Of Green Scarves and Fluorescent Wine

OR, The “Rest of the Story” Behind My Attendance at the Slovenia-Romania World Cup soccer game, November 2001

 

International sport is a passion of mine, and has been since the time I witnessed the Brazil-Cameroon match at Stanford Stadium during the US’s hosting of the 1994 World Cup Finals.  There is little that matches the mixture of hometown fervor and great competition as the world stage.  When the psyche of a whole nation rests on the taking of a penalty kick or the final ball in a one-day cricket match, you know you witnessing something special, something historic.

My opportunities to attend such events have been few in number, but each left an indelible impression with me.  In Brazil-Cameroon, I delighted in the roving throngs of samba-playing hordes who partied two days prior and two days after their 3-0 victory.  In March 2001, I watched a new nation, Bosnia-Herzegovina, draw 1-1 with Austria in a qualifying round match for World Cup 2002.  It was a chance to witness the three former-warring cultures come together for one night to cheer in one voice under one flag.

On two other trips, I had the chance to ‘soak up the atmosphere’ as two other countries qualified for the 2002 Finals – I was in a Kraków bar when Poland qualified in September, and tramped around Copenhagen on the day Denmark thrashed Iceland to earn their ticket.  In the latter case, thousands had descended on Nyhavn in a day-long celebration that began at 8AM and went for over twenty-four hours.  I recalled a handful of drunk Danes pissing in city fountains and climbing the rocks to the Little Mermaid so they could be photographed kissing it[1].

Both those occasions were by accident, not by design, but they inspired me to want to get to a World Cup qualifying match when the playoff games were held on Veterans’ weekend.  The inspiration led me to the most memorable sporting experience I’ve ever had — attending the first leg of the Slovenia-Romania playoff on 11 November 2001 in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.  I had heard a lot of great things about Slovenia, and I hadn’t been there yet, so among the playoff games it was the most attractive choice.  Not only did I love Slovenia, but the chance to witness a new nation gaining their first ever berth in a World Cup Finals, plus getting was such an amusing and exasperating story in itself, the experience will remain burned in my memory forever.

This is how the playoffs worked.  Europe had 13 guaranteed slots in the World Cup Finals, so it divided its fifty participating countries into nine qualifying groups.  The winners of each group automatically earned a bid, while eight of the second place teams were paired off to play a two-game playoff for the four other bids.  [The ninth second-place team (which was Ireland) played for an at-large berth against an Asian team (which was Iran, Ireland won).]  Slovenia and Romania were second-placed clubs that drew each other for the playoff round.  Their two games were played within days of each other — Ljubljana playing host on Saturday the 11th, Bucharest the following Wednesday.  Higher aggregate score would determine the winner, who would earn a berth in the Finals, while the loser was out.  Higher away goals was the first tiebreaker.

AND so, off to slovenia i went…

With all the excitement and drama that going to Ljubljana would bring, there was a problem.  Not only did I not have a ticket, I had no idea how to get one.  I tried e-mailing the soccer federation but got no response.  I tried to see if they were being sold on-line, but they weren’t.  I didn’t let that deter me from going.  Heck, even if I didn’t get in, I could still soak up the atmosphere around the stadium and then go find a sports pub nearby.  After all, this was a big moment in Slovene sports history, the bars would be crowded with fans glued to the set anyway.  So, with this in mind, I arrived in Ljubljana on Friday night, 10 November, and toured the city Saturday morning and early afternoon.

It was about 3:30PM when I made my way to the stadium seeking to find the ticket office.  Ljubljana stadium is on the north side of town near the convention center.  The stadium building was quite unremarkable… just a low round brick wall with very old light fixtures.  Calling it utilitarian would be too kind.  There was no décor.  Mere blue letters on simple white wooden squares marked the gates.  There were no signs for a ticket office.  But most important, the place was empty — no indication that an important event was to happen that evening at 7:30.  This was definite not a repeat of the madhouse scene of a month earlier in Copenhagen.

It was clear I wasn’t going to buy a ticket at the stadium.  There were a few telephone booths that had paper signs posted which appeared to be selling tickets, but a cursory glance at the prices were unbelievable – about 100,000 Slovenian tolar (or $500) was the asking price.  I paid $5 for my seat in Sarajevo and hard a hard time believing the gate price would be that much higher in Ljubljana.  To be this brazen and post such signs at the stadium told me that whatever scalping laws were in existence were not enforced too well, and the tickets were worth their weight in gold.

At that time, no crowd had as of yet gathered, and there was only one person who appeared to be a scalper.  This man had a rather frightening appearance – his face was horribly disfigured from some childhood disease that marred his skin and skewed his jaw.  His tongue was permanently positioned over his lower lip as he told me that his asking price was 200,000 tolar.  I politely declined.

Walking around the stadium, I saw that the police were beginning to appear in force.  Hundreds of Slovene officers began congregating in a muddied parking lot outside the visitors’ entrance and the press gate.  All of them were dressed in full black riot gear, their belts hosting truncheons and other tools of the trade.  It was clear from their faces that they were ready to handle just about anything, yet they were fully professional and did not impose an unhealthy attitude on the scene – some greeted familiar faces passing by, but only briefly so as not to be distracted.

this wasn’t going to be quick

By 4PM, I had a sensing that I wasn’t going to get in, so Option B (“Soak up the atmosphere”) was in effect.  The fans gathered slowly over the course of the next half-hour, both Slovene and Romanian.  I was disappointed, however, to see more Romanians decked in their national colors that the Slovenes.  Between them there were maybe two hundred fans in total, just hanging around.  It was still early, but I was reminiscing to my experience in Copenhagen – I really felt disappointed.

That was when a young trio came around selling scarves.  These were ordinary scarves commonly worn by soccer fans around the world… they are sewn with the team/national colors and name.  These three were selling three varieties… two of them based on the white-blue-red Slovene flag with the emblem of Mount Triglav, but the third was based on the traditional Slovene national color of forest green (the Slovene uniforms are white with forest green trim).  The name SLOVENIJA was spelled in bold white letters except the letters “LOVE” were green with a white outline.  I thought that was cool, so I paid 3,000 tolar (about $12) for one of them and wrapped it around my neck.

The sun hid behind some clouds, and the temperature began to drop.  The pace of the crowd gathering was disappointing and it seemed like there wouldn’t be much of a tailgate party, so I decided to head back to my hotel, figuring on coming back closer to game time after I had a chance to warm up – or forgetting the whole matter and just going directly to a sports bar in town.

catching a break… I think

Two blocks later, I chanced upon two young men standing on the sidewalk.  They noticed the scarf and approaching me.  I told them that I didn’t speak their language, and they immediately jumped into English, asking where I had bought it.  I explained that there was a group selling them at the stadium, and was even able to identify the trio from a distance.  They thanked me, but seemed turned off by the price I paid.

We struck up conversation.  They asked if I was American, and I said yes.  They seemed amazed because they wondered if I was scared to be in Slovenia.  I didn’t understand what they meant, I said that I found Slovenia to be perfectly safe.  They explained that they were still thinking about the events of September 11th, and said that almost no Americans were around ever since.  I proudly said, ‘That’s ok.  We’ll start coming back.’  Their reaction told me they thought I was full of it, but I was serious.  I didn’t want foreigners thinking that we Americans were going to hide in our houses like wimps while the rest of the world moved on.  Those weren’t the words I used, but I impressed them with my touch of bravado (after all, it took bravado to go there).

I told them that I had sought to buy a ticket, but they replied that they weren’t for sale.  The Slovene soccer federation distributed tickets to the cities for direct sale to fans.  There was no open market.  They told me that they were two of over a hundred fans arriving from the northeastern industrial city of Maribor, and there were only a couple of people who were given blocks of tickets for the city.

They told me that if I still wanted a ticket, I could get one.  It was likely that not everyone from their group in Maribor would show up and a ticket would be available.  But they warned me, “This is in the Fans section.”  I told them that this was ok, I’d love to be in the Fans section.

What a boldfaced lie…  I knew darn well what ‘Fans section’ meant and that I needed to be as far away from it as possible.  That was the standing-room only section with the cheapest seats where all the hooligans were.  It took little imagination to see that these two gentlemen were perfect Dr. Jekylls when sober, but potential Mr. Hyde’s after a few drinks.  But I remembered that seating controls in Zetra Stadium in Sarajevo were loosely enforced, and figured that I could stay safely away from brawling distance.

Three men emerged from a nearby restaurant door, each colliding with the door jam.  The third was particularly off-balance, as he was challenged by the weight of a two-liter unlabeled soda bottle half-filled with cheap wine that looked like it had been mixed with antifreeze.  It had a most unnatural color.

I CAN’T TELL HIM I’M AN AMERICAN?

Then a sixth man haphazardly arrived on a moped, inadvertently bouncing off the curb and practically ramming into a streetlamp.  He had an extraordinary amount of difficulty parking the bike, and removing his helmet took a lot of energy.  His eyes said it all – they had that I’m-about-ready-to-puke stare.

This was the guy with the tickets.  After restoring full consciousness, he pulled a backpack on a lap and pulled out a large pile of tickets marked for entrance ‘E’.  Word of his arrival spread like wildfire, and a throng of eager (and merry) fans piled out of the restaurant to get their precious slip of paper.

One of the two men bade me to stay put, and not to tell anyone else that I was an American.  He want to the ticket holder after the crowd had thinned down to see if any tickets were indeed available.  The answer was a definitive ‘yes’.  The man came back and gave me instructions… after the tickets have been passed out, I needed to walk down the street with the other man and negotiate a price.  He asked me how much money I had, and I told him 10,000 TOLAR ($36), though I really had 15K.  He said that would be plenty enough.  The time came, and the two of us walked down the street roughly 50 meters.  The other two gentlemen stayed within earshot since they knew I spoke no Slovene and he spoke no English.  Worse, as he faced me, his I’m-about-ready-to-puke stance remained, his head stay lowered, his face blank, and he was listing about two degrees to starboard.

The ‘negotiations’ amounted to me flashing cash, and him displaying fingers.  I showed a 10K tolar bill, he signaled five fingers to indicate he wanted 15K.  I gestured that I didn’t have it.  The other two gentlemen had stayed within earshot and tried to tell him to take my 10K.  He thought for what seemed an inordinate amount of time before flashing a single finger – 11K ($45), take it or leave it.  I immediately took it, and made the sale.  I thanked the two gentlemen for their assistance, but one of them gave me a word of caution that it was best I went my own way and not hang around with them.  The words, “No, duh!” raced through my mind.  I went off to the stadium, leaving the thirsty crew of hooligans behind to make the best (and undoubtedly drinkable) use of that 11K.

THE (UNENDING) QUEST FOR GATE ‘E’

I surveyed the ticket.  It afforded me entrance to Gate E, and the face value was 500 tolar total.  So, basically I paid $45 for a $2 ticket.  I didn’t mind the price that much, after all it costed roughly $45 just to see an ordinary English Premier League match.

My next challenge was to find Gate E.  I vaguely remembered that Gate A was at the far side of the stadium from me, and there were five gates.  The first gate I reached was C, the side entrance reserved for the visitors fans.  If I went right, I would head along the street towards A, so I went left.

The back 75% of the stadium had only two entrances – the press and dignitary entrance serving those in the grandstand behind the western goal, and Gate B.  I realized I went the wrong way, but at that point it was further to backtrack, so I continued my circle around the stadium.

The gates were about to open when I reached Gate A, the northernmost of the three street entrances.  The crowds were gathering rapidly.  The other two entrances at streetside were becoming mob scenes.  Peering inside the stadium, I realized that the back of the eastern goal was pointed directly at the center streetside entrance.  I theorized that the Fans Section would likely be behind that goal, as far away from the western grandstand as possible. Since C was on the southern wall, D would have been the southernmost streetside entrance.  Both streams of logic pointed to the center streetside entrance as being Gate E.  So off I went, ticket in hand, smile on my face, eager to get in line at the proper entrance.

Imagine my surprise when the posted sign there was marked Gate A.

“Wait a sec,” I thought, “This can’t be right.  There are two gate A’s.”  Then I looked at the tickets being held by the fans entering.  All of them were marked Gate A.  I went back to the other Gate A.  All of those tickets were marked A as well.  This was screwy.  I then went to the southern streetside entrance.  That was D, so at least half my logic was correct.  Small consolation.

Well, I tried getting in the center entrance, but the guards refused me.  I tried to ask them where Gate E was, but one said, in broken English, “Don’t know.  Not here.”  Then I tried getting in the other Gate A.  Same thing, except this time I was told to “go around the stadium.”

I tried each of the other entrances, except the visitor’s entrance, but no one  knew where Gate E was.  I was exasperated.  I felt like a beggar after a while – longlingly holding out my ticket to other guards as if to say, “Will enter for food.”

It took twenty minutes before I found a knowledgeable officer who told me that I had correctly picked Gate E in the first place (but she didn’t explain the curious naming of the gate).  At 5:30PM, I finally got in.

THANK HEAVEN I WAS WAY OVERDRESSED

I did not realize it at the time, but I saved by my outfit.  I had been told of the importance of being a well-dressed tourist in the former Soviet nations. So instead of looking like another ragamuffin in Slovenian soccer shirts and jeans, I was actually dressed up in a black trenchcoat and dress shoes over a buttoned shirt, sweater, and slacks. After I got in the gate, I detoured a little bit from the hooligans surrounding me. An usher spotted me, didn’t check my ticket but pointed me toward the grandstand, section ‘A’ far away from the Fans section.

I found the optimal vantage point right next to a food court – about the seat level at the edge of the penalty area where Slovenia would attack in the first half.  It was directly behind the last row of seats.  Absolutely perfect!  After downing a bratwurst, I claimed that spot by standing there in place.

The only downside to this move was that the ground was wet and cold, and standing there for two hours did little for the warmth of my feet.  But I had a primo spot, and a fair number of fans gathered around me trying to push their way inside.  Cold or no cold, if I moved, I’d lose that spot.  I mentally prepared myself to tolerate a full bladder if it was necessary, and I maintained my position as best I could.

I surveyed the field, and surmised that it took a tremendous amount of work to get it game ready, and game ready it was.  The field had been covered in snow, but was thoroughly plowed, leaving high banks of slush below the stands.  I saw no pools of water on the pitch, in fact the pitch was a perfect carpet of green.  Not even the oft-trampled center of the pitch showed signs of wear.  As the players did there pre-game routines, I saw no slipping nor other signs that the sod was loose.  The lighting was excellent.

With nothing to do for ninety-plus minutes waiting for the game to begin, I did a lot of people-watching.  The Fans section began filling up with rowdies, and a number of them reached into the snowbanks and began hurling snowballs the size of missiles at the Romanian fans.  The Romanians did not respond in kind.  The snowballs started getting bigger. Still no response.

Over the next half-hour, a number of young people came by carrying huge bags of freebies from the game’s sponsors.  The Slovene national telecom company gave away fluorescent-green banners and balloons.  Others gave away pens, keychains, and sparklers.  I pocketed some of the freebies, and watched in delight as the fans inflated and waved around the green balloons and lit the sparklers.

IMAGINE MY HORROR…

Suddenly, at about 7PM (30 minutes before kickoff), a brawl broke out in the Fans section.  I didn’t see what touched it off, but it consumed the entire section.  The movement of bodies and flailing arms and torn-off clothing reminded me of what coffee looks like when one poured milk into it.  Everyone was either involved or unable to escape – from my distance, I couldn’t tell which.  The white-clad fans surrounding me pointed at the spectacle and laughed.

The response from the police was swift.  Dressed in full black riot gear, two columns of police officers sliced through the heart of the melee like a hot knife through butter.  After reaching the first row, the columns separated and the officers chased the brawlers outwards and upwards, swinging their truncheons more as a threat than an attempt to injure.  The drunkards tripped over themselves and the seats to get away.  At least one of them was rendered naked from the waist up from the fighting.  Order was quickly restored, and I saw several fans being removed from the stadium by armlock.  Some of the Romanian fans waved bye-bye.

AND FINALLY, THE GAME!!!

Finally, at 7:30PM, with my feet nearly turned to icicles, the game started.  Naturally, the home fans were pumped and were singing and cheering loudly.  The home team was pumped also, and immediately went on the attack.  They were quickly repulsed and the Romanians took over control of the game over the next several minutes.

I won’t repeat what I wrote in the original travelogue, except to say that it was an absolute thrill watching Slovenia defeat Romania 2-1 despite being overmatched in many respects, and then watch them forge a 1-1 draw in Bucharest later that week on TV to win the two-game series by a 3-2 aggregate score and qualify for World Cup 2002.  I will add that the Fans section was raided a second time after Slovenia scored their first goal, and that I beat feet straight to my hotel after the game was over, wanting to make sure I was safe in my room should the celebrations begin involving the flipping over of cars.  (No, the celebrations were quite civil, but I heard a lot of car horns well past 2AM).

This was an experience that one does once in a lifetime.  As an American, I’m accustomed to comfortable arenas with civil fans, even if it means six-dollar flat beers and blaring rock-n-roll music.  It took me three days to return my feet to room temperature, and I shudder to think of my fate should I have been forced to stay within the brawl zone.  The green scarf now hangs on the door to my study, a testimony to a great occasion, and a measure of thanks for coming out of the experience in one piece.

Meanwhile, my heart went out to those young men, many of whom worked in tough industrial settings and just wanted to let their hair down on such an important occasion for their fledgling country.  It wasn’t often one got to witness sports history, especially if one was a Slovene who enjoyed his two liters of fluorescent wine now and then.

 

[1] This is a family-friendly story, so I won’t say what else the drunk Danes were doing with the Little Mermaid.

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