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A sports rivalry bigger than Red Sox vs. Yankees?

Levski, CSKA rivalry echoes red-blue football rivalries around eastern Europe

SOFIA, Bulgaria — Red Sox and Yankees fans have nothing on the supporters of CSKA and Levski, Bulgaria's most popular soccer teams.

For while Bostonians and New Yorkers lay claim to the longest-running rivalry in American professional sports, CSKA and Levski devotees enjoy what they call "the everlasting derby," a bitter red-versus-blue struggle that stretches from Serbia to Russia, mixing politics and history along the way.

"In 1944, they were pigs, with the fascists," said CSKA fan club president Dimitar Angelov, who wore a bright red windbreaker outside Bulgaria's national stadium in Sofia, the capital, before a March 27 match against Levski. "They love to speculate that we are communists. They are the team of the police. I avoid talking about them."

On the other side of the stadium — cops keep the fan groups separated to prevent fights — Levski supporter Stoyan Hristovskov also let fly. "There is hatred between the two," he said, draped in a blue flag. "We hate them viciously."

Variations of the same animosity can be found between Serbia's Red Star Belgrade and Partizan soccer clubs, Moscow's CSKA and Dynamo, and other rivalries throughout eastern Europe. Drawing parallels between them can be tricky — Partizan players once wore blue but now sport black-and-white uniforms — but they conform to similar patterns.

Founded in 1914 and named after a hero of Bulgaria's 19th-century independence movement, Levski became linked with the police and intelligence services during the Cold War, when the ruling Communist Party permeated every aspect of life. Now the club's supporters call Levski the "people's team," in part because blue is associated with democracy in Bulgaria.

Bulgaria's military created the Central Sports Club of the Army, or CSKA, in 1948. The club is now privatized, but CSKA's logo remains the red star, the symbol of the communist-era armed forces.

Those histories have little connection to CSKA and Levski's management today. Still, the teams' origins are crucial to how their fans perceive each other.

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Levski backers are disgusted at CSKA supporters rallying around a communist symbol. "A lot of CSKA supporters claim the star has nothing to do with communism," said Levski fan club president Vladimir Vladimirov. "They feel guilty. Their younger fans don't know about things we've been through, what we experienced in socialist times."

CSKA followers say the police and their elite masters, not the army, were the real oppressors under communism. The military was the great leveler in Bulgaria, drafting every able-bodied man in the country. Its team is really the people's team, Angelov said. "The army had no business with people's lives, telling people what to write, think, feel," said Angelov. "The police did."

But asked why CSKA keeps the red star, Angelov suggested communism often gets a bum rap in Bulgaria, where many remember the Soviet Union as a Slavic cousin and protector. "That thing that was in Bulgaria was not the same as in North Korea or Cuba under Castro," he said.

CSKA has won more titles in its history and currently holds third place in the Bulgaria league, one spot ahead of Levski. But scandals bedevil the team. Coach Ioan Andone resigned on March 30 after only two months on the job, financial troubles have marred the team's image and striker Orlin Orlinov was recently arrested for allegedly beating his girlfriend, a model and reality television star.

Levski isn't doing much better. Team owner Todor Batkov, a lawyer for the team's previous owner, Russian oligarch Michael Cherney, has come under fire for allegedly mishandling team funds. Coach Georgi Ivanov is unpopular, too. Batkov refused his recent offer to resign after the team lost 3-0 to Bulgarian league frontrunners Litex.

Scandals and concerns over poor management have damaged Bulgarian football in the past decade, said CSKA spokesman Vladimir Roupov. Crumbling facilities have also harmed the game, he said. Municipalities often own the stadiums, but the teams lease them. As a result, no one has an incentive to invest in maintenance.

Only a quarter of the 40,000 seats in the national stadium where Levski and CSKA played on March 27 were full, Roupov said. In the early 1990s, a game in the everlasting derby would have attracted at least twice as many people.

Fans at the March 27 match left disappointed. The game resulted in a goalless draw.

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Courtesy Levski

A Levski-CSKA match at the national stadium in Sofia, Bulgaria on March 27.


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