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Never been in a riot? Get yourself out to a Sofia derby

Jonathan Wilson's Articles (Bot)
Aug 1, 2010
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Saturday evening's match between Levski and CSKA provided an horrendous reminder of English crowd trouble in the 1970s

The realisation that something was wrong came suddenly. I'd been slowly working my around the Georgi Asparuhov Stadium – in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia – battling against the crowd, trying to get to the main road I knew led over the railway lines and back in to the centre of town. There had been hundreds of police on the way, but the mood had seemed fairly relaxed until, just before the VIP entrance, I realised they were strung across the road. There was a slight crush, with fans caught between the banking of the stadium to one side, and a mesh fence to the other. I pushed on, thinking my usual tactic of waving a press card and saying something cheery in English would probably get me through, but as I got to within about five yards of the line, I saw a baton twitch upwards.

Abruptly, the mood, which had been one of resigned frustration after Levski's defeat to CSKA, changed. Panic swept through the crowd, and there was a surge away from the police. I went with it, glancing back to see the police line slowly advancing. Somebody threw a bottle, which shattered with startling loudness somewhere behind the police; others followed. Some fans stood to face down the police, most joined a weird slow stampede across the frozen mud towards the junction where a road led off by a children's playground in to a drab estate.

Progress was slow, partly because of the volume of people, and partly because of the snow and ice, and I could hear the police getting closer behind me. Through the gloom to my right, I saw a small chapel. I edged in that direction and hopped over the wall into the churchyard, which was oddly empty. Ducking behind the chapel, and jumping back over the wall, I came behind the police line. The ground was strewn with broken glass, but everything was eerily calm. I walked on, found the main road and headed back in to town.

It was only when I got into a taxi that I realised how bad things had been. I explained to the driver that I'd been to the football, at which he engaged in an extended pantomime, slugging away at an invisible target with his fists, taking a number of blows in return, lobbing invisible bottles and beating some poor invisible victim with an invisible baton. All of which might have been amusing had we not been travelling along a major road at about 50mph at the time.

In total 23 arrests were made at the ground, but many more are expected as police sift through CCTV footage and witness statements. The serious trouble began shortly before half-time, as police moved in to remove the 3,500 CSKA fans from the stadium after an officer was injured amid the celebrations that followed Michel Platini Mesquita's opening goal, jabbed in after a goalkeeper-defender mix-up that Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny re-enacted the following day. Flares were lit and thrown, one of them arcing 70 or 80 yards from the stand behind goal, landing almost on the halfway line – the result, surely, of some mechanical aid rather than a bionic arm.

In response a lone Levski fan, shirtless despite the intense cold, charged through the seats left empty for segregation purposes, trailing police like a skinny Jonah Lomu, before eventually being brought down by half a dozen police. "CSKA fans' actions were pre-staged," said Sofia police's chief Valeri Yordanov. "Some of them began to break off concrete and iron pieces immediately after arriving at the stadium."

It took several minutes before the away end was emptied, but it was vacant by the time Platini added a second, lashing in Gregory Nelson's cross just after half-time. That has provoked condemnation, with CSKA's owner Dimitar Borisov insisting fans who had paid for tickets and had not been responsible for the violence should not have been evicted, a point taken up by fan groups. "We respect the law and the Bulgarian police but it's not acceptable for 3,500 fans to be pushed outside the stadium because of the misconduct of two or three," said CSKA's national fan club chairman, Dimitar Angelov.

Another error from the Levski keeper Bozhidar Mitrev gifted CSKA a free-kick from which an unmarked Apostol Popov added a third just after the hour. Hristo Yovov of Levski and CSKA's Aleksandar Tonev were both sent off eight minutes later – Yovov pulled Tonev's hair; Tonev's offence was hard to discern – and Popov scored an own-goal soon after, but there never seemed any serious threat of a Levski fight-back.

2010 was a dismal year for CSKA as they went through nine coaches, but a derby win that has all but guaranteed Litex – and not Levski – will win the title, suggests better things may be ahead. Litex themselves beat Minior Pernnik, their 11th successive win, to stretch the lead to eight points. Todor Yanchev, CSKA's captain, had a fine game protecting the back four in a deep-lying midfield role, while Kostadin Stoyanov did a remarkably good job of stifling the rapid Levski forward Garra Dembélé, albeit with the assistance of lenient refereeing. Platini, meanwhile, did not look like a forward who had scored only once in the opening half of the season.

The violence, though, overshadowed everything. At the final whistle, after milling uncertainly for a few seconds, CSKA's players trotted over to the stand where their fans had been, and applauded the empty terrace, an appropriately surreal image for a strange afternoon. Outside, the battle had already begun, with running fights in the streets, shops and cars destroyed and buses overturned. A total of 32 police officers were injured, three of them seriously, and rioters were dispersed only with the use of water-cannon and horseback charges. One CSKA fan was hospitalised with serious head injuries, although who inflicted them remains unclear.

And so the rounds of mutual recrimination go on. Fans blame police, police blame fans, and everybody wonders why on earth the game was played at 6pm on a Saturday evening. Perhaps earlier kick-off times would ease the problem, but this was about more than a few hundred drunks acting drunkenly. How you tackle hooliganism so endemic, I have no idea – the cultural shifts that eased England's problems seem a million miles away – although a start may be to ask how so many fans smuggled in flares despite the presence of 1,500 police. All I know for sure, though, is that I've never been gladder to see a taxi bearing a green light as I was on Saturday, and never been gladder to lock myself in a hotel.

Jonathan Wilson

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