supporter clubs. One, marked S3 Moydania, was a graphic of huddling players with “United We Stand 2013” written on it while another said “Super 3 Neaopolis: 1998-2013 15 Years By Your Side”. Next to these was a Liverpool clock, with the familiar dictum “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Its presence was strange in an Aris bar, but I saw it as a monument to football fans everywhere, one of those unspoken ties that unites us all as supporters wherever we are and whoever we support.

As the clock neared 7:30 and kickoff I headed to gate nine, passing through two separate lines of nervous riot police, standing behind scarred plastic shields and holding their lines. Surprisingly, and unlike in Turkey, there was no pat down at the entrance and I climbed straight up the stairs and found myself in the cauldron that is the Harilaou. Periodic loud booms that sounded like cannons echoed through the stadium as the fans rained sound bombs onto the pitch, and I felt that old familiar feeling of football in my head. I felt drunk, not from Amstels but from the crowd. It felt like the streets of Cairo, with so many colors on display and so many noises flying in my ear that I could barely get my bearings. I stumbled up the steep stairs to find a place to stand in the aisles—this was a sold out match. I found a small space barely enough for one man to stand behind a few young kids with punk haircuts, shaved on the bottom and long on the top.

From here I had a good view as the stands behind both goals lit up in a sea of smoke and red air, the fans holding their flares to light up the February night.  There was chanting in a language I couldn’t understand, but everyone was in unison. The stand opposite mine then unfurled a large yellow banner, covering the length of the terraces. Through the smoke I could make out “Super 3 Eusmos”, and below it the symbol of Thessaloniki, the White Tower—the Byzantine fortification made into a prison during Ottoman rule. On the brick of the tower a large Aris badge had been drawn and the Aris fans had claimed the city’s geography as their own. It was a tactic I had seen used across Europe, just as Legia Warsaw placed their badge above the Soviet era Palace of Culture in graffiti on Warsaw underpasses and as Galatasaray fans used the Bosphorus bridge as their own during pre-game choreography in the Istanbul derby with Fenerbahce earlier in the year.

The pageantry continued and the buzz was deafening as Aris’s players took the field. The buzz turned to whistles with boos and flares raining down onto the pitch as PAOK’s players stepped onto the grass. They stepped gingerly, avoiding the array of projectiles that were falling all around their lonely figures. There were no PAOK fans in attendance, so as to lower the chances of violence.

The referee’s whistle that announced kickoff was a distant sound, drowned out by the Aris chants and the random booms of sound bombs. I could barely see the cameraman five feet ahead of me in the smoke, and the field was a grey blur. The green of the grass was nowhere to be seen. The haze soon turned into a daze for Aris and their fans, as PAOK’s Stefanos Athanasiadis slipped one into the Aris goal and silenced the home crowd in the second minute of play. It became so quiet that you could hear a pin drop—and the plastic lighters raining down onto the pitch. The PAOK celebrations had a surreal feeling, eleven men celebrating against, what seemed like, the world. After the initial shock, which must have been similar to getting under cold water when expecting warm water in a morning shower, the Aris fans picked up again in a bid to rally their players.

Aris’ rally worked and, just three minutes later, Aris’ Spanish striker David Aganzo hit a nice left footed volley to equalize at 1-1. The flares went off again at either end of the stadium and the Aris fans held a tune that, although I couldn’t understand the words, sounded quite similar to what I’ve heard at Turkish league matches—Hepiniz orospu cocuğusunuz—You’re all sons of whores.  Once things were back on level terms both teams started going at one another ineffectually, the pressure made cool decision-making difficult and it seemed as if the players were playing on full emotions only.  It was now quieter than before, but it proved to be the calm before the storm.  On the twenty-sixth minute PAOK’s Abdoul Camara hit a volley squarely into the Aris net that put the visitors up again, this time 2-1. The Aris fans were beside themselves and after a PAOK yellow card in the 27th minute profanity rained down from all around me. “Pushti”, “Malakas” and “Bastardi” were understandable enough, but my favorite was the special epithet reserved for PAOK, “Turki”. I hoped no one would know that there was at least one Turk amongst them, standing quietly in the aisle frantically scribbling into a notebook.

The half ended like that, with Aris going into the locker room down by one to their city rivals. The kids with anarchist haircuts in front of me took to drinking beer and rolling cigarettes in their hands while discussing what had happened in the first forty-five minutes. All over fans were looking to catch their breath and prepare for the next forty-five, while others spat words at one another, I was unsure whether their criticisms were directed at their own team or at their rivals.

After fifteen minutes things got underway again, but the atmosphere had become more subdued. For the first fifteen minutes of the second half it was almost as if Aris had resigned themselves to another loss in a season that has seen many. Urgency began to creep in as we got into the last half hour, and when a PAOK handball wasn’t given in the 65th minute a small fire started behind the western goal. The Aris keeper didn’t seem too concerned, and neither did the fireman who calmly ambled over, took a cursory look at the burning fabric on the fence, and then turned around to walk away without doing anything. Only after the match did I see pictures on the internet—they were burning a PAOK flag that had been hung up on the fencing.

The turning point came in the 70th minute when a red card came out to Dimitrios Konstantinidis for a push in the box. Aris had been attacking the goal in front of their hardcore support, and the fans began waving their black and yellow flags frantically. The goal scorer David Aganzo would be given the responsibility, and he stood behind the ball with the hopes of half a city on his shoulders. At thirty-two the journeyman striker had seen a lot since starting his career at Real Madrid. Although never in the plans of the European giants, he did earn a Champions League winner’s medal after appearing in one match during the 1999-2000 Champions League for the Galacticos. Since then he had been all over the Spanish Leagues and even to Jerusalem. All that had to be behind him now though, as he stared down PAOK’s Premier League pedigreed Cameroonian keeper Charles Itandje. In the end, Aganzo stepped up and deftly put the ball past the outstretched arms of Itandje’s six foot four frame and into the back of the net.  The stand behind the goal went wild and a pyro show ensued, red smoke rising into the night. Aganzo’s strike had settled the matter, and the score, at 2-2.

He last twenty minutes played out uneventfully, it was almost as if both teams had worn themselves out and neither wanted to risk the draw by putting too many men forward. Aris couldn’t risk a home defeat to their arch-rivals, and for PAOK a point was a point—that would also save them the blushes.  As the final whistle neared I ducked out to look for a Souvlaki sandwich, since the smells had been wafting into the stadium for the last ten minutes. I found what I needed and, satiated, dodged the police cordons again to look for a taxi. I had thirty minutes to make the bus back to Istanbul.

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Stadion Georgi Asparuhov/Gerena, Sofia, Bulgaria – PFC Levski Sofia – PFC Lokomotiv Sofia Matchday (3-0)

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A blast from the past. Below are a few pictures from the first soccer match (and derby) outside of Turkey that I ever attended. It was a good introduction to what would become my passion, a contest between Sofia’s main side Levski and one of the city’s secondary teams, Lokomotiv at the Georgi Asparuhov Stadium. The disparity in stature between the teams played out on the field as well with Levski winning comfortably, 3-0. This stadium is currently undergoing some renovations and has had its capacity reduced to 18,000, but I am fairly certain that at the time of this match its capacity was closer to 30,000. Interestingly enough, this stadium holds the record attendance for a Bulgarian “A” PFG match at 60,000 fans. How that many entered is beyond me, but I’m sure it was a torrid time. While Levski usually tend to play their European home matches at the National Stadium, the Vasil Levski, this stadium is not so obsolete–Sting played a concert here in 2011.

Since this match is over seven years old at this point I don’t have a write up for it, but I do have a short piece I wrote for an undergraduate travel writing course at the University of Colorado regarding the shirt I was able to get, which is also posted in the Football shirts category. The writing is below, followed by a few match day photos.

 

We had tried everything. We had been to the team store before the game, but the lady had shooed us away, without so much as an explanation. We had been to the team store after the game, but this time not even the woman was there. Determined not to give up, I went back into the stadium just as everyone was clearing out. The late autumn sun was setting over Sofia, and it looked like that same sun was going to set on my little adventure to find a Bulgarian soccer shirt. Soon my friend Jill and I were left in the stadium, with only the television crews still cleaning up wiring. We walked down to the gate through which we had entered, but it was locked. We walked up to the stand and continued down the stairs, and out onto the playing surface. No one, it seemed, wanted to acknowledge our presence. It was as if we were foreign ghosts. We drifted onto the field and into the stadium towards the locker rooms, aimlessly. Soon, a man came out and ushered us out.

“No, only team,” He said in accented English.

“But, shirt, shirt!” I pleaded, tugging at my shirt.

“No English, out,” the man said, ushering us back out of the tunnel and he pointed up, towards where we had come, and the television booth. We thanked the man and walked to where he had pointed, to a rickety fire escape that was to be, theoretically, used by the television crews in the event of any unfortunate situations, which were never too far away from any soccer match in Eastern Europe.

We traversed down the fire escape and found ourselves outside, in the parking lot, in the midst of a sea of media. Players were being interviewed, and I was still tugging at my shirt, desperate to find someone who spoke English to whom I might direct my query. A kind old man saw my desperation and, quietly, took my arm leading me to yet another person. Despite not knowing any English, he knew exactly what I was looking for. Was this an example of Balkan bureaucracy I wondered, inherited from the Ottoman and Soviet Empires who were both former overlords of the grand city of Sofia? The old man led me to, what I recognized at least, was the press attaché, and said a few words in Bulgarian to the man.

“So, you want a Levski shirt?” asked the attaché.

“Yes, if that is possible,” I told him, explaining that I had looked all over the city and had been to the store at the stadium twice, both before and after the game.

“Why is it so hard to find a soccer shirt?” I asked him, finally.

“Because,” he paused, “This is Bulgaria”. We both laughed, and he called his brother to open the store. Within five minutes, I had experienced the kindness of the Bulgarian people and succeeded in what had only moments ago seemed impossible.

 

A sparsely attended derby:

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The Levski Ultras:

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The (at that point) newly installed scoreboard, complete with the Levski logo–the Cyrllic “L”:

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The (male) fans nervous for their side:

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The police sense a disturbance:

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Just some Ultras lighting flares, another day at a Eastern European ground:

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The sun sets on another derby day:

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