Saturday evening in Sozopol and the peaches on the beaches are turning a darker shade of brown, the deep house grooves in the beach bars run on endless repeats and the tourists from all over Bulgaria and beyond revel in glorious 30 degree temperatures. Crowds wander the streets, from bar to beach to restaurant to supermarket. We have families with hungry kids carrying inflatable dolphins, loved up couples in fluorescent shorts and flip-flops, old timers whose kids long ago fled to Germany or the UK, professionals from Sofia escaping the Sofia crush for an all together more gentle weekend crush on the Black Sea Coast. Russians, Germans, Poles, Romanians, English, citizens from all across Europe. This is Sozopol, the Bulgarians favorite Black Sea destination and home to the Sky Blues of FC Sozopol.
Inside Arena Sozopol there are a few hundred of us watching the squad presentation before the friendly game against local rivals Nesabar. This will be the last game before the 2nd League season starts next weekend. A last chance for coach Rumen Dimov to fine tune his team and pursue his tactical masterplan for Sozopol to chase that elusive place in the Bulgarian 1st League.
The first thing I notice in the warm up is the new kit, still predominantly sky blue but now with a darker blue to the top half and a collar less V-neck. Gone is the motivational “One Love, One Team, We are FC Sozopol” etching on the back of last seasons shirt, replaced by a rather un-inspiring “Efbet” so predominant on many Bulgarian football shirts. I guess the “Efbet” money is a much more needed motivation for the FC Sozopol accountants. Still, the shirts are lovely, stylish like the town itself and far superior to the yellow Nesebar shirt their opponents wear.
There are several new faces and several new numbers. Most noticeably Krystian Peshov now wears the number 9 shirt instead of the number 6 from last season. There is a number 4 and a number 10. All football teams should have a number 4 and a number 10, it’s as important as round footballs and ballboys.
So with the sun still high in the sky Sozopol line up in their 3-5-2 formation. Number 21, Stanimer Baev sits deep in front of the back 3 to receive the ball and to spray his cultured passes around the immaculate Arena Sozopol pitch. Number 9, Peshov, is pushed up front along side number 7, Christian Tafradzhiyski to form an attacking partnership that I can’t help feel is forced on coach Dimov. I’m sure if new signing, the Brazilian Gabriel was fit he would be leading the line today. For me, Peshov is a player who can influence the game much more from the middle of the park, breaking forward with poise and purpose and lending his elegant right foot to set pieces so I wonder how he will do as an out and out forward?
Sozopol start brightly and on 10 minutes score with a cross from the right finding it’s way to an unmarked Tafradzhiyski who lashes home from 8 yards. As the sun falls lower, the shadows grow longer and Sozopol’s grip on the game tightens. The un-hurried Baev picks up the ball from defence and finds his team mates with short simple passes or more expansive cross field attempts, keeping the game flowing and keeping Sozopol on the front foot. Peshov has 2 chances to justify the number 9 on his back, both from perfect right wing crosses but both times misses his header with the goal at his mercy. The number 4, Jayhan Zeidemov is a revelation, playing in that essential midfield enforcer role, getting stuck in, winning the ball, breaking up play and unsettling the Nesabar midfield. Toward half time we have some argy bargy when the Sozopol center back Ivan Penev playfully rugby tackles Nesebar’s forward, provoking a lazy right hand swing from the Nesebar player that lands like a lovers slap on Panev’s cheek, provoking all 22 men into mass handbags and leading to both players being red carded and subsequently replaced to keep both teams at 11 players each.
Half time comes and it’s 1-0 to Sozopol. On comes the Reggaeton and out go half of the crowd for cold drinks or sunflower seed top ups. or back to the beach for more sun. I stay in my seat and enjoy the golden hour sunlight on my face and take in the characters around me. I don’t recognize too many, I guess the regulars don’t fancy these pre-season games too much. Instead we get the bored and the curious. The dapper guy down in the front row with his trilby and mirrored RayBans intrigues me and apparently I intrigue him because he spends most of half time looking up at me with a strange curiosity.
The second half starts with several changes to the Sozopol line up. Off goes Baev and Peshov, on come Mustapha Mustapha and 17 year old wonder kid striker Steliyan Kolev. The youngster looks fast and sharp, laying the ball off with some nice touches and harassing and hurrying the Nesaber defenders. He looks hungry but a little bit short on confidence, He needs some more game time and some could do with some strengthening up. He wears no number on his back so appears as a true original, a unique player in an always familiar place.
Again Sozopol look bright, probing down the flanks, looking to get their wing backs forward, playing with intensity and purpose but lacking that killer instinct in the final 3rd. 10 minutes into the 2nd half the goalscorer Tafradzhiyski squares up to the referee, yelling a rather bold Bulgarian obscenity into his face, leading the ref to proudly and justly show him a red card. Nesebar offer little but with the sun now disappeared behind the rooftops of the new town they break forward and, after a magnificent saving tackle, are awarded a baffling and completely undeserved penalty. The always animated Dimov is incensed as are the Sozopol faithful in the stands beside me, spitting out their sunflower seeds with extra venom and protesting fruitlessly while the Nesebar forward slots home the penalty to make it 1-1. Somewhere in the confusion coach Dimov is banished from the pitch. An aggrieved Sozopol fan decides to take matters into his own hands, rushing down to the front of the stands, he throws his glasses to the assistant referee, who catches them deftly and throws them back in good spirit. This further incenses our man so he starts to scale the dividing wall, turning the assistants grin to a look of mild terror before the guy changes his mind, probably fearful of the 10 foot drop to the pitch below.
The game ends 1-1. Sozopol dominate but fail to score more goals. They need the Brazilian Gabriel off of his crutches and finding a way to put the ball into the back of the net. They need Mustapha to unleash a few of his left foot rockets and Peshov to find his scoring boots.
The season ahead will be an interesting one. Sozopol will play with style and verve, moving the ball forward as Dimov insists, the crowds will increase as the season starts, the “ultras” of the FC Sozopol Fan Club will sing their songs of passion and light their flares and we will all hope the boys in Sky Blue with the Anchor of Sozopol on their hearts will rise to the challenge and take this glorious seaside town into the upper echelons of the Bulgarian 1st League.