Thursday, 31 October 2019

PLOVDIV (A brief groundhopping guide)

This is an unusual write up, as far as this blog goes, in that there was no football involved. As mentioned in my previous entry for Ludogorets Razgrad, a week or so before my trip began a statement was put out by the Interior Minister to the effect of cancelling all football in Bulgaria because of the "inability to guard football meetings on the dates around the elections of 25 - 28 October".

It was far too late to change my plans as it was too costly to seek flights elsewhere at such a late stage. Having said that, there was a glimmer of hope with some regional leagues but even these disappeared in the 48 hours before they were due to be played. A groundhoppers nightmare.

Nonetheless I turned my attention to the wonderful city of Plovdiv, which is European Capital City of Culture 2019, and headed for the respective grounds I was going to plus a visit to a couple of others. So here is a brief, and in no way comprehensive, guide to football in Plovdiv.

Plovdiv is about 3 hours from Sofia by train, which is what I opted for rather than hang around for the next bus. I should have waited as it was cramped and very hot. Not a pleasant journey at all. I will definitely take a bus next time!

First port of call was to the Tor Diev Stadium, the home of Spartak Plovdiv 1947, a municipal stadium about a 5 minute walk from main train station. The stadium was opened in 1926 as a multi-sport venue and was the original home of Botev Plovdiv until 1949, when Spartak made it home. Spartak folded in 2016 but reformed a year later and now ply their trade in the regionalised Bulgarian fourth tier. 

Next on my list was a visit to Botev Plovdiv. My hotel was in the city centre and from there, bus numbers 1, 20, 27 all pass the Botev Stadium. This trip takes about 25 minutes and costs the standard price of 1lv (50p) per trip.

Botev Plovdiv are the oldest professional club in Bulgaria, having been founded in 1912. During its history, the club has won two Bulgarian championships, three Bulgarian Cups, one Bulgarian Supercup and one Balkans Cup. The club has also reached the Cup Winners' Cup quarter-finals once, in 1963.

The Botev Stadium was originally opened in 1961 and has undergone renovation over the years, the most recent in 2013. However the full redevelopment of the ground has yet to be completed as the club search for investors. It is hoped that when finally completed the ground will have a capacity of 18,000.

Returning to the city centre, I transferred onto bus 18, which takes you in the direction of Lomomotiv Plovdiv's ground, which is about a 10 minute ride.

Lokomotiv Plovdiv were founded in 1926 and, as you can guess from their name, the club have historical links to the railway and it's workers. The club have one Bulgarian championship to their name, having won the title in 2004. The club won the Bulgarian Cup for the first time this year, beating fierce rivals Botev 1-0 in the final.

The Stadion Lokomotiv is situated in Lauta Park and was inaugurated in 1982. The ground has a capacity of just over 13,000. The ground has been recently renovated to UEFA standards which allow the hosting of games up to the play-off round.

I must thank the guy on reception for opening up the stadium door for me to take a few photographs.

Returning to the city centre, if you take bus 18 in the other direction, crossing the river Maritsa, you will find your way to the football club which take their name from said river.

Maritsa Plovdiv, who ply their trade in the Bulgarian third tier. This is where footballing legend Hristo Stoichkov learnt his trade as a youth. The club was established in 1921, after the merger of the teams Vampir and Trite Konski Sili and it's highest achievement was reaching the Bulgarian top flight on four occasions. Each time though was for only the one season. The most recent was in 1996/97.

Maritsa folded in 2010 due to financial problems but the fans resurrected the club a year later, starting at the bottom rung of the ladder. The Maritsa Stadium is in the north of the city and has a capacity of around 4,000. This season Maritsa have been playing some home games at Botev's sporting complex.

That concludes my journey around the four major clubs in Plovdiv. Next time I visit I hope to actually get to see some action on the pitch! 

Thursday, 24 October 2019

PFC LUDOGORETS RAZGRAD 1945 (Ludogorets Arena)


When I booked my latest European excursion, this time to Bulgaria, the plan was to get three games in. A Europa League tie involving the Champions of Bulgaria, Ludogorets Razgrad, and Barcelona's other side, Espanyol, plus a top flight double featuring both of the Plovdiv sides. However things didn't quite go to plan to say the least!

The week before travelling, all games in Bulgaria, even low level fixtures, were cancelled because of elections. That another reason for a postponement to add to the list. Apparently the authorities called off the games due to their "inability to guard football meetings on the dates around the elections" so that was my raison d'être well and truly scuppered. Makes a change from a waterlogged pitch.

Regardless I ploughed on and I flew from Luton to the Black Sea resort of Varna. I didn't hang around to say 'hola' as the Espanyol staff and players were not for behind me when I landed around 2pm local time. Bus 409 runs to the city centre, every 15 minutes, and costs 1 lev (approximately 50p and is the standard price for a single bus trip). However make sure your bus is going in the direction of the city and not the other way as I nearly made that mistake!

I had a walk around the centre and down to the seafront before heading back to town to seek out the beer ticks. In one of the bars, I met an Irish couple, who said they have been coming to Varna for 20 years, and they implored me to avoid the trains and take the bus as they are generally quicker and a lot more comfortable. Apparently trains between big cities are ok but otherwise avoid. Having taken both over the course of this trip I can confirm this to be true. (The five hour ride from Razgrad was more pleasant than a 3 hour train journey from Plovdiv). Whatever the mode of transport, I made a mental note that one day I must return to the city and watch PFC Cherno More Varna in action.

It was by bus that I made the trip from Varna to Razgrad (in the direction of Ruse). It cost around £5 and took about 90 minutes. The city of Razgrad in the North East of the country and is 65 miles south of Bucharest. This is a other option for a route in. Hindsight is wonderful thing but I wish I'd gone that way then I may have been to get some Romanian games in.

Razgrad is built upon the ruins of the Ancient Roman town of Abritus so prior to game I a stroll out to the Abritus National Archaeological Reserve to have a look at the remains of a Roman military camp (pictured above). In terms of things to do from a tourist perspective, there isn't a lot to see. I spent the pre-match in a cafe on the main street having a couple of beers and watching the world go by. 

Some of the sights of Razgrad including the
famous clock tower, built in 1864.

The Professional Football Club Ludogorets are a recent phenomenon, despite the club having 1945 on their badge. The club was formed in 2001, replacing the old club which was eventually dissolved in 2006, and adopting their name soon afterwards. The original club had spent most of history in the lower reaches of Bulgarian football.

The Eagles of Razgrad's modern history began in 2009 when the club achieved promotion to the second division. When businessman Kiril Domuschiev took over the club in September 2010, the second division title was won that later season and the club achieved top flight status for the first time. In their debut season in the top flight the club won the league title, along with Bulgarian Cup and the Bulgarian Supercup to complete a domestic treble.

The club have won every league title since, that's eight in a row, wrestling away power from the traditional Sofia based clubs. They also won the treble once again in 2014. These recent successes have resulted in qualification for European football.

It was these subsequent European adventures are what placed Ludogorets firmly on my bucket list, especially with them having played Welsh opposition this season, beating The New Saints 9-0 on aggregate in the Europa League qualifying stages. They have also played Liverpool in the Champions League (in 2014) where they famously earned a 2-2 draw in Bulgaria and narrowly lost 2-1 in the away game. In 2016 Arsenal comprehensively beat them 6-0 at The Emirates and 3-2 in Bulgaria.

The clubs best European performance came in the 2013/14 UEFA Europa League, when the team topped their group ahead of PSV Eindhoven, Chornomorets Odessa and Dinamo Zagreb to become the first Bulgarian team to win a UEFA Europa League group. They beat Lazio 4-3 on aggregate round of 32, which included a famous 1-0 away win in Rome, before being eliminated by Spanish giants Valencia in the round of 16.

The view from my hotel

The games were played in Sofia as their home ground failed to meet UEFA standards. However the Ludogorets Stadium has been converted into a modern stadium that now meets the UEFA requirements. Three sides of the ground have been completely rebuilt to bring the capacity up to 10,444.

A record attendance equals big queues!

Anticipating a high demand for this game, I got in touch with the club to buy a ticket via bank transfer and it was waiting for me at their box office just down the road from the stadium.

Tonight a ticket in the central section cost 25 lev rather than the normal 15 lev. There were 10,334 in attendance this evening which is a new record for the stadium.

I counted 14 away fans in the corner, plus a couple in the VIP section, and apparently the tickets were provided to Spanish supporters free of charge by the club by way of a thank you.

These hardy souls were rewarded with a 1-0 victory for Espanyol. The game was hardly a classic but an early goal from Victor Campuzano ensured the team from Barcelona top the group at the midway stage. 

It was an early start for me so I retired to my hotel, which happened to be next to the ground, rather than follow the crowd into the city for a nightcap. A great "tick" but sadly the last action on this trip.

Sunday, 16 June 2019



Welcome back for a special edition of 'Damage in the Box' after a 6 month silence. This is probably a one-off for the time being unless I can rediscover my blogging mojo. Better to go out with a bang rather than a whimper, as they say!

I recently spent a week out in Italy sampling the delights of the European U-21 tournament which involved travelling around Northern Italy and San Marino. After enjoying myself so much in Poland in 2017 I decided this particular tournament was worth another trip. Like last time, there were six venues to take in but I only needed five, having previously visited one of the host stadiums. There is lots to get through, I hope you enjoy reading...

Sunday 16th June 2019
Italy 3-1 Spain @ Stadio Renato Dall'Ara, Bologna
Attendance: 26,432

Myself and two friends caught the 1140 Ryanair flight from Manchester, landing in Bologna around 1500. After checking into our hotel we made our way into the city centre for a well deserved beer, even though time was getting a little tight. We headed to Baladin Beer where another mate was already in situ, making his way through the 6 beers on sale.

En-route to said bar we passed an amusing piece of graffiti (pictured right). A totally random outburst indeed. We did wonder to ourselves what on earth the lovely Debbie McGee had done to upset the people of Bolonga!

From where we were drinking, the stadium was about 2 miles away so we headed to a nearby bus stop to catch a bus, but it was chaos. The queues were long and the buses the rammed full. We had a decision to make and that decision was to walk up to the ground. In truth it was straightforward enough as it was a case of following the road and the ground appeared before us.

The Stadio Renato Dall'Ara has been home to Bologna since 1927 and is named after a former club President. It was originally known as Littoriale and was a symbol of fascism. The ground is famous for the Maratona Tower, which once had a statue of Mussolini on top. After the fall of fascism, the statue was removed and the ground renamed.

This ground had been on my bucket list since seeing it used as one of the host stadiums of Italia 1990. This is the ground where David Platt scored a last minute winner for England against Belgium in the round of 16.

The ground is due to undergo renovation in the near future which will involve removing the athletics track and moving the new stands closer to the pitch. The stands will be covered however the stand behind the goal will have a see through cover so the iconic Santuario di Madonna di San Luca can still be seen from the stadium.

Tonight hosts Italy were taking on Spain which meant the ground was full to the available capacity of just over 26,000. As you can imagine it was a partisan crowd and they roared Italy on to a 3-1 victory, even though I thought overall Spain were the better team. Dani Ceballos (9) gave Spain the lead before Italy came back with goals from Federico Chiesa (36 & 64) and a penalty, awarded thanks to VAR, converted by Lorenzo Pellegrini (82).

There were plenty of buses around after the game, meaning we were back in the vicinity of the train station for a nightcap and a pizza before an early start for a trip north. 

Monday 17th June 2019
Germany 3-1 Denmark @ Stadio Friuli, Udine
Attendance: 7,131

It was early start to catch the 0653 train from Bolonga to Udine, where we arrived around lunchtime. There was plenty of time to stroll around the city.

The city hall and the surrounding buildings were decked in the flags of the teams taking part in the tournament. This was actually the first time it felt like a tournament was taking place.

After checking into our hotel, we headed back into the city and found ourselves at the fan zone that had been set up. There was good food on the go and there were stalls from three local breweries serving up their beers. It was superb. Sadly it seemed we were the only people taking advantage of this set up. I hope that it did well later on the tournament, especially with the final taking place at this venue.

The ground is around 3 miles out of town, which involved another bus journey from the city centre. Fortunately there were no problems getting on board this evening and we were ensconced in an Udinese supporters bar, not far from our turnstile entrance, in very good time.

Opened in 1976, the home of Udinese Calcio has been redeveloped in recent times. Three sides of the ground have been rebuilt and moved closer to the pitch, with an athletics track removed. You can see where the athletics track once was from the outside of the stadium. The original main stand with arc is the only side that remained. The stands have those multi-coloured seats to give the impression that the ground is full when it is empty. That was certainly the case this evening as the ground was less than half full.

It was a comfortable victory for Germany as goals from Marco Richter (28 & 52) and Luca Waldschmidt (65) put the holders in command before a penalty from Robert Skov (73) gave Denmark a consolation goal.

After the game there were buses to runs both sets of supporters back to town. As we had bumped into a few Danish lads on the train from Bologna they helped us onto the Danish supporters bus. This was especially good as other non-Danish fans had been refused entrance. We were back in the fan zone where we met a few more groundhoppers, and shared a few more beers, until the clocked ticked around to 1am. Not good considering it was another early start on Tuesday!

Tuesday 18th June 2019
Romania 4-1 Croatia @ Stadio Olimpico di Serravalle
Attendance: 4,035

The day began with a funny incident. Well two of us thought it was funny, my other mate maybe not so! Today it was back south to San Marino, via Rimini, which meant we were catching the very early (for us) 0655 train back south to Bologna. As it had been a late one in the Udine fan zone it meant very little sleep. The train station was a 20 minute walk from the hotel or there was a bus at 0628 which had you there in half the time.

After waking up around 0615, my mate insisted, despite the very tight timings, on having his shower. Don't worry I'll catch you up he said. Taking him at his word, myself and my other mate then headed for the bus and the station. We were waiting for "X" to arrive and with minutes to spare he walked onto the train, but was in absolute agony. It turned out whilst walking to the station he decided to commandeer a bicycle and then starting bombing it down the road. It was only then that he realised the bike had probably been dumped because there were no brakes on it! Luckily the road was traffic free but in order to bring the bike to a halt he crashed it into a skip thus bruising his ribs. We did our very best not to laugh, but...

Anyhow, we made it to Rimini and after a spot of lunch caught the 1425 bus to San Marino. The journey from Rimini takes around 40 minutes and the bus stops right outside the ground but we decided to carry on the further 3 miles up Mount Titano to have a look at the stunning views from the walls that surround San Marino city. Well I went and had a look, my mate sat in a cafe with a beer nursing his bruised ribs.

San Marino is the third smallest country in Europe and is the world's oldest republic, having been founded by a Christian stonemason named Marinus in 301 AD. There are a series of towns dotted on the mountain side and one of them is Serraville, where the Stadio Olimpico is located. San Marino gained UEFA and FIFA recognition in 1988 and their first official game was a 1992 European Qualifier against Switzerland, where they lost 4-0.

Our visit to the Stadio Olimpico was the centrepiece of this trip and the reason why the others joined me a this journey. A chance to tick off a new ground in a new country! Today saw Romania taking on Croatia and of the 4,000 crowd I would say 75% of those present were Romanian supporters.

The current golden boy of the Romania U21 squad is the son of a Romanian Legend. Ianis Hagi, son of Gheorge Hagi is making a name for himself and the supporters we spoke to on the bus to the game were pinning their hopes on him leading the team to glory.

Hagi did find the net, scoring the second goal after 11 minutes after George Puşcaş (9) had opened the scoring from the penalty spot, after a VAR review. Nikola Vlašić, in his final act as an Everton player, got a goal back on 18 minutes. Further goals in the second half from Tudor Băluţă (66) and Adrian Petre (90) ensured the win for Romania. On another night it could have been a lot more than four goals as their pace in attack was fantastic.

It was a walk back up the hill from the ground to the bus stop. This was the part that was worrying us the most. The last regular bus to Rimini was 2053 so, if officials were relying on this service there were going to be a lot of people trying to get on board. Fortunately extra buses were laid on and they were effectively football specials with no stops meaning we were back in the centre of Rimini, and in Pub 1843 (well worth a visit), by 2130. Result!

Wednesday 19th June 2019
Shock! Horror! No football... as the two games scheduled were at grounds I had been to previously. Bologna, obviously, the other day and Reggio Emilia in 2017 when Everton were humbled 3-0 by Atalanta at the Stadio Citta del Tricolore.

After a well deserved sleep in, I bid farewell to my two mates as they were heading home and I decided to have a day in Venice doing the usual tourist stuff. I did however have a trip to the ground of Venezia FC to have a peek. I couldn't gain access but I am definitely putting a visit to Stadio Pierluigi Penzo on my bucket list.

Thursday 20th June 2019
Germany 6-1 Serbia @ Stadio Nereo Rocco, Trieste
Attendance: 9,837

After enjoying the delights of Venice, it was back north to the port city of Trieste. The city is located on the narrow strip between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia, of which the border is around 10 miles away. Indeed in a pub later a beer from Nova Gorica was considered a local brew! Irish author James Joyce made Trieste home for a part of life and there is a statue in the city to celebrate this (pictured left).

I arrived in the city before midday so was able to spend the day looking around the city, taking in the Piazza Unità d'Italia and the Grande Canal before having a few pre-match beers and a fantastic meal in a local restaurant, which I stumbled upon by accident. The homemade pasta was amazing!

Opened in 1992, the Stadio Nereo Rocco is home to Triestina Calcio. The club had financial problems and went bankrupt in the mid-nineties, and again more recently in 2012, so the ground now hosts Serie C football. The ground is named after legendary player, and later coach, Nerro Rocco who was the first Trieste player to be capped by the Azzurri. He also coached AC Milan to the European Cup in 1963 and 1969. 

This is another stadium that has been redeveloped for this tournament with the terracing behind each goal replaced by seats. The capacity has been reduced from 34,000 to 26,000. I have to say they have done a great job. I really, really liked this ground. The metal roof structures certainly had an Archibald Leitch vibe about them and the views from the stand were great.

The game was another routine victory for Germany, hitting Serbia for six, with Augsburg striker Luca Waldschmidt taking centre stage by scoring a hat-trick (30, 37 & 80). Die Mannschaft other goals were scored by Marco Richter (16) Mahmoud Dahoud (69) and Arne Maier (92). Andrija Živković responded for Serbia with an 85th minute penalty kick. This result ensured Germany's passage to the semi-final whilst effectively eliminating Serbia from the competition.

Whilst in the stadium I bumped into a few other groundhoppers I knew so, after managing to scramble onto a bus at the end of the game, it was back into town for yet more beers and a chance to chew the fat on another evenings entertainment.


Friday 21st June 2019
England 2-4 Romania @ Stadio Dino Manuzzi, Cesena
Attendance: 8,440

The final day of my Italian adventure saw me head back south to Cesena. The city is between Bologna and Rimini, so is easily accessible by train from either city.

Rather than head back to either of these two cities I decided to make Cesena my base for the night. It is a very compact city and after visiting the Piazza del Popolo, I walked up the hill to the Rocca Malatestiana, a fortress which looks down on the main square. The other main attraction is the Abbey of St Maria del Monte, which I never had time to visit, but it is visible from the football ground (see photo below).

The Stadio Dino Manuzzi is the home of Romagna Centro Cesena, who are a phoenix club of AC Cesena who went bankrupt in 2018. The ground is therefore another stadium that plays host to Serie C football. The stadium was inaugurated in 1957 but was completely rebuilt in 1988. 

Pre-match it was chaos trying to enter the stadium as a large number of Romanian fans were once again following their team. The queues at the turnstile were massive and there wasn't much organisation as people were pushing in. I eventually I had to do the same, the old adage if you cant beat them...

I eventually found a vacant seat in the corner, which fortunately had a little shade as it was ridiculously hot. What the temperature at pitch level was like I dread to think. Maybe that played a part in a pedestrian first 45 minutes.

This game was a must win for England so their coach Aidy Boothroyd took the unusual decision to rest the likes of Phil Foden and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. There was plenty of Evertonian interest in the starting XI though with Jonjoe Kenny, Kieran Dowell and Dominic Calvert-Lewin all coming into the team.

For the first three quarters of the game it was dire but then all hell broke loose with six goals in the remaining 20 minutes. The aforementioned Kenny conceded a penalty, duly converted by George Puşcaş (76). Demari Gray (79) levelled for England before Ianis Hagi (85) restored Romania's lead. Back came the Three Lions through Tammy Abraham (87) before Florinel Coman made it 3-2 to Romania. It was Coman who sealed England's fate in the 93rd minutes when he scored his second meaning Romania progressed to the semi-final whilst England were on their way home.

After the match I strolled back into town hoping to find somewhere for a last drink and a bite to eat. I wasn't holding my breath based on what I saw in the afternoon. How wrong could I have been! The city centre was heaving with people. There were stalls selling all kinds of food and drink, live music and the bar were doing a roaring trade. Suffice to say I had no trouble amusing myself well into the wee small hours!

So, that concluded my week in Italy and it was yet another enjoyable trip. Italy is a country I don't often travel to but I absolutely loved the place. The U21 tournament is one that seems to slip under the radar of most groundhoppers but it is a fantastic way of seeing various cities, it is a competition where the football is usually very good and the match tickets are reasonably cheap, for example they were €8 and €5 this time around. The 2021 tournament is being jointly hosted by Slovenia and Hungary. That is already whetting ones appetite. Until next time, arrivederci!

Footnote: The final of this tournament was contested between Germany and Spain in Udine, with Spain winning 2-1.