March 4, 2017, Sofia
Following the Day of Liberty, March 3, in Sofia, with a few impressive explosions right outside my window, on Tsar Osvoboditel — a kind of imitation of St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt complete with a huge Cathedral, Alexander Nevsky, at the end of the street — on March 4, I heard explosions again, and looked out the window to see a huge parade of people in red. I thought perhaps it was a continuation of the holiday, but the crowd looked a little too monotonous for a holiday crowd.
In St. Petersburg, on Nevsky, I’d also had an apartment overlooking the street, and on national holidays the parades consisted of people of all ages and genders, but here young men between 16 and 40 comprised the crowd. And the Levski stadium, only about 150 meters away from my window, like a huge ear constructed to receive and, even more, to emit sounds, was a hell of thousands of male throats. Obviously, a soccer match was about to take place. Sure, I could stay home and write, but what if I pretended this was research? I had written a couple of hooligan stories set in Eindhoven Holland and Zagreb Croatia, so maybe I’d write one set in Sofia? Of course, very unlikely, but enough to give me a pretext to visit the game.
I walked to the East Side, where everybody wore red, but the line was too long to get through, and so I went out into the streets to the ticket cabins, and for 12 leva, 6 bucks, got a ticket on the Western Side of the Stadium, the premium side. Everybody was frisked superficially, but perhaps because of my age the cops waved me through. I had a designated seat, but pretty soon it became clear that everybody went wherever they wanted and stood. . . nobody would be sitting here. Unobstructed sunshine made the green grass greener, and I rested my eyes, focusing on the distance. Above, far off, stood Mt. Vitosha, over 2200m high, white peaks in the cloudless blue. What a relief from the damned computer screen. If nothing else, giving my eyes a reprieve from their failing near-sighted focus (I have always been slightly far sighted and now more so, having turned 60) was worth the price of admission. The sun was beating on my right cheek, and I hoped that the team facing the sun would attack more, so I would get balanced exposure. The stadium was divided into four sections, two red (CSKA fans), and two blue (Levski). And four sections were left completely empty, buffer zones between the blue and the red. Luckily, I wore black; to wear red in the blue section wouldn’t do, and vice versa.
The players ran out. I couldn’t read the names—the players all had the same Winnet ad on their back, without space for names, on the blue team (Levski). The red team likewise—CSKA used to be the establishment team, representing the military, like Partizan in Yugoslavia. It sounds more famous than it is as it’s named basically after CSKA Moscow: many things here are named after Russians (Gogol Street, Pushkin School, etc.) The crowd, 95 percent male, shrieked. The game started and the ball moved quickly, with lots of bad passes. After Barcelona, everybody wants to play a quick passing game, tika taka, it seems. In the fifth minute, CSKA players intercepted a sloppy pass in their half and after a long diagonal, approached the 16-meter box. One dribble on the left, a pass, and a run in the style of Ribery, a shot, and a perfectly placed ball into the left top corner. Goal! A beautiful one at that. I said wow, and laughed, and my neighbors booed and swore. The CSKA players ran toward their fans, thumping their chests. And the fans jumped up and down and threw fire crackers, burning torches, and smoke bombs in orange and red. There were a couple of deafening explosions. The cops – and there were at least a hundred of them – covered their ears. One player in blue lay on the ground holding his head. Maybe someone had thrown an object that hit his head? I hadn’t seen it and pretty soon I couldn’t see anything as the thick smoke drifted over the turf. Would the match be suspended? If it were an international match, featuring say Italy and Croatia or Serbia and Albania, the match would be suspended and penalties would be meted out against the team whose fans set off excessive fireworks. But here, while the smoke hadn’t lifted yet from the turf, the match continued. I couldn’t see much, neither could the players, and it didn’t seem to phase anyone. It was as if the hooligans’ smoke was a natural condition, and it interfered with the game as much as rain, mist, and other bad weather—which is to say, not at all. The cops kept staring up at the crowd. And I wondered, with all the frisking, how did the explosives make it into the stadium?
The quality of the match impressed me with its speed. At one point, a Levski player was brought down, but it wasn’t clear whether the tackle brought him down over the ball or after the ball, and it was somewhere close to the line of the 16 meter box. Everybody shouted, Penalty! But the referee showed with his hands that the game was to resume, no foul. Now the blue crowd burst into screams. Pederast! That’s a pretty a predictable insult in the Balkans and Russia. In Zagreb it would be pretty much the same. Cigani (gypsies!), and pederi (faggots!), and for black players, majmun (monkey!). Most fans probably don’t think of what they are actually shouting as they imitate one another, but the origins of these insults certainly weren’t an indication of a healthy culture! Much of Eastern Europe is still plagued by chauvinism and sexism, and political correctness hasn’t set in as strongly as in Northern Europe to cure these ills.
When the first half ended, with CSKA 1:0 ahead, the players rushed into the protected tunnel for the break. My neighbor threw his plastic glass of water which splashed over a red player. Another one threw his sunglasses. The cops looked at the crowd. There was no announcement over the loudspeakers, as there would be in Zagreb, to respect law and order, or else the match would be suspended. And many men pounded on the Plexiglas tunnel roof to intimidate the players. The referee stayed back in the field, while the Levski fans shouted, Ajde! Ajde! Pederast, pederast! I wonder what it would be like to be a referee at that moment, and anyhow, eight cops with helmets and huge Plexiglas shields covered the referee as he ran into the tunnel, and the water and plastic glasses seemed more symbolic than hurtful. I walked around a little and climbed to a higher level, so that instead of seeing the players from up close, I would have a better view of the game.
Anyhow, in the meanwhile, representing the boredom of the 15 minutes between the two halves, I might as well post a bit of history about the “eternal rivalry” of these two clubs. The rivalry is similar to Real Madrid and Barcelona’s contest, but on a smaller scale — each Spanish-Catalan game is dubbed El Classico even before it starts, and usually the games are superb as those two teams are nearly always in the top four in the world, with the most expensive players, such as Messi and Ronalod, on the pitch. In Bulgaria, there is not that much money, so the level of soccer is not what it is in Spain, but nevertheless, the level of passion among the fans is at least as high.
Here is what Wikipedia reports on these two teams: The hostility reached its climax on 19 June 1985 during the Bulgarian Cup final held at Vasil Levski National Stadium when, after many disputable referee decisions, both teams demonstrated poor sportsmanship which resulted in regular fights between them on the pitch. On 21 June, the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party issued a decree that disbanded both teams. CSKA had to be re-founded as Sredets and Levski-Spartak as Vitosha. Six players (including Hristo Stoichkov and Borislav Mikhailov) were banned for life from playing competitive football; many other players and staff members were banned for three months to one year. A year later, the decision was abolished and the players continued their sport careers.
Well, at least it’s not as bad as in Yugoslavia, where the war to break up the country may well have started at the Dinamo stadium in Zagreb in 1990, with total mayhem and 100 people injured. Strangely enough, nobody was killed. (Though how sure are we that none of the injured died later? If they died of a ruptured spleen 20 days later, we won’t count them as dead?) Now at the Levski stadium the 15 minute break was over, and the game resumed — here in Sofia, named for the goddess of wisdom.
I tried to figure out why the red and the blue hate each other so much. Sure, red is the communist color, and the reds may be retro socialist-fascist, but the blue ones are not exactly progressive freedom fighters either, judging by their favorite insult words of gypsy! and fag! You don’t find progressives in most soccer stadiums. And what does progressive in the Balkans even mean? I witnessed the mass protests in Sarajevo, in 2014, where the crowd of protesters set the parliament ablaze, and one of the mottos of the crowd which demanded equality and justice and employment for all, was, Pederi, Van! The members of the parliament were dubbed Faggots. So, let’s say the members of the crowd become the new Parliament — it seems very unlikely that they would actually proceed to pursue equal rights for homosexuals, Serbs, Gypsies. Just opposing someone undemocratic does not mean that you are necessarily democratic—in Sarajevo, the opposition to the autocratic leaders didn’t appear to be altogether democratic in tendencies either, just as for example, the opposition to the autocratic Shah of Iran turned out to be politically retrograde. At the stadium I had enough time to think about all this — whether the current corrupt government of Bulgaria could be replaced by a fully democratic and progressive government, with the population base, partly such as what I was seeing at the stadium, full of chauvinist tendencies. And is it better in the States, after all, with the election of a xenophobic and hateful president, who doesn’t represent the majority but a large enough segment of the population to be in power? Maybe the pulse of chauvinism I was feeling was not merely a local but rather a global problem — hidden in many places, but not in a large sports match, where everything comes to the fore. It’s like a nudist camp of emotions. Nothing is hidden.
Observing enraged crowds is an anthropological study of civilization and its discontents, mostly the latter. We can talk about progress all we want, but let’s see what men of military age feel, what they shriek, whom they hate. In Serbia and Croatia it’s easy to choose whom to hate. In Croatia, people hate Serbia. In Serbia, Croatia. In Bulgaria, it’s more nuanced. Unlike Croatia and Serbia, Bulgaria has no loud and clear obvious enemy, and unlike Croatia and Serbia, no history of antisemitism, for example. And the Turkish invasion is so long bygone, and the Turkish presence is not in any way dominant or threatening, so there’s not much energy wasted in hating Turks. So, let’s hate the other team; that will work as a surrogate for the nationalist crowd gathering impulse. In the ancient stadium, the world is beautifully divided over the green turf: Red and Blue.
I decided to leave to beat the crowd rush and the squeezing at the end of the match. While looking for the exit, I saw a bit of mayhem in the penalty box of CSKA. I wasn’t quite sure there was a penalty, but the referee may have wanted to make it home safely. I left ten minutes before the end of the match and followed the end on TV in a bar just off Tsar Osvoboditel. Levski was 2:1 ahead. And apparently the inner city people loved that score. For most of the match, CSKA played the more convincing and beautiful game. They had three black players, more than the Blues did, and I sort of rooted for them maybe because I was surrounded by the blue fans. In the red section, I would probably root for the blues—a contrary impulse, since I never trust the crowds. To be fair, only perhaps one out of ten men shrieked. My neighbors to the left laughed at nearly every bad pass and seemed to enjoy the game as a comedy. Anyway, the game cured my conjuctivitis. I had been writing, looking at a computer screen, my eyes watering, but at the game, in the sunshine, over nurtured green turf, they recovered. Soccer may be a waste of time but staring at the grass and the mountain in the distance in the sunshine works like God. Soccer? It could have been anything. And it was.
This is what I will say: The basic nonviolence at the stadium impressed me after all. The police looked at the crowd and didn’t interfere. The crowd didn’t throw glass but only small plastic objects (well, other than one hit in the head of a Levski player). They didn’t tear the chairs off the cement to throw at the players, nor throw rocks, or even more dangerously, old Nokia cellphones. It was loud, sure, but not very damaging. Much of it was a theater of hatred, but restrained and not violent — more an expected habit, like Canadian hockey players resorting to a boxing match in the middle of a game, a sort of professional wrestling. Without that, the game wouldn’t be the game. Maybe there’s some kind of catharsis going on at the stadium, where potential hatreds are screamed out of people’s lungs, and the people can now go out and be calm and peaceful. That would be an optimistic interpretation of all the screaming and shouting — but perhaps not altogether wrong, at least for most people. In the middle of all the homophobic shouting, a rather civilized couple of young men next to me embraced, and stood like that — maybe they were gay after all, maybe not (touchy-feely behavior in single-sex friendship is common in the Balkans), but anyhow, they didn’t seem to evince hate but, on the contrary, some kind of love.