What Normal Person!

29/05/2012 by Christopher Buxton

First night back in Bulgaria, in another grueling drive across Europe.  Four days of fast/slow bum-numbing, sciatica-twingeing driving through autobahn road works and traffic jams, culminating in the Romanian experience of single track road passing through long village after long village at 40 km an hour, ended with our car, blocked by a long queue of lorries outside the Calafat Ferry port gate.  But against all the odds, we were accepted on to the first ferry and so with waves of relief lapping over the rain swollen Danube, we slid inexorably toward the Vidin shore.
Just over an hour later, we were sitting at a table outside a Riverside Park restaurant, waiting for a meal of local trout and catfish.  We still had another day’s drive before us, but now the tarmac and pot-holes beneath our loaded car’s tyres were Bulgarian and our dubious Bulgarian crash and break down cover would surely see us and our cargo safely back to Burgas in all eventualities.
Waiting for the fish to be prepared we quaffed a wonderful bottle of Cycle Gewurtztraminer, and still waiting for the fish I realised that through the Restaurant window I could follow the progress of a Bulgarian football match. Men in green were playing men in red. Two TV screens at either end of the dark crowded interior enabled every man to follow the action, wherever they were seated. But while they were watching with rapt attention, they were unusually silent. Annie commented on my good fortune, as my eyes turned from her towards the window. The fish still hadn’t arrived and we were in danger of finishing the bottle.
The men in green dominated the game. Quick and skilful, they flicked the ball past the men in red, whose bad temper increased in inverse proportion to the skills they were allowed to demonstrate.  In dramatic close-up, a man in red went in for a tackle, lifting his studs to chest level and raking his green opponent from chin to knee, then as if suddenly aware he was on camera, he fell as if pole axed beside his writhing opponent. The crowd turned wild and the two teams’ managers squared up and had to be separated by the officials. A normal match, then.  By now I’d realized that the team in red was CSKA Sofia, who in days of yore would have been 6-0 up on any team dressed in green. So who were these impudent upstarts?
At last the inevitable happened.  A brilliantly executed green free kick left Sofia’s goalkeeper flapping the air as the ball hit the top corner of his net. There was a resounding silence from the restaurant interior.  Who were these men in green? As the fish still hadn’t arrived, I went to conduct some research. I entered a space crowded in profound gloom. “Who’s playing?” The plump man spat out something that sounded like an oath. I had to ask again. The Greens were a team, I’d never heard of, so with a good natured grimace he spelt out its name syllable by syllable – “Lud-o-goretz!” The passing waiter confirmed that our fish had been caught and added the important information that this match was the culminating decider in the Bulgarian league championship.  Whoever won, would be drawn in the qualifying stages of the Champion’s League in the summer.
“It’s a good match.”  I ventured, only to realize that foreigners should not venture to comment on Bulgarian football, any more than Bulgarian politics.  “It’s a terrible match!” the plump man contradicted me. “They’re playing so badly.”  As if to prove this, a CSKA man was sent off, occasioning further scuffles on the sideline between the rival managers.
“I guess you’re all supporting CSKA,” I murmured. What could be more natural for the folk in Vidin to support a team from the capital 240 km away?
“Of course!” The plump man was astonished at my ignorance. “What normal person would support a team from Razgrad!?”
Ah Razgrad! Like Vidin, it was a distant provincial town, without the advantage of riverside walks or medieval castle, but with a dilapidated mosque in its centre and on its outskirts a whole ruined Roman city – in the centre of which fifty years ago, the Communists in their typical arrogance chose to build a pharmaceutical factory.  Roman columns competed with brick chimneys, but in the end the brick chimneys had produced the money necessary to drive the Razgrad team from the third division to the top of the premiership.
“What team do you support?” We were now in familiar territory – a chance for the plump man to show off his encyclopedic knowledge of English football, past and present, and for me to admit a humiliating preference for my local team, Ipswich, rather than the mighty Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea – teams which normal people support.
The issue of which football teams normal people from provincial towns support heart and soul is one which should exercise politicians in any country. It would be wrong to assume that locals support the local team over regular champion teams. Having once sat in the Ipswich stadium in the heady days when Ipswich was still in the premiership, it was chastening to see the stadium full of local people, dressed in the colours of the opposition, Manchester United.  It is a well known adage that in the UK most Manchester United supporters have little or no connection with Manchester.
But now as a result of globalization, Manchester United supporters from not just England but across the world to Bulgaria have had to swallow a bitter pill this year. Russian and Middle Eastern oil revenues have bought the Champions League and the Premiership titles for Chelsea and Manchester city respectively. And the price of medicines produced in Razgrad has rocketed Ludogoretz from the third division to the premiership title in just a few years. What normal person would believe it?
It was time to eat our fish.