Alone Again In The Lap of Luxury (PFC Slavia Sofia)

PFC Slavia Sofia were formed in 1913 by students and the new clubs’ first president, Dimitar Blagoev-Palio, was only 21 years old at the time. Since those formative years the club has won seven League titles and seven Bulgarian Cups to its honours list. Their most recent League success came in 1996, the year they also last won the Bulgarian Cup defeating Levski 4-0 in the final.

Slavia had their best run in Europe in the 1966/67 Cup Winners Cup when they defeated Swansea City, Racing Club Strasbourg and Servette before bowing out to Rangers at the semi final stage. In 1969 Slavia briefly merged with Lokomotiv Sofia under the name of ZhSK Slavia. However, the merger last just two years after 100,000 supporters demanded the the clubs be allowed to operate as separate entities once again.

Originally the club played at the ground of its predecessor club Sport Club Razvitie. The club was then allocated land adjacent to the Russian Monument in Sofia where they played until they moved to their own Slavia Stadium in 1960. The stadium is located in South West Sofia in the area known as Ovcha Kupel.

After several attempts at renovation the Slavia Stadium holds a little over 25,000 people and also hosts the under 21 matches of the Bulgarian national team. Paradoxically new stadium criteria bought in by the Bulgarian FA means Slavia cannot play home games at their own stadium as there are no floodlights! For this season it means all their home matches are being staged at the 43,000 capacity Vasil Levski National Stadium well away from their traditional support. Their attendances have been ridiculously low, even though it is only 5 Lev (£2.50) to get in at the Vasil Levski. For today’s game it appeared that there were around 200 people rattling around this vast empty amphitheatre with around 40 in the sector allocated to fans from Plovdiv. The official attendance, presumably just the paid ticket sales, was 90 which makes the whole exercise frankly embarrassing for the League and for Slavia. Hopefully the Bulgarians can follow the Hungarian model in bringing their ageing stadia up to a decent standard.

Today’s game is part of the First League’s relegation pool. This has two groups of four whose top two proceed to a play off for a Europa League spot while the bottom two in each group go into a relegation play-off. Today Botev Plovdiv are the visitors to the capital and they easily outplay a dispirited looking Slavia. There is a small group of around 50 Slavia ultras in this vast stadium and unfortunately they seem happy, in between bouts of their anthem “Samo Slavia” (“Alone Slavia”), to direct monkey chants towards Botev’s French striker Omar Kossoko. However, almost immediately after the chants started Kossoko responded in the best way possible with a clinical finish following a poor attempt to save a shot by the home goalkeeper. The visitors doubled their lead before half time when Antonio Vutov, on loan from Italian side Udinese, waltzed through a cumbersome Slavia defence before finding the net with some aplomb. Kossoko netted the third in the second period and the visitors ended up as very easy winners.

Feels such a shame that such a vast modern stadium has a few dozen people watching matches with little or no atmosphere. Surely common sense should prevail and Slavia will be allowed to play games in front of something resembling a crowd at their own stadium.

Saturday April 22nd 2017 – PFG First League

PFC Slavia Sofia 0
PFC Botev Plovdiv 3 (Kossoko 34,53, Vutov 44)

Att:90 (at Stadion Vasil Levski)
Admission: 5 Lev (the Main A stand only open)

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Whatever Happened To All Of The Heroes? (PFC Levski Sofia)

PFC Levski Sofia were formed in 1914 and are one of Bulgaria’s most successful clubs with 26 championships, only CSKA with 31, have more titles. They were formed as a football wing of the Levski Sports Club who had taken their name from the Bulgarian national hero, Vasil Levski. Born Vasil Ivanov Kunchev, Levski would be the spearhead for Bulgaria independence from the Ottomans. Sadly he would never see the end of his revolution, he was hanged by the Ottomans at the age of 35.

Levski originally played their home games on Levski Field (Grishte Levski) a stadium that would eventually hold 10,000 people. The stadium had only a short life, finished in 1934 it was knocked down 15 years later to make way for the new National Stadium. Levski were moved to the Yunak Stadium which was almost adjacent to their own ground. Here they shared with other clubs like FC 13 Sofia. Eventually the site of the Yunak was also needed for the National Stadium project and Levski had to find a new home.

Under the auspices of architect Lazar Parashkevanov the new Levski Stadium began construction in 1960 in the Suhata reka district of Sofia. Although the Levski Stadium was its official name the fans dubbed it “Gerena” (the flood plain) after the area it was located in. The stadium was opened officially in 1963 with a game against Spartak Pleven. It held some 36,000 spectators with the main stand being covered.

In 1969 the authorities merged Levski and Spartak Sofia and the stadium became a multi sport venue catering for boxing, gymnastics, volleyball and weightlifting. The adjacent training ground with four pitches was also built at this time. For a brief period following trouble at the Cup Final of 1985 against CSKA, the authorities changed Levski’s name to Vitosha Sofia. While some players and officials were banned for life, the club were allowed to re-adopt the name Levski after four years had passed under the Vitosha moniker. In 1990 the stadium was renamed in honour of one of Levski’s greatest players, Georgi Asparuhov. Known as Gundi he was one of the most prolific scorers of his generation and an icon for the Levski supporters. He was killed in a car crash in 1971 aged only 28.

From 1992 the plan was to turn the stadium into an all seater arena. Due to economic problems the project took seven years to complete with Levski having to play hone games at the National Stadium in the interim. The eyecatching scoreboard surrounded by the Cyrillic letter for “L” (Л), was built in 2006. Plans for the total redevelopment of the ground were announced in 2011 but so far only the new main stand, opened in April 2016, has materialised. Strangely this leaves the stadium without a roof on any part. The stadium which has held 60,000 on two occasions, against Górnik Zabrze in 1970 and four years later against Pirin Blagoevgrad, now holds a more modest 25,000 and is currently called the Vivacom Arena following sponsorship.

Tonight’s game is against FC Dunav from the northern town of Ruse close to the border with Romania. It is part of the end of season round of games when the league table splits in to a championship and relegation pool. With Razgrad based side Ludogorets looking odds on to win a sixth successive title, the chase is on for the other European competition places. On a bitterly cold night, there are periodic flurries of snow, a meagre crowd of 620 gather in the Asparuhov Stadium. The majority gather at the south end of the stadium where the Levski ultras sing constantly and let off a token bit of pyro in the second half. In the away end around 20 hardy Dunav fans who have made the long trip to the capital.

The game’s opening goal came as early as the sixth minute when a free kick from the impressive Spanish midfielder Añete took a flick off the head of Dunav’s Miroslav Budinov and nestled into the net beyond the reach of the goalkeeper. The rest of the game was played out in snowy conditions and just when it looked like Dunav would not find an equaliser, Lebanese midfielder Samir Ayass seized on a poor clearance to drill home from ten yards.

With Levski’s last Championship back in 2009 and a rich heritage of heroes like Vasil Levski and Gundi Asparuhov casting such a voluminous shadow the club are in real need of a new hero to help end the domestic dominance of Ludogorets and bring success back to the capital.

Friday April 21st 2017 – PFG First League
PFC Levski Sofia 1 (Budinov og 6)
FC Dunav Ruse (2010) 1 (Ayass 76)

Att:620 (at Stadion Georgi Asparuhov)

Admission: 20 Lev (c.£10) to main stand although tickets to other parts of the ground were priced at 5 and 10 Lev.

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Postcards From Belgrade 2 (Serbian Groundhop 2017)

Following last years pioneering Groudhop to Belgrade a second one was arranged for the first weekend of April 2017 with no less than 45 groundhoppers attending.

The first match on the agenda was the match between Dinamo Vranje and ČSK Celarevo Pivara. Vranje is a city in the Pčinja district of Southern Serbia, just 25 miles from the border with Macedonia and 40 miles from Bulgaria. The club were formed in 1947 and have spent much of their recent history in between the second and third tiers of Serb football. However, as recently as 2013/14 they were in the fourth tier but after two straight promotions they have returned to the Prva Liga. Dinamo play at the Yumco Stadion, Yumco have their HQ next door to the stadium and produce the uniforms for the Serbian military.

The stadium is a quirky two sided affair with separate entrances for both sides meaning you had to leave the stadium and walk round the perimeter to gain access to the open terrace on the far side. What set the ground apart was its location beneath the triple peaks of the Pljačkovica, Krstilovice and Pržar mountains, as initially the sun shone it really was a most beautiful vista.

Prva Liga (07/04/2017)

FK Dinamo Vranje 2 (Djokić 51, Suraka 62)

FK ČSK Pivara 1 (Mezei 89)

Att: c.600 (at Yumco Stadion) Free admission

The footballing offering for Saturday morning was restricted to under 19 matches in the Omladinska Liga. We opted for the game between second placed FK Partizan and league leaders FK Brodarac. They play at the Sports Centre Partizan-Teleoptik in Zemun which is also known as as “Zemunelo”. As well as being Partizan’s training ground it is the home ground of FK Teleoptik who currently lead the third tier Srpska Liga Beograd Zona.

A healthy crowd of almost 400 gather to watch a scintillating performance from Brodarac who win comfortably by four goals to one. Among the crowd was former PSV, Chelsea and Atlético Madrid striker Mateja Kežman who was very friendly and seemed happy to sign autographs and pose for photos.

Omlandiska Liga (08/04/2017, 10am)

FK Partizan U19s 1 (Maksimović 78)
FK Brodarac U19s 4 (Lukić 23,53, Bjelobrk 40, Kojić 66)

Att:397 (at SC Partizan Teleoptik)

The early evening game saw a trip to Stadion Partizan for the match against southern Serbian club Radnik Surdulica. Tension in and around the stadium, despite the modest crowd, was palpable with Red Star ultras apparently trying to steal Partizan flags. The mood wasn’t helped by Radnik taking an unexpected lead early on.

The second half thankfully was less worrying and Partizan almost inevitably came back to win 2-1 thanks to the awarding of a very soft penalty.
Partizan and Red Star have been at loggerheads since both were formed in 1945 after all pre War clubs were formally dissolved. Red Star have won 27 National championships to Partizan’s 26 so you can imagine the intense rivalry between the two on derby day. The Večiti derbi, the Eternal Derby,really is one of Europe’s greatest footballing experiences.

Super Liga (08/04/2017, 5pm)

FK Partizan 2 (Janković 53, Durdević pen 78)

FK Radnik Surdulica 1 (Arsenijević 18)

Att:1,500

On Sunday we could have stayed in Belgrade for the easy option of Grafičar but instead we decided on the derby of Mladenovac! Upon entering the ground of FK Selo Mladenovac you see an old railway carriage which is used as a refreshments bar! On the far side is a pitch length uncovered terrace whose concrete steps have been almost subsumed by weeds and wild flowers. Behind the terrace is the eye catching feature of a disuse mill tower. Behind the dressing rooms is the disused factory of Petar Drapšin which manufactured tanks for the old Eastern bloc countries.

Again the club are most welcoming and insist we don’t pay to get in. The hosts need to defeat OFK Mladenovac to remain in the division and a spirited comeback in the second sees them grab the points with a 4-2 triumph.

1.Beogradska Liga Grupa C (09/04/2017, 10am)

FK Selo Mladenovac 4 (Mitrović 46, Tolić pen 64,74, Vujić 79)

OFK Mladenovac 2 (Arsić 43, Stefanović 84)

Att:79

We headed back to Belgrade for the highly anticipated match between FK Rad and Red Star. We had reserved tickets in the “neutral” sector were charged 700 Serb dinar (£5) instead of the normal 400 dinar. To our surprise the ground was not even half full and our tickets had 400 RSD written on them. The club had charged us 300 dinar per ticket for “reservation” for a game that we could have just walked up to and paid to get in. The poor experience with Rad was compounded by the searches conducted at the gates which saw all manner of items confiscated, the strangest being a packet of mints!

On the pitch zvezda eased to a 4-0 win helped by the referee failing to give Rad a clear penalty with the score at 0-1. The Rad ultras were housed in a section of uncovered terracing behind the goal and had just returned after their racist chanting had seen the club forced to play the previous three home games behind closed doors. Save for the odd bout of vigorous flag waving and a blue smoke bomb the ultras of Rad appeared to be on their best behaviour.

Super Liga (09/11/2017, 5pm)

FK Rad 0

FK Crvena Zvezda 4 (Plavšić 34,70, Ristić 65, Petković 73)

Att:2,000 (at Stadion Kralj Petar I)

With a few of the hoppers staying till Tuesday a bonus opportunity of the Prva Liga match between FK Proleter and FK Indija appeared from the fixture gods. We headed north to the stunning city of Novi Sad in good time for the 15.30pm start.

Arriving unannounced just before kick off at the Stadion Slana Bara (“salty pond”) the FK Proleter president insisted we would be his guests and again free entry was given as well as very welcome cold bottle of Coke or Fanta on a blisteringly hot afternoon.
Both Proleter and Indija have struggled for goals this season and prior to today’s match had both managed to score only 18 goals in twenty matches. A competitive and occasionally feisty encounter saw the hosts win 3-1 in front of 500 people with their third being an absolute peach of a free kick.

Prva Liga (10/04/2017)

FK Proleter Novi Sad 3 (Novaković 26,85, Mirosavljev 56)

FK Indija 1 (Marković 23)

Att:500 (at Stadion Slana Bara)

With grateful thanks to our Serbian friends Aleks Peković, Bodgan Mitrović and Teodora Rebić, Stephen Carpenter and I hope to arrange a third Serbian Groundhop in during the 2017/18 season.

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An extended review of Belgrade Groundhop 2017 will appear in the June 2017 edition of “Football Weekends” magazine. To order your copy please visit http://www.footballweekends.co.uk