How to get to Levski (via Ferencvaros and Partisan Belgrade)

Posted by Rushian on March 22, 2004, 02:04:02 AM

After a convincing enough first leg display at Anfield against Levski Sofia, there then followed the return leg and the prospect of an unforgettable trip to the Bulgarian capital.  With the majority of the 1200 who braved the trip unsurprisingly opting for official club tours, the fact that we as ever had favoured an independent route was sure to provide a story or two to bring home.  Indeed the complex route we selected was ambitious to such an extent that we were certain to encounter few if any likeminded Liverpudlians en route to Sofia.  This was one of the bravest and let’s face it idiotic trips we had ever attempted.

The five of us had decided to fly to Hungary, aware that an eight-hundred mile overland round trip was required from there if we were to hope to reach the Bulgarian capital in time for the game - a factor that somehow did not perturb us.  After a needlessly complicated trek south to a London airport we flew to Budapest, hoping for a smooth passage from there to Sofia.  When we arrived, as would prove typical of our fortune, the car hire centre happened to be situated at another terminal, which itself seemed to be based in a different country entirely, never mind separate airport.  We eventually arrived at the right place though, hoping to merely pick our car up and set off immediately so to make up for the time lost locating the car. 

Our hurried and slightly impatient approach to the staff at the car hire company with which we had made the booking, an organisation who shall remain unnamed, obviously did us few favours.  For when attempting to pick up a set of car keys to whichever colour Lada we were getting in return for our forints, the somewhat aggravated staff were keen to discuss the nature of our visit to Hungary.  ‘We’re going to Sofia’, one of the group blurted out.  And then our troubles really began.  For not only would the company not allow us to take their car to Bulgaria, but we were also forbid to so much as leave Hungary with the car.  Apparently it was considered far too unsafe to travel to such distant lands.  Funnily enough however, although each member of staff was at least in their thirties, not one had attempted the journey themselves - this therefore was evidently a severely unqualified opinion they had formed on their neighbouring countries.  The fact remained though, that we were suddenly faced with a problem of simply massive proportions, and the prospect of missing the first European game in thirteen suddenly became an all too realistic possibility.   We simply had no Plan B.

We subsequently inquired as to other possible modes of transportation to Sofia, but the train ride we were offered (note my refusal to employ the term ‘recommended’), although ridiculously cheap, was meant more for the backpacker than the football fan, for it seemed to take in every city in Europe en route.  How any direct line from Buda to Sofia via Belgrade can include a stop in Bucharest I’ll never know.  In addition, even if we had have decided to get the train, we would have arrived in Sofia ten minutes after kick off.  Twenty-six hours on a train to miss half the game - a simply ideal solution.  So, growing less hopeful and more frustrated, we checked with the three other car hire companies in the vicinity, all of which gave the same blank and unapologetic refusal to our increasingly desperate requests.  An internal flight was out of the question economically, and so, we appeared to be doomed.  Our failure to check the terms of the rental agreement before booking looked set to cost us dearly.

Following the lack of success that our somewhat basic request had brought us, we then decided that a more creative approach was in order if we were to resurrect so much as a glimmer of hope in the situation.  However we were certainly unprepared for what one of the tour operators was about to offer in response.  We had decided to appeal to a particular solitary member of staff, a slightly strange looking individual in his mid-thirties, who sat slightly uneasily in the corner.   Strange or not, he was kind enough to offer us a bizarre and almost surreal lifeline that looked set to save us.  For by his own fruition, he offered to hire a minibus and drive us to Bulgaria.  I was however, dubious to say the least.  Not only would he not quote a price for this service he was suggesting, there was also the question of our return.  He seemed unconcerned by these apparently minor details, saying that he would ‘wait’ in Sofia (for two days?!) before bringing us home.  Aware that this was our only hope, we reluctantly agreed initially at least to this ridiculous plan, and exchanged mobile numbers.

But before we signed ourselves over to certain death, we decided on attempting to coerce the other seemingly resolute car hire staff with whom we had made the initial booking into helping us avoid taking this option. We knew that this represented our final hope of leaving Budapest via moderately conventional means.  I scanned a map of the region, and selecting a random town in northern Serbia, asked if we could just stop off there for a day before returning safely to Hungary.  We knew full well that should they let us cross the border with the car, we would not be prevented from travelling to within at least an hour of Sofia on the Serbia-Hungary border, from which we could devise subsequent plans. Amazingly the request was eventually accepted, pending a small additional fee.  This illustrated firstly that round these parts everyone made their own rules, and also that few would not succumb to the pull of a payoff.  That phone number thank God, would no longer be required.

We set off from the airport with the collective mentality of a group who had just won the lottery and moaned that the jackpot was insignificant.  For there was a sense of ingratitude in the air, and yet we had quite clearly escaped the possibility of the trip proving a complete disaster from the very outset.  We were all evidently keen to overlook the reasons why we had needed such a lifeline in the first place, and concentrate instead on the rest of the day’s events.  Our intention was to get as close to the Bulgarian border by car, from where we would hope to cross into Bulgarian territory via an alternative and as yet undetermined mode of transport.  It was a typically farcical plan which from an observer’s point of view may seem completely ludicrous, and yet for us, hopelessly stranded in the midst of unrealistic hope, it seemed perfectly plausible.  Provided we wasted no more time. 

So we proceeded to head south, and with time at a premium baring in mind the somewhat fragile position we had found ourselves in, given the apparent ease in which things could and had gone wrong, we decided stop off points should be limited to essential breaks.  And yet having set off, before we had even bid the Hungarian capital farewell, a set of floodlights were spotted on the horizon.  It was not a question of if we would stop to investigate but where and how.  The driver performed a record number of illegal manoeuvres in the two minutes that followed locating a parking spec, and we discarded the vehicle temporarily and set off, armed with footy and flags in the direction of the ground. 

We were hoping that the stadium belonged to either Ferencvaros or Honved, for obvious reasons baring in mind Liverpool’s history against the two clubs, and found to our delight that it was actually the home of the former.  After a profitable visit to the club shop, we discovered that no unofficial route into the stadium was possible without scaling some rather unsafe looking exterior walls, so unconventionally for this particular group, we took the conventional route into the stadium through the reception.  Its inhabitants, consisting of coaches, players and officials, appeared at first too shocked by our very presence to attempt to halt our progress to the pitch, so we simply marched out onto the grass, got a few photos with one of my flags and had a game on the pitch.  Various passers by looked on evidently bemused, though it was some time before someone was sent to question the reason for our presence on the hallowed turf. 
After a while a tall man came over and introduced himself, and we thought, as we had been at numerous other grounds across the continent on similar trips, we were being asked to leave.  However instead the rather amiable individual merely asked us where we were from.  Furthermore, on hearing the city from which we hailed, and the causality for our trip, he proceeded to offer us a guided tour of the trophy room in the adjacent building.  Inside the museum a match programme from an Anfield meeting between Liverpool and Ferencvaros was displayed, as well as countless trophies.  It turned out our host, now the club’s development officer had fond memories of Liverpool and was a former Ferencvaros player and Hungarian international, which he proved by proudly showing off the picture of himself which lay in the club’s hall of fame.  It’s hard to imagine someone like Trevor Brooking, his approximate English counterpart, performing such hospitable duties should any random Hungarian fans seek to break into Upton Park en route to a game at Glasgow Celtic.  As a result of this non-obligatory hospitality, we will always remain staunch supporters of Ferencvaros.  Think I might get a tattoo.

From that moment on, the traumatic events of the morning were forgotten as we set off in high spirits for a Siberian adventure.  After a surprisingly unproblematic crossing of the border at Szeged, following an equally painless if somewhat monotonous journey through rural Hungary, we headed for Belgrade, where we were due to spend the night.  However soon after entering Serbia, we discovered that we were now in a country that was to present its own problems.  For with barely a mile on the clock since entering Serbia, the driver was pulled over for speeding, an offence that looked set to cost us dearly.  Indeed the man behind the wheel nearly bonneted the policeman responsible for catching us, who stood in the middle of the poorly lit motorway flashing us down with what was no more than a glorified red flashlight. Had such an accident occurred though, it would possibly have seen more damage to our vehicle than to the burly police officer, such was his immense frame. 

The punishment the officer threatened to administer for the offence once again appeared set to prematurely end our trip.  For from a distance the four remaining passengers could hear the phrase ‘appear in court at seven o’clock in the morning’ as the irate policeman began an over elaborate lecture to the helpless driver who stood shivering on the motorway hard shoulder.  Collectively, our respective hearts sank.  But after an hour sat motionless in the cold, it turned out to be a situation that was nothing a good old fashion bribe couldn’t fix, as the bent copper yielded to the pull of the queen’s face slapped on a Ł20 note.  Our lesson had been learned, in that firstly, despite the odd promising occurrence, this trip would be hard work from start to finish, and secondly, throwing English money at the first sign of trouble is likely to eventually see the problem disappear.

That night, spent in what appeared to be the most bombed city in the Europe, was a relatively quiet one, for we had arrived late and an early start the following morning was required given the uncertainty of the next day, which was the day of the game.  As we set off the following morning, still half asleep and not yet having left the heart of Belgrade we were reminded that in this Europe, they drive on the right.  Though, after colliding with a seemingly unconcerned tram (who interestingly enough was on the correct side of the road), causing minor damage to the rental car, from our reaction it was apparent that the group had now hardened to life in Eastern Europe.  For we simply shrugged the incident off, and unperturbed, proceeded to head off still further south in our slightly damaged car.  The roads in southern Serbia, an area which I think is known politically as Montenegro, saw yet more endless miles of monotonous snow-covered land.  It was a journey only rendered remotely interesting by the fact that it was punctuated by the odd trek alongside, through and round various mountain ranges, which served to spasmodically beak the monotony. 

As we gradually grew closer to the border though, it was apparent that we were still completely bereft of ideas as to how we were going to get into the country we had set off to visit.  After much deliberation though we decided that the earlier notion we had discussed, whereby we would park up in the nearest town and get a train or taxi into Bulgaria from there, would be abandoned - for we knew that this was likely to complicate our plight to a ridiculous degree.  Instead we opted to head for the border in our car, which was now an extension of very bodies, and take our chances with the border police. 

The group grew ever quieter as we got nearer to the border in question, for our brief experiences in the region, which in truth felt like a lifetime’s occupation in Serbia, had developed within us an air of pessimistic caution.  It is noteworthy however that this was a mentality that did little to dampen our unrelenting commitment to reaching our destination.  As we approached the border, we all feared the worse, in illegal asylum seeker-esque style.  What we did not expect to happen as we arrived though, was that the inspector who happened to check our documents was a supporter of Levski rivals CSK Sofia, and was keen to do his bit to thwart the chances of his arch enemies by letting us through to support Levski’s opponents, legally or otherwise.  For not only was his inspection of our passport and car documents far from detailed, but he showed no hesitation in waving us through the border without paying at the toll.  With a beaming smile and an offering of his best wishes, the barrier was opened to the cry of ‘go, go, go!’  We in turn were far from hesitant in obeying his firm but friendly order.  We had escaped, and were free to drive (albeit illegally and without insurance) the final leg into Sofia, to join the sensible Scouse masses who had opted for the less suicidal approach of a direct flight to Bulgaria.  We were so ecstatic we could almost taste that first celebratory pint.                             

After arriving in the Bulgarian capital we typically mistakenly stumbled over our hotel almost before we had began to look for it.  And then with similarly consummate ease, regardless of the centrality of our position we found a free parking space within short walking distance to it.  So with life feeling rosy once again, after dumping our luggage in the rooms, we wasted no time in making our way to a nearby bar where we had arranged to meet some of the day trippers and get suitably inebriated. 

‘Those who remember the past are destined to live through it again’ were the words displayed on one of my banners, the only one we bothered getting out in the city and indeed the ground.  This took its place along with a selection of other Liverpool flags outside a bar in which we stationed ourselves for the entire afternoon.  Inside were housed the normal collection of Liverpool fans that can be found on any European trip - local lads ranging from the occasional travellers to the die-hards, as well as the outsiders who as ever stuck out a mile from the Scousers, in appearance as well as thought, word and deed.  Despite the inevitable intrusion of foreigners though, we enjoyed a good sing and a good laugh there, drinking the afternoon away.  Groups of Levski fans came in to join us but the atmosphere remained friendly enough.  As is usually the case on such trips, the escalation from peaceful banter into scenes of violent chaos was only a misplaced comment (or glass) away, but such an occurrence did not happen and the afternoon instead whistled by without an ounce of trouble, at least in that bar.  And that was despite the appearance of the odd CSK nutter, who tended to show their face at random intervals, snigger at our banners and disappear again.  We were also joined by the odd journalist, and even Bulgarian Liverpool fan, one of which strangely enough had the largest Liverpool tattoo I have ever seen, which consumed his entire spine.  Having his beloved Liverpool in town must have been the greatest day of his life - the weirdo.  I was beginning to have second thoughts on getting that Ferencvaros tattoo. 

As the sun went down our thoughts began to focus on the game.  We got a taxi to the ground and walked in complete darkness past the CSK stadium to our end of the arena, with various groups of menacing looking local hooligans evidently contemplating giving us a good sound beating on the way, though all thankfully thinking better of it.  Inside the ground was unsurprisingly atmospheric, and as expected following their impressive support at Anfield in the home leg, appeared to be full of fanatical Levski fans, caped from head to toe in royal blue.  What was surprising though, was that also in attendance, in the stand next to ours, was a large group of CSK fans, probably numbering in excess of 1500 who had come to support Liverpool.  They were soon separated from the Levski supporters in that stand and were housed for the remainder of the game adjacent to the fence that separated the Liverpool fans from the Bulgarians.  With a good number of CSK fans also mixed in with us, this gave us a collective number probably approaching 3000.  Needless to say, most of them would not have known every verse to ‘A Liverbird upon my chest’.

Although part of me would have loved to be in the way end at Old Trafford against Porto last week when their equalising goal was scored, to be honest I just don’t care that much to consider going to the ground to watch our enemies play.  As Shankly said of our neighbours Everton, “If they were playing at the bottom of the garden, I’d pull the curtains.”  But this was Bulgaria, a country to which a different set of rules evidently apply.  And credit to them, they were good natured, towards us anyway, and just as their city rivals had done at Anfield, they appeared well versed in the intricacies of English football, singing songs such as “Go home and f$!k United” at us.  In addition the home side apparently entered the field to the ‘Z Cars’ tune, with these two illustrations of support, antithetical in direction though equal in fevour, serving to show that men from Sofia really do understand the complexities of football fan culture.

And then came the moment we had travelled for what seemed like an eternity to see.  For eventually the game got underway, an encounter that was to present its own surprises.  Now writing on Liverpool Football Club recently has frequently seen me delve into the thesaurus to avoid the over employment of terms such as ‘mediocre’ and ‘frustrating’.  But the first half display in Sofia, which saw an incredible five goals, has granted me a license to be somewhat more creative in crafting a written response.  For when arguably Liverpool’s three best players, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Dietmar Hamann all netted in the opening period to give Liverpool a commanding overall lead, we knew it was set to become a memorable affair.  The first goal came after just seven minutes, when the Liverpool skipper latched onto a woeful back pass, rounded the ‘keeper and slotted from an acute angle.  Within four minutes, our record marksman in Europe doubled the lead, curling a delightful shot into the far corner, almost rending the remainder of the tie obsolete.

With Liverpool having commanded a four goal aggregate cushion, people in our stand were quick to begin discussions about the fourth round.  However, we were soon silenced, as Houllier’s men soon found themselves all square on the night thanks to goals from Ivanov and Simonovic, due in no small part to some inept defending by the disappointing Steve Finnan.  Just as the home fans began to dream of a previously inconceivable comeback however, the man who scored the last goal at Wembley popped up again with an embarrassingly poorly marked header from a Steven Gerrard corner.  From that moment power was restored.

In the second half Biscan was introduced in place of Steve Finnan, and the fact that the introduction of the crap Croat served to sure up our defensive line serves to illustrate just how poor Finnan performed once again.  But regardless of my dislike for Biscan, this was an alteration that had the desired effect, and Liverpool’s defence succeeded in not conceding again for the remainder of the evening.  Houllier’s side instead proceeded to add to their lead with former captain Sami Hyypia netting a fourth, giving us an impressive 6-2 aggregate victory.

Whilst my memory of the game is surprisingly vivid, as for the activities following the game however, regrettably my recollection is somewhat vague.  Cheap vodka served in generous portions evidently does little for my quest to remain in a relatively sober state - though I do remember mysteriously finding myself back in the ground for a short period some time after vacating it at the final whistle.  For those in a more respectable state, the night that followed was far more enjoyable.  Certain elements of the group enjoyed the hospitality of the local females, and at a bargain rate too so I’m told.  As ever I chose not to participate, although this time it was not exactly a conscious decision, and instead related largely to the fact that I was physically incapacitated.  Apparently my last activity of the day was to pass out on my hotel bed.  Life in the fast lane eh.

Thankfully the alarm had already been set, and its annoying tone succeeding in raising us from our respective pits early the next morning.  As a group we were confused and hung over, though remained delighted with the previous night’s victory.  When we realised where we were though, we soon grew depressed by the thought of the fifteen-hour drive that lay ahead of us, in our bid to return to the Hungarian capital before the day was out.

Once back on the road however, we progressed quickly into Serbia and soon found ourselves back in Belgrade.  And, not content with the solitary stadium break-in at Ferencvaros’ ground, on stumbling upon the home of Partisan Belgrade, we thought it would be rude not to stop and investigate there as well.  And after leaving their club shop a scarf or two lighter, we attempted once again to gain access into the ground for a walk on their pitch.  Again the official route way was taken, with observers seemingly perplexed though evidently not overly concerned by our presence, as we just sauntered through the main building and out onto the pitch.  The pitch and interior of the ground appeared in good enough condition, but judging by the graffiti on the walls, I’m sure that any opposing fans brave enough to travel to Belgrade are sure to get a hostile reception there.

After this needless stop, we were soon on the road again, stopping only at the odd bizarre services and at tollbooths.  At every toll we stopped at without exception during the entire trip, we offered the wrong money to the irate staff, which was usually in pounds.  Then, with language an obvious barrier, we would stubbornly just sit motionless in the car until our currency was accepted.  The enraged toll operators usually let us through, being as they were, under intense pressure from an entourage of irate motorists queuing behind us, all of whom interestingly enough appeared to be employees of either Lada or Skoda.

On one of our random stop off points to a ‘services’, whilst emptying both the ash tray and our bladders, we noticed a rickety bridge across the road that looked reminiscent of something from Indiana Jones.  Upon it thin strips of wood were laid haphazardly across even thinner metal beams, which appeared the only thing that would prevent users of the deadly device from plunging to a watery death in the fast flowing river below.  After brief consideration I knew it had to be crossed.  But sure enough when I attempted the crossing, the lads lulled me into a false sense of security, letting me get half way across before joining in jumping on the end of the bridge to imbalance me.  They also threw stones at me and engaged in various other activities that were all exacted in order to dislodge me from relative safety on the bridge to certain death beneath it.  Having successfully crossed it though, surviving the abuse in the process, I wasted no time in administering my own violent justice when back on dry land before we set off once again.

Late that evening, under dark though snow-covered skies we eventually arrived in Budapest, where we were to spend our last night before the early morning flight the next day.  The staff in the aptly named ‘Hotel Baros’ evidently thought against questioning why the party of five was bigger than the number we had booked for, and seemed content to let us fight amongst ourselves for the beds.  After losing a game of numbers, I spent the night, or a couple of hours of it at least in between two other lads on a hard double bed.  To say that was not my favourite way to spend an evening would serve as a rather large understatement.  With sleep not really on the agenda though, we instead carelessly drank and smoked the night away, reliving the lunacy that was this third round trip, and discussing who we wanted in the next round.  Marseilles oddly enough was touted round as first choice.
The following morning we left the hotel in what we thought was good time, assuming that darkness would not deter us from locating the airport terminal.  However instead, after taking a wrong turning whilst still in the city centre, we found ourselves stranded in an intricate network of motorways, without an airport sign in sight.  Our flight was due to take off at 7.00am, and having departed the hotel soon after 5.00, we were confident of finding the airport, located as it was just nine miles away.  Twenty-five minutes before the departure time however we were still hopelessly lost.  So in a state of desperation, a change of personnel at the wheel was exacted, and a taxi was flagged down, and ordered to let us follow him to the airport post haste.  At nine minutes before seven, following several ridiculously near collisions in the icy conditions with various other motorists, we pulled up once again to the terminal at which we arrived three days previously. 

Now no one expects to wander into a terminal building on such short notice and actually catch their flight, not even a group of cheeky Liverpudlians.  However, in the midst of a bemused airport, we celebrated the news that our flight had been delayed an hour, with the same vigour as we had done following Michael Owen’s FA Cup final winner in 2001.  For had we have missed the plane, the fine city of Budapest, one which we all now truly despised following this latest traumatic ordeal, would have been host to the group for a further few days, given the lack of availability of subsequent flights.  However luck, or more probably God, was once again was on our side.  Whether a fee was agreed or not by the way with the heroic taxi driver I am not sure, but doubtless the meagre payment he received for practically saving our lives was dished out once again in Sterling.  He’ll never know it, particularly following what was sure to have been perceived as an ungrateful response to his assistance, but whoever you are, we will remain indebted to you for all eternity.

As a parting memory to the city, we then unveiled another of my banners, ‘when the winning goal brings down the house, we’ll all resort to eating Scouse’.  The flag was hung up in the very room where Liverpool fans had passed through all those years ago on the way to a game against Hungarian outfit Honved.  It is the last line of the song that was once sung by this group of Kopites as they entered the room in which we now stood, as recognised from the footage of a documentary on the game in question.  For us it was a moment that added a further sense of history to the trip.

We clambered on and then off the plane tired and weary, knowing that a further stint in the car was required to get us from London to north Liverpool.  But when you’ve conquered Serbia, four hours on English soil is seen as nothing but a leisurely spin in the country.  But on our return, before I could collapse on the sofa for the weekend, a weekend in which Liverpool thankfully were not playing, we had one more task to take care of - booking the flights to our next opponents, Olymique Marseilles.  Of course we’re not flying to the city in question, for that would be far too easy.  Instead St Etienne for some reason looked a decent starting point. 

Ljubljana, Bucharest and Sofia have all been great trips this season.  In fact following what seemed to be annual trips to romantic cities like Rome and Barcelona, we were all grateful for something a little different.  But now, after a tour of Eastern Europe, I just thank God for the prospect of a less taxing trip, on paper at least, to the south of France. Allez Allez, we’re going to Marseilles.

© Joel Rookwood 2004

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