Zdravei from sunny Sofia, where it’s not even noon yet and the temperature is already 35°C or so. It’s been a lovely stay here in the capital of Bulgaria for the final match of the 2009/10 season.
Sofia is a relatively small town with a population of just under one and a half million. The streets tend to be wide open tree-lined boulevards with an architectural mix of drab communist era and ultra modern commercial. It’s a walkable city, everywhere you want to go is reachable by foot and that’s probably just as well since the Cyrillic alphabet is indecipherable to our untrained eyes. Sofia locals are a stand-offish lot. They look very wary and suspicious of you but once you attempt to break the ice and engage in conversation with them, the macho intimidation façade is dropped. Learning a few words of the local lingo helps of course, but it’s very confusing that in this part of the world, shaking of the head means yes and nodding means no. Best to just keep still when saying “Da” or “Ne”.
The main attraction of Sofia is the Alexander Nevski Memorial Church. Located behind that National Assembly, it was built by the Russians as a multi gold domed ecclesiastical monolith that has been Sofia’s defining iconic symbol since its completion in 1924. The huge inside interior is very atmospheric but it seems almost entirely lit by candlelight. The souvenir vendors in there are an unhelpful bunch too.
Fans of dreadful architecture are well catered for here in Sofia. Chief amongst the many delights is the National Palace of Culture, which resembles a multi-storey car park-cum-multiplex cinema and just seems so out of place in the middle of the serene fountains and parks of Natsionalen dvorets na kulturata – NDK Park. However this is topped by the nearby Monument to the Bulgarian State. Built in 1981 to mark the 1,300 anniversary of the founding of the country, it’s resembles a shoddy pile of scrap metal and is widely ridiculed by Sofians. Less than 10 years after its unveiling, it started to fall apart and responsibility of its refurbishment (or indeed demolition) has been the subject of bureaucratic wrangling ever since. Much of it is now covered with advertising hoardings, theoretically to prevent bits of it falling on passers by, but most likely to hide the embarrassment.
The food here is hearty and carnivorous. Recommended are the supa topcheta (small meatballs boiled in vegetables and herbs) and chushki byurek (peppers filled with egg and cheese). However service in restaurants is not the quickest. And as for smoking bans, what are they?
Vasil Levski stadium
The match was at the Vasil Levski stadium, just 15 minutes walk from Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia’s main street. It’s a non-descript concrete bowl with an athletics track and from the outside it looks like a government office block. Uniquely, as well as the away fans being separated from the home support, the local fans have to be segregated too. Factions from the two Sofia rivals, Levski and CSKA, can’t even be united to cheer on their own country together.
Ireland took the lead through a Richard Dunne header in the 25th minute. But 5 minutes later, Kevin Kilbane ducked out of a Bulgarian cross, not realising behind him was Dimitar Telkiyski who proceeded to put away the equaliser. From there on it was all Bulgaria, but Ireland manfully managed to cling on for a draw and remain 5 points ahead of Bulgaria. It was a terrific atmosphere, the best I’ve been to in a long time. At half-time, we witnessed the surreal sight of large chunks of the 2,000 or so away support getting up to dance and sing along to Africa by Toto as it was played over the tannoy system for no reason. Let’s chalk it up to irony…
So there you have it. Travel for the rest of the year will be limited, credit crunch and all that. But this has been a great way to end the season as the possibility of Ireland making it to the World Cup becomes a distinct reality. Guess I should start saving up now for South Africa.
One last thing; Prior to travelling out here I got a call from Radio 5 Live who were looking for someone to do a live phone interview from Sofia about the Irish fans in town and the forthcoming match. They contacted the London branch of the Supporters’ Club, who in turn nominated me as a likely candidate. Presumably because I could string a reasonably coherent sentence together, but probably because I’d be mug enough to do it.
So there I was in an Irish bar in Sofia at 10:50pm on a Friday night, abstaining from the drink thus far (ha ha), mentally writing out a few one-liners to say, anxiously awaiting my big moment when Radio 5 Live text to say the interview has had to be dropped because the schedules had been scrapped to cover England losing to Holland in the Twenty20 World Cup. My 5 minutes of fame, gone because of the inept England cricket team. Thanks guys.