Season 4 - Bulgaria PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mark W   
Sunday, 04 September 2011 15:55

Bulgaria v England – European Championships Qualifier

Vasil Levski Stadium, Sofia

Friday 2nd September, 21:15 K.O. (local time)

Inside Stadium

It’s not every day that you get chauffeured by a former Soccer AM Soccerette but that’s just how the trip to watch England’s European Championships Qualifier against Bulgaria started. Mark C and I were meeting Neil at Manchester airport and his sister had kindly offered to give us a lift.

If you are a regular reader of our England trips, it will come as no surprise that we were not heading for a flight to Sofia. As usual, that would be too straight forward. On this occasion though, I think we’d come up with a pretty decent plan. The original idea was to fly out via Munich arriving in Sofia late on the Thursday night but Neil suggested that instead, we break the journey up and have an afternoon and night in Munich before carrying on the next morning. As someone who’d never sampled a Munich Beer Keller I didn’t need much persuading.

We met up with Peter at Munich airport as our flight landed at the same time as his from Heathrow and got the train into the city. Pete took the opportunity to regale us with stories from his trip to Udinese watching Arsenal the week before. I think the highlight was his description of the ‘Policewoman-tourguide thing’ in Venice. “What’s a Policewoman-tourguide thing, Pete?” “You know the sort; she waved a gun around and told tourists where to go.” I’m not sure I do know the sort but the German girl sat opposite us was in hysterics.

We were in different hotels in Munich as Neil and Pete had each booked using points. Neil’s hotel was right at the station and included a complementary room upgrade. Pete’s hotel was more of a walk away and didn’t. There wasn’t too much thinking required before I decided which room I’d opt for.

It just so happened that our one day in Munich was on 1 September 2011. On 1 September 2001, England played a game in Munich which went rather well. We decided that it would be inappropriate to let this anniversary pass us by so we would make a trip to the Olympic Stadium to mark the occasion. I also wanted to go and have a look at the Allianz Arena so it turned into a football ground hopping afternoon.

Luckily for us, the S Bahn & U-Bahn maps in Munich include a picture of a football next to the nearest station to the Allianz, and the Olympic rings next to the Olympic stadium. Even we could manage that.

Neil had been to the Allianz Arena during the 2006 world cup but it was a new experience for the rest of us. It is a fantastic looking stadium from the outside, as impressive in reality as it appears on pictures. Pete had assured us that he’d read on Tripadvisor (the font of all knowledge when travelling abroad, that it is now coloured red on non-match days. We were having none of it as all the pictures I’d seen were white. As you can see, Tripadvisor shouldn’t always be trusted.

Allianz

Unfortunately we’d missed the last tour of the day but we were able to have a look around outside and could see a little of the inside.

Inside Allianz

We noted that as with so many modern stadiums the ground was in the middle of nowhere. In fact, it is just stuck in what appears to be miles and miles of wasteland. I guess that’s where you find affordable land though, and there will certainly be plenty of car parking available when there’s a match on.

Pete was incredulous that we had now been in Munich for a couple of hours and were yet to have a beer. To make matters worse, he’d not text the missus. “I like my set routine on these trips,” he told us. “I settle down with my first beer and text her. She’s never going to believe me that it’s taken this long.”

A decision was taken, though, to do the Olympic Stadium before the drinking commenced. If we’d have gone for a beer, we’d have never made it any further. The decision was proven the correct one when we only made it into the stadium for a look round a couple of minutes before they closed the gates.

Olympic Park

The Olympic park is an impressive area with the Olympic Stadium being its centrepiece. It is a bowl of a stadium that is clearly old and past its best, but I really liked it. It also has a couple of the safe standing sections that we hear so much about. This was the first time I had seen these firsthand. I cannot for the life of me imagine how anyone could claim that these are not safe and why it would not be appropriate to utilise the technology in England.

Safe Standing

I didn’t start following England away until 2005 and I think it is fair to say that the 5-1 four years earlier was a big factor in making my mind up that one day I would do so. The game was also before either Neil or Mark started travelling away but Pete was there. At one point while we were having a look round the ground, we lost Pete. Then we spotted him sat in a seat near the front of the stand. We didn’t even need to ask, we knew instinctively that had to be where he’d sat ten years ago to the day.

On the plane over, I’d read a piece by Dietmar Hamann about how he didn’t understand the English obsession with that night. We simply beat them in a qualifier for a tournament that they eventually made the final of. Deep down, I know that he is right but what a night it was even watching it on TV. If you’ve suffered as many let downs as England have over the last 40 years, you take solace where you can. Anyway Dietmar, if it doesn’t bother you, I’ll dedicate this photo of Neil to you.

5-1

As we headed back into town, we passed the memorial to those killed during the 1972 Olympics when Palestinian terrorists took Israeli athlete’s and coaches hostage at the Olympic village. A poignant reminder that unfortunately sport cannot conquer all.

Israeli 1

Israeli 2

A few minutes later, Pete was finally able to send his text. We even took the sensible option and had something to eat with our beers before heading off in search of a traditional beer keller. Somehow that search led us to a Mexican cocktail bar which couldn’t be much different to what I had in mind. They sold beer though and the waiter explained how we could find what we were really after.

We ended up in the Hofbrauhaus which is one of the oldest and largest beer houses in Munich.

During our couple of hours in there we drank a little beer

Beer

Listened to a little music

Music

And enjoyed the sights.

Girl

Unfortunately, we’d got an early flight the following day so as night turned into morning it was time to head back and get some much needed kip before the big day ahead.

Somehow we all made the flight the next morning. It wasn’t too bad for Neil and I as we’d stuck to our word when we’d got back to the hotel. The other two, however, had met two American guys in the bar who ‘insisted’ on buying them beer. Then a bit more beer. Going to bed at 4am when you need to be on a train at 07.22 is not the best plan. Doing it without setting an alarm is an even worse plan. Anyway, we made it… just.

Sofia is a strange city. It clearly has an Eastern bloc feel to it but you can certainly tell that it was never truly Soviet. It has many huge buildings similar to those we’ve seen in places like Moscow, Almaty and Minsk but somehow has a different feel to it.

We had a great hotel, right by the cathedral and not too far from the stadium but there was no time for getting our head down for a couple of hours (actually there was but for some reason we didn’t). At least we had no excuse for getting lost as the hotel had a map painted on the side.

Hotel

The cathedral was impressive and acted as a useful reference point should we encounter any difficulties finding our way back to the hotel after the game.

Cathedral

As always we needed to go and check in with the FA to prove that we had made the trip. We each had our cards scanned except Mark who had decided to come out for the afternoon without his for some reason. We suggested he use his driver’s license or passport instead but apparently they were in the hotel too. Oh well, it’s not as if it’s illegal to be on the street in Bulgaria without an ID…

The afternoon was spent wandering around Sofia taking in the few sights that exist in between visits to various drinking establishments. I had made a promise to myself after the Denmark game that I was going to take it very slowly and sensible. To my own shock and delight, I actually managed it. This was probably helped by the fact that Mark didn’t want to even look at Beer and both Neil and Pete were taking it fairly slowly too.

We bumped into a few old faces as the afternoon progressed and spent many an hour catching up with people we’ve met on previous trips. We also ventured to Happy Bar & Grill (Bulgaria’s largest restaurant chain) where some ‘interesting’ meals were consumed.

As we moved around the City, it struck me that we were possibly being watched

Watchtower

We gave the ‘fan zone’ a miss and eventually set up shop in a bar just round the corner from the stadium that had a nice mix of English and Bulgarian fans. I’d been expecting quite a hostile atmosphere in the city but far from it. All the locals we encountered seemed very friendly although for some reason all the men look like they are ready to explode at any minute. The women on the other hand fit into the Eastern European category that we have become used to… Stunning until they reach mid thirties and then they must put on 15 stone overnight and really let themselves go.

Ground

We made our way to the ground about an hour before kick-off and I found an appropriate spot for the flag. As always at that time, the best spots had been taken but it was good to get it on show.

Flag in ground

There was no doubt that this was a vital game. We were in a position where we needed two wins and a draw from our remaining three games to guarantee a place in Poland and Ukraine next summer. Failure to pick up all three points in Sofia would make that very difficult task. The fact that Bulgaria were on a nine game unbeaten run simply reinforced how difficult it would be.

The atmosphere built up as we moved closer to kick-off with the earlier suggestions that the crowd could struggle to surpass 15,000 being proved seriously misguided. The smoke bombs and flares in the home end also suggested that they were taking it quite seriously.

Flare

The game proved much more straight forward than any of us could have dared to hope. As so often is the case in games in September, the England players looked hungry for the game. If only that could be continued to the end of the season and beyond. Rooney continued his early season club form and within 21 minutes it was 2-0 and effectively game over. It was great to see that the players carried on in the same manner and managed to completely put the game to bed just before half time.

I have heard a few people say that we didn’t perform as well in the second half but I think that is very harsh. We played some really great football after half time but lacked the urgency we had shown before the break. The players can hardly be blamed for that when we’d already wrapped up the points and needed to make sure nobody picked up a knock before the Wales game on Tuesday.

The fans were superb with one of the best atmosphere’s I’ve known at an England game for some time. Again, that died off in the second half as we just relaxed and watched the game. Much has been made about the racist chanting from the home fans and clearly this is something that needs to be wiped out. I would say, however, that unlike some places we have been, this appeared to come from a minority of fans and it did not last long. The response of the English fans to this has also been criticised as they sang “Where’s your caravan?”. I can’t say I can see the problem here. It is a simple case of stereotyping and I struggle to believe that those on the receiving end are going to need hours of therapy to get over it.

Final Score

Despite being kept back for 45 minutes at the end, we left in jovial mood and all was calm outside the stadium. The cathedral proved it’s worth as we kept it in our eyeline allowing us to be back at the hotel within twenty minutes and after a quick nightcap it was time for an early night with a 4.30am alarm call required if we were going to make it back in time for the Huddersfield game at Boundary Park. It had been a tiring trip but a hugely enjoyable and ultimately successful one. The next one should see us clinch that European Championships spot in Montenegro.


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Last Updated on Sunday, 04 September 2011 17:00