Olimpija Ljubljana 1 v 2 Maribor (07.05.16)
“Let’s go and watch some football in Eastern Europe somewhere,” I said.
Neal (a fellow Chelsea season ticket holder) and I were discussing the increasingly prohibitive cost of following the Chels in Europe versus the enjoyment we had travelling abroad to watch the beautiful game. The planning. The build-up. The culture of whatever place we found ourselves in. The people. The pre-match beers. The banter. The atmosphere. The game itself.
Quickly, the plan was set. A boys’ weekend away every year to some outpost on the continent, with a bit of footy thrown in.
But, where to go? Neal is virtual friends on Twitter with a guy called Matjaž, one of the founders of the Slovenian Chelsea Supporters Club. They had also met once in London at a Chelsea game. Ljubljana it was then. And we set off for the ‘Eternal Derby’ – Olimpija Ljubljana v Maribor – with Matjaž kindly sorting out tickets.
We headed out on the Friday for a night of acclimatisation. Our hotel was a short stroll from the main square and a procession of bars that lined both sides of the Ljubljanica River. A beer was just €3 a pop, €2 if you ventured off the main drag. Even cheaper out of town.
We took up residence in one of the riverside bars, ordered a half-litre of Union, soaked up the sunshine and indulged in a spot of people watching. A group of paddle boarders, erm, paddled past. This was the life.
When it came to food, we decided against ordering ‘Delicacies with protected geographical indication’ and opted for a traditional feast of meat – sausages, chops, steak, you name it, with a bit of sauerkraut on the side. I think they saw us coming to be honest.
As night fell, we took a stroll along the river – sampling what a few of the other bars had to offer along the way, naturally – before coming across a night market, filled with all sorts of street food and a small kiosk serving beer. We looked up at the castle perched on a hill that overlooks the city. Spotlights bathed it in an eerie green. Any coincidence that Olimpija’s colours are green?
The next morning, slightly bleary eyed, we headed off for our meet with Matjaž and his “chubby mate” Gregor. We could hear music and commentary coming through a loudspeaker. Following the sound we wandered into the middle of the Ljubljana Marathon. Rather them than me.
Operating on Slovenian time, Matjaž eventually pulled up at the appointed meeting place. We piled into his car. Kick off wasn’t until the evening and they were going to show us the sights. “First Lake Bled, then our club, then the Eternal Derby.”
After a quick pitstop for some cans for the journey, we set off for Lake Bled, which is in the northwest of the country.
Now, before I continue I feel I should explain, there are two main beers in Slovenia. Union, brewed in Ljubljana, is therefore the beer of choice for any self-respecting Olimpija fan. The other, Laško, despite its green label, is more popular elsewhere, especially among those of a Maribor persuasion. Gregor, I noticed, was a Laško drinker. He said he preferred the taste, but it transpired there was Maribor blood on his mother’s side.
Lake Bled is out of this world. Surrounded by the snow-capped Alps, it is stunning. Matjaž took us up some stairs to a bar with a long balcony. We settled down for the afternoon, overlooking the lake. There’s a castle nested in the hills opposite. They like a castle there.
The boys extolled the virtues of their country, and, in particular, the advantages of its small size. “It’s the only country where you can be skiing one minute and two hours later you can be on the beach,” Matjaž told us.
We chatted easily, as if we have been mates for years, not that we had just met an hour ago. We talked all things Chelsea and how much we were looking forward to the evening’s must-win game. Oh, the common language of football.
The rivalry between Olimpija and Maribor is fierce, a rivalry made even more intense by the recent fate that befell Olimpija. In a similar way to what happened with Glasgow Rangers, Olimpija went bankrupt and 11 years ago were dissolved. As far as the new version of the club that rose out of the ashes was concerned, all their previous titles were struck from the record books – many, including the Slovenia FA, treating new Olimpija as a separate entity. But for the ultras of the two sides – Olimpija’s Green Dragons and the Viole Maribor – the rivalry continued.
Olimpija started again, in the Slovenian league’s fifth tier. It took them just four years to return to the top division, but seven trophyless years followed, while Maribor swept all before them. Milan Mandarić, remember him, became Olimpija’s president in 2015. There were even rumours at the time that Harry Redknapp would take over as manager, but it was thought, in the end, to be too much of a risk. Maybe they couldn’t afford a car for ‘arry to lean out of on transfer deadline day.
This season, for the first time since they reformed, Olimpija were in striking distance of the Prva Liga title. Second-placed Maribor, on the other hand, were aiming to secure their sixth championship in a row. Beat Maribor tonight and the trophy was as good as Olimpija’s.
Before heading to the stadium, there was another important game to take in, Sunderland-Chelsea. We left Lake Bled heading for the boys’ hometown, Vir, which is about 20km shy of the city. Vir is home to the Finale Bar, which is itself home to the Slovenian Chelsea Supporters Club. We were served by the lovely Kim – Union, of course; Laško for Gregor.
The bar is adorned with Chelsea memorabilia, press cuttings, posters, scarves and flags. And, for some inexplicable reason, a near-life-size illustration of Fabian Barthez. Something to do with the bar being opened during the 1998 World Cup, apparently.
We settled down to watch Chels take on the Makkems. A disappointing 3-2 defeat followed, but our season was long over and it didn’t dampen our mood too much. We relocated to the garden, which overlooks a football pitch. There was a fifth-tier match going on. “C’mon Vir.”
It was still more than two hours to kick-off, but Matjaž wanted to head to the ground to beat the traffic and get a spot in the stadium’s underground car park.
The Stožice Stadium is a relatively new venue, built out of town. There are no bars in the immediate area to speak of, but there is one hell of a party going on on the concourse.
As we walked around the ground to meet up with the boys’ mates, we passed the ‘club shop’ – a table with a few T-shirts on it. I buy one for my boy. They don’t have kids’ sizes, but he’ll grow into it – in about 10 years time.
There’s a carrier bag full of cans of Union on the ground between us, and even some dodgy whisky in a plastic bottle doing the rounds. There’s a right old sing song going on: “Oh, Oh, Oh, oh, oh, oh, Ohhhhhhhhh Olimpija”. Standing on a nearby wall is a guy in a Celtic top – Olimpija play in green and white, so it fits the bill.
We were congregated near to a big roundabout, which leads to the stadium.
There was a queue of traffic waiting at the traffic lights, and the lads spot a Maribor scarf flapping out of a car window. One runs over, grabs it and returns with his spoils. A ceremonial burning of the scarf followed.
Matjaž is well connected, and one of his friends, also a Chelsea fan, works for a TV company. She arrived with cameraman in tow, and Neal and I found ourselves being interviewed for Slovenian TV. Two slightly drunk Chelsea fans talking Slovenia, Chelsea and Olimpija, and leading fans in a chant made for great viewing I’m sure. You can see the results by clicking here, – we’re about 1 min 10 secs in.
The Stožice Stadium holds about 16,000. It was near full. It was bouncing. In fact, both sets of fans didn’t stop bouncing for the whole game. There were flares, huge banners, toilet roll streamers flying through the air as the teams came onto the pitch, and a wall of noise. The Green Dragons were right up for this. There were even some lovely looking cheerleaders with pom poms.
We had front row seats right on the halfway line opposite the tunnel. Through the smoke that drifted across the pitch we could see the Maribor army. A sea of purple, if 500 fans can be called a sea. Maybe a lake.
At one point in what was obviously a co-ordinated action the Viole removed their shirts and there was a stand full of bare-chested blokes bouncing.
Flares lit up again in the Olimpija end, like a festival of mini-fires in the crowd. The green smoke mixed with the purple, and it was like we were watching the game through dry ice.
The noise was incessant for the whole 90 minutes. I didn’t know 14,000 people could make such a noise. It puts the Premier League to shame.
Maribor are a big draw crowd wise, and this title six-pointer had ensured a record crowd. Normally there’s just a few thousand who watch the green and whites. We paid €15 for a ticket, but Maribor is the Slovenian equivalent of a Category A game, and cheaper tickets can be found when lesser opposition, i.e. anyone else, comes to town.
Olimpija scored after 19 minutes – Slovenian international Kronaveter Rok (who just happened to come from Maribor) applying the finishing touch. There’s pandemonium – Is the title coming home?
The green and white hung onto their lead until, with just 10 minutes to go, Maribor were awarded a penalty. They scored, Novakovic Milivoje – another Slovenia international, who, would you believe, was born in Ljubljana – holding his nerve. The Green Dragons do not, as you can imagine, treat Ljubljanans that play for Maribor too kindly. The same can be said for the Viole and Mariborans that play for Olimpija.
Despite the equalizer, the din at the Green Dragon end continued, but there was a notable rise in volume from the Viole.
In the third minute of injury time a speculative shot from Brazilian (they’re everywhere aren’t they?) Tavares Marcos flew into the top corner of the Olimpija net, and the title race was wide open again. Queue bedlam at the Maribor end.
The police formed a wall to keep the opposing fans apart. A couple of idiots made a dash for the Maribor end. They got about five yards before the efficient riot police knocked them to the ground, ’cuffed them and led them away.
Outside, there’s disappointment among the green and whites, sure. But the party atmosphere didn’t abate. Bars have opened up on the concourse and crowds gathered to chew over the game, rueing a missed opportunity.
There’s still optimism, but many looked resigned to another fallow year.
We drifted away, driving back into the city where we have a last beer by the river. Hunger takes over. “I could eat a horse,” I said. And before I know it we are in the car and heading for a horse burger restaurant. Yes, really! And the taste? It was neigh too bad. Sorry.
For the record, Maribor suffered a shock home defeat in their next game and again on the last day of the season, and Olimpija went on to claim their first title since 1995. The scenes must have been raucous.
Written for Look at These Scenes, a blog dedicated to a passion for watching football in foreign lands and sampling the culture that surrounds the beautiful game, www.lookatthesescenes.com