Bulgaria – a country I know ignorantly little about beyond Berbatov, Stoichkov and the fact that it is has flag that is an anagram of Hungary’s. Quite why I ended up in Sofia for 46 hours is unknown, but my visit did happen to coincide with the distinctly unappealing Bulgaria versus Luxembourg game.
I arrived on Monday at about 16.00 and a quick whizz around town meant I had seen most of the sites and purchased my tickets by the time I snuggled into bed to watch Lost in Translation with Bulgarian subtitles. It was about this time that I also realised that spending some time in Japan during my brief sabbatical from work may have been a good idea. Still, Bulgaria.
I had a lie-in on the day of the game with a daunting 21.45 kick off ahead of me. I am normally starting my sleepy time routine at 21.45 and not heading off to the football. As such, rest was imperative. A late lunch of the traditional Bulgarian salad of shopra followed before I went in search of beer. It turns out that Bulgaria does not have an extensive craft beer culture. Still I found the appropriately named BiraBar and settled in for a couple to accompany the excellent book I was reading on the transition to democracy in Albania from 1989 to date. Yep, I just wrote that sentence. The beer flowed from the kind Bulgar with the handlebar moustache. Times were good unlike the year of 1997 in Albania where a pyramid system collapsed. Never invest in a pyramid scheme unless you get in early.
Birabar inspired to go onwards. To the only other half decent beer place in town. “A Bulgarian IPA, dear barman.” It turns out there are only three Bulgarian IPAs in existence. I tried them all. This made me sleepy so I headed home to drop off my Albanian classic and have a brief lie down.
Mildly refreshed after a 40 minute walk and 10 minute lie down, I hopped on Sofia’s classically Communist metro (whatever happened to the Mytishnskii Factory) and hopped off at the stadium’s metro station. A brief run-in with a brusque Bulgarian security guard did little to dampen my spirits, but did delay my trip to the nearest beer vendor. A slightly bubbly lager later I venture towards the pits of a beautiful Soviet Concrete Bowl (Large). The security check was cursory: I was in. To be immediately deflated by the derisory number of spectators in this gladiatorial arena. The numbers swelled a little before kick off, but I had plenty of leg room and spitting space for my sunflower seeds (oh how local).
The game. These two teams lie in a qualifying group with Belarus, France, the Netherlands and Sweden. Which means they have zero chance of qualifying. Luxembourg probably feel the same way at the start of each campaign, but Bulgaria probably have higher expectations, still remembering (like we all do) the beautiful 1994 World Cup campaign.
Lucky I got a ticket
The first half was turgid. Bulgarian going in one up thanks to a great strike from 25 yards (although maybe the keeper could have done better). I thought about leaving. A day of sampling Bulgaria’s finest made me tired and sleepy and Luxembourg were offering little to inspire. I stayed. Thankfully, I stayed.
The second half was spectacular. Aurelin Joachim smuggled in an equaliser before grabbing a second with some direct running and calm shooting. Three minutes later with 65 minutes on the clock, born and bred Bulgar, Marcelinho forced home at the far post from a corner (with a hint of an own goal) to make it two all. Bulgaria thought they had a winner on 79 minutes as the best player on the night (and reputed ladies’ man of Moscow (dirty Spartak scumbag)) Ivelin Popov scored from a free kick with some aplomb. But, no. Luxembourg thought they had an equaliser on 90 minutes with substitute Florian Bonhert volleying home. A great goal. The Luxembourg fans (a respectable 20 or so) went ape sh’t. The bench were off and running like they won the world cup. Alas, deep into injury time Aleksander Tonev found himself with all the time in the world to curl home the winner. The Bulgarian fans (a not respectable 6,000 or so) went ape sh’t. The bench were off and running like they won the world cup. 4-3 it finished. A great, if ultimately irrelevant game of football. The Luxembourg boys were collapsed at the end/protesting a handball decision that could have given them a penalty in the dying embers of the game.
Marcelinho about to score
I headed back to my hotel to watch a series called Meat Eaters were an American goes around shooting innocent animals with a gun/bow and arrow. My day may have been pointless, but at least I did not kill anyone or anything.
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