These days, whenever a Champions League fixture is played in Sofia, it usually doesn’t involve any of main four clubs in the capital: CSKA, Slavia, Lokomotiv or Levski, who performed so poorly on their previous appearance way back in 2006.
Ludogorets from the provincial city of Razgrad, Bulgarian champions six times running from 2012, use the national stadium, the Vasil Levski in Sofia, for their campaigns, recently involving Arsenal, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain.
Set in Sofia’s oldest park, the Borisova gradina, and named after Bulgaria’s historic hero, the Vasil Levski has hosted the country’s most important games, national and domestic, since opening in 1953.
With the dishonourable exception of the notorious 1985 cup final between CSKA and Levski, the most dramatic in the stadium’s 60-year history came in August 2014 when a Ludogorets centre-back scored one and saved two penalties in a shoot-out against Steaua Bucharest. Almost single-handedly, Cosmin Moti gained the Razgrad side a Champions League place for the first time.
The recent achievements of the Eagles only accentuate how far football in Sofia has slipped behind the provinces. The last time the title came here was in 2009. Levski had then won it back from CSKA, a familiar pattern from 1948 onwards.
Football in the Bulgarian capital, in Bulgaria in fact, had been dominated by the Big Two, and the Eternal Derby between them, usually played at the Vasil Levski. The pair have claimed nearly 60 championships, CSKA a record nine in a row in the 1950s, demonstrating their favoured status as the army side in the new Communist system.
Levski and lesser city rivals Slavia and Lokomotiv were formed in the pre-war era. Each has a trophy cabinet brimming with exotic honours – Soviet Army Cup, Ulpia Serdika Cup, European Championship of Railwaymen, Balkan Cup – hinting at the obscure nature of this bizarre but nonetheless passionate outpost of the European game.
Slavia were founded in 1913 in a café on downtown Alabin as Bulgaria’s first organised sports club. In the western district of Ovcha Kupel, the White Pride of Slavia last won the league in 1996, doing the double when Levski president Thomas Slavchis called his team off the pitch before the end. This was Slavia’s first silverware in 50 years. Also-rans Lokomotiv in northern Sofia have been equally sporadic in their triumphs.
The stage was always set for the Big Two. High-school students had founded Sport Club Levski in 1911, the club the first to turn semi-professional in the pre-Communist era. Levski then found themselves with a serious rival in CSKA.
Later known by a number of acronyms, the Army side won almost everything going, the more populist Blues of Levski popping up to claim the occasional trophy. Matters changed in the 1960s when Levski, delighted to lose a ‘Dynamo’ tag temporarily given to them by the authorities, nurtured a number of quality youngsters. The best was Georgi ‘Gundi’ Asparoukhov, who died in an ill-explained car crash shortly after a title-clinching derby game and before the Soviet Army Cup final of 1971. A regular on the international stage, the genial ‘Gundi’ later had the Levski stadium, in north-east Sofia, named after him.
CSKA’s Bulgarian Army Stadium is in the same park as the Vasil Levski. Though back in the day CSKA also used the Vasil Levski for major European games – and wins that dethroned Ajax, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest – the club became mismanaged and debt-ridden in the free market economy. All but going under even as national champions in 2008, in 2015 CSKA could no longer continue as a professional operation. Demoted to the third league, the club was taken over by notorious businessman Grisha Ganchev, owner of Litex, who arranged for the former league champions from Lovech to become CSKA, playing in their stadium and in their colours.
While a club called CSKA are now back in Bulgaria’s top division, and playing at the same Bulgarian Army Stadium, and most fans are happy, football followers in Bulgaria just see it as one more underhand act in a series of many. Meanwhile, Ludogorets rule the roost – and represent Bulgaria in Europe’s premier club competition.
Sofia Airport is 5km (three miles) east of the city centre, connected by metro into town. Note that most non-Schengen (ie UK and Irish) flights to Sofia come into Terminal 1 – a shuttle bus runs to Terminal 2, where the metro station is to the right as you exit Arrivals. You may have to wait up to 30min for the shuttle, which takes 5-10min. Allow about 30min for the metro journey into town. The airport is on the same blue M2 line as the Vasil Levski stadium.
The two-line metro system forms part of the city transport network of buses, trams and trolleybuses. Tickets from the office at the metro station are 1.60 lev per journey (and per form of transport), a day pass 4 lev that you need to validate for each metro journey.
The airport recommends using yellow OK Supertrans taxis (+359 2 973 2121) to town – there’s an official booth inside the terminal. Depending on traffic, the fare should be around 10-15 lev.
If you’re coming in overland, taxis outside the train station can be unreliable – those outside the bus station nearby are served by OK Supertrans.
The nearest decent hotel to the stadium is probably the business-friendly Radisson Blu Grand, but prices are over €300 a double unless you book a special package. Under the same umbrella, the Park Inn by Radisson Sofia is in the same area of town, offering a gym, pool and plenty of surrounding greenery, including tennis courts.
Back nearer the stadium, the Crystal Palace Boutique Hotel is a smart four-star with a gym, sauna, bar and restaurant. Rates fall under €80 for a double if you book well in advance online.
Easily walkable, the Hotel Downtown is another smart four-star with similar facilities to the Crystal Palace, and in a similar price range.
Both within a short hop by public transport, the Best Western Hotel Europe is one of several of that chain in town, this just the other side of the park from town, while the stylish ARTE is right in town, and a bargain at around €50.
Bulgarian beer includes Astika and Zagorka but it’s the black stuff you’ll find at JJ Murphy’s, as well as half-a-dozen screens for Premiership action (book a table for big games) and a back garden in summer.
Also central, the Bulgarian-run Irish Harp (Sveta Sofia 7) tries a bit too hard to create a similar atmosphere (‘…a place to meet old and new friend!’), but at least also shows big-screen football.
Not pub-like in the traditional sense but a friendly place to watch the match for local and foreigner alike, the justifiably popular Cross Point Pub goes big on TV football, classic rock and pub games. Open from 5pm.
Another venue with a penchant for rock and football, the Rock’n’Rolla Bar, with late-evening happy hours on weekdays and a party feel thereafter.
Finally, for bottled beer variety, you can’t do better than the pub-like Biraria Luciano (pl.Slaveykov 9), where there should be football showing amid the Ferrari and Stella iconography.