Monday, November 30, 2009

Since the year was strange, I will change the narrative order, starting not from the top, but from the bottom of footballing universe. An opportunity based on sheer luck: I have rare pictures of teams from the very bottom. Meet Sokol (Falcon, in Bulgarian) from the village of Zheleznitza.

Sokol played in 4th Bulgarian Division in 1972-73 season. That is Blagoevgrad County A Division – Bulgarian 4th Division is the lowest level (occasionally some counties feature 5th level – a B Division) and is played regionally, following the administrative structure of the country. Then and now, there are 28 counties, each governing its own football. Here football comes the closest to its roots – not the roots outlined by Oxbridge ‘gentlemanly’ game, but the raw, violent mob football once outlawed by King Edward II. The King was concerned that ‘many evils may arise’ from such a game, and he was right: down in 4th Division it is entirely different sport, akin to the ‘tumults’ King Edward II disliked in 14th Century. Total football may have ruled 1973, but away from the spotlights it was different: training, tactics, even basic skills were pure abstraction. Money was not an issue – there were none. A team like Sokol had no means and ambitions to climb up the scale – it aimed at very little in reality: just to beat their immediate neighbours. Beating them up physically, not simply winning by scores, but breaking bones. Ancient grudges, their real causes long forgotten, were addressed on the pitch, and the inevitable brawl perpetuated these grudges. It was savage – home ‘selection’ of burly veterans and tough youth faced just a bit less quarrelsome visitors. About 20 local ‘fans’ ominously stayed on the touch line, passing the bottle between themselves. The unlucky referee had to navigate dangerous waters, for he was in worst position: he had to support quite actively the home side, yet, not completely, for if enraging the visitors, the home team was not going to help him. The referee’s choice was small – either broken bones, or death. Wisely choosing broken bones, he favoured the home team, planning which way to run right after the final whistle (if the match stretched that far). As for the game, it was largely a pretext for the big fight. Which must be savage, to ensure the future – for the home team will be visiting their enemies soon, and there was no telling what amount of injuries will be inflicted on the earlier ‘victors’. With time, fighting only escalates until reaching the point when the wisest will not visiting at all – hence, 4th division football was traditionally plagued by awarded results because the visitors did not show up. Many ‘players’ played only home games, justly fearing visiting people who they thrashed a month before. The only reason such leagues survive is geographic distance – remote villages did not bear grudges and played less brutal matches, where the final result was not that much important. Such matches were the only ones where visiting team may win – normally, home team wins, helped by the referee. And this is eternal – what was in 1973, is the same today. Football as a war – well, not very different from ‘big’ football… What is really amazing is the endurance of village clubs because Blagoevgrad County Division had the reputation of the most savage regional division in Bulgaria. Yet, the county has another reputation – traditionally, it produces big amount of football talent. Dimitar Berbatov comes from there, for instance. And finally, it is the county with the second largest number of local clubs in the country – considering the financial troubles villages have, not a negligible achievement. Tough lads, but persistent no matter what. Naturally, nobody knows who the players above were – very likely some played under the names of others, for registered players were not always available, or some drunk from the touchline suddenly got the itch to play and came in at the spur of the moment. Registration has nothing to do with reality down there. Hence, if there were statistics, they hardly tell who actually played. Well, we are not talking Ronaldos at this level. I have no idea where Sokol ended in the 1973 table, but they are not around presently. I am sure they will fly again, though – as soon as they have a few bucks to spare and more than 7 guys willing to risk their lives against mighty opposition with juicy names like Iztrebitel (Terminator).