Bulgarian Rugby – Varna

In Vienna, it had been suggested to us to visit the coast of the Black Sea, and in particular, the town of Varna. This had meant missing Sofia on our route, the capital city, and the home of rugby in Bulgaria, but it did not mean a missed opportunity, Varna held its own in this capacity. First though, the story of Bulgaria.

Our journey started with a ferry. Cheats! In fairness we had set out to avoid “unnecessary” public transport. The crossing from Calarasi (Romania) to Silistra (Bulgaria) was by ferry rather than by bridge. Had there been a bridge, I doubt very much whether it would have been above water in any case. We docked at the flooded banks of the Danube for the very last time. We had at last set foot on Bulgarian soil and were about to engulf ourselves in another language and culture, this one, with an unreadable Cyrillic alphabet, half letters, and half graphics from “space invaders”.

We needn’t mention the weather, it now came with the territory, so as per standard procedure we made our way into the country in the heavy morning rain. We had no rugby schedule, only a couple of towns that we planned to follow signs for, hitting the coast, then south to Varna. We spent only one night camping wild, locating a damp but peaceful spot at the back of a cemetery, a now regular haunt, excuse the pun.

Although we had received no response from our e-mails to Bulgarian rugby we once had to pay thanks for the media coverage of our trip. A Bulgarian couple by name of Pavel and Stella had read of our journey, and had offered us an invitation to stay with them in Varna. We of course gratefully accepted and managed to schedule a meeting in an English pub, watching an England football match from South Africa 2010. Both Pavel and Stella had equally interesting backgrounds, and with such a cultured history, spoke perfect English too. Pavel was a professional sports gambler and pundit for betfair Bulgaria. He even had an interest in rugby which was very pleasing. Stella, was an artist who had lived for many years in Holland before returning to Varna and starting a family with Pavel. As fortune would have it, Pavel’s brother (who by chance was a professional poker player) was in Moscow preparing for the World Championship in Las Vegas. We not only had an invitation to Varna, but we now had our own apartment in the heart of the town. As if this wasn’t enough, Pavel had also arranged for the national television to swing past and interview us in a couple of days. It seems that the idea of our trip is of genuine interest to people in Eastern Europe.

We tried our luck on the beach the following day, but the temperatures were still unusually cold and wet. We instead met with Pavel and Stella and arranged a night at their place. They had a beautiful place overlooking the sea just north of the town. We chatted about life with a new baby, living abroad and all manner of sports, gambling, poker and moonshine alcohol. They were great hosts and as we sipped beer I commented that it was a shame that we had failed on our Bulgarian mission to find a signature and story for the scroll. Pavel couldn’t accept that this was the case. Within minutes he was on the phone to a contact he recognised, it was Pavel’s rugby coach from his younger days. A short conversation followed of which I understood nothing, but moments later we had the “Godfather” of Bulgarian rugby attending the media meeting, the former captain of Bulgaria, and a member from the Bulgarian Rugby Federation Management Committee. My beer was still half full, and everything had been arranged thanks to Pavel and Stella.

Our last morning in Varna arrived and we reluctantly packed up our gear again. Each time we prepared to leave the luxury of accommodation it was like walking out Will’s flat in Putney all those days ago. It never gets any easier. We made our way to the arranged meet where we were greeted by the television crew. We gave the interview and then sat with our rugby guests. Pavel acted as translator for all, for our questions of past, present and future Bulgarian rugby, and for our distinguished rugby guests as they presented us with all manner of rugby gifts, then bought us lunch.

Ivan Ivanov is the Godfather of rugby in Bulgaria, possibly even the first Bulgarian rugby player. He started off his sporting career in the 1950s as a long jumper. At the sports institution where he competed was a Romanian rugby coach. This man decided that it was time to introduce the sport to Bulgaria so arranged a club fixture between two Romanian teams to be played in Sofia. The Bulgarian crowd swarmed to witness this historic event, the attendance quoted as over 70,000 on the day. To me, this speaks volumes of the untapped enthusiasm for rugby at this time, to others they might say the crowd were waiting for the football match that kicked off immediately after. I couldn’t possibly say. One man that it did convert however was Ivan Ivanov. He became the first stand off in the country and was involved in the national setup from the outset.

Rugby met with early problems, in particular a directive of the Communist Party from Soviet Union banning the promotion of rugby. It was viewed as a vehicle of Western imperialist influence but despite this, there was recorded resistance against this in the local area. It seemed the sport had captured some interest already.

The first national match was in 1963 where they played against a very strong Romanian outfit, losing 70-3 in the process. He subsequently went on to coach league winning clubs in Sofia and Varna, and the national team itself for many years.

Bulgarian rugby is not without its successes. At its strongest in the late 80s and early 90s it was competing regularly in an Eastern European “Peace and Friendship” competition against teams like Romania and Russia (then the Soviet Union). We talked with the captain of Bulgaria at this time, Plamen Kirov, who led the team to their greatest victory, defeating the Soviet Union in the late 80s. Even after the bloc fell apart in 1989, Bulgaria were still competing at a strong level, defeating Czechoslovakia 15-10 in 1990.

By the late 90s the economic climate in Bulgaria had killed off most interest in amateur sports and there was a depleted pool of new players coming through. Varna Rugby Club, one of the country’s most successful teams even folded for a few years before being relaunched in 2001.

There are 95 nations in the IRB rankings, and someone has to fill the bottom positions, irrespective of the level.  As of 28 June 2010 Bulgaria are sitting 90th. Dr Nikola Zlatarski is on the managing committee for the Bulgarian Rugby Federation, but also worked from a club level promoting rugby to youngsters in Varna. They are now beginning to successfully integrate rugby into the schools at a young age, early signs show that this is working. Plamen, who is now coaching at various levels and ages, recently took a young club side to England to compete. They were one of only two overseas teams and finished 4th out of around twenty sides. As we conversed with our guests, even Pavel commented on the level of passion shown when discussing rugby. To these men, it didn’t matter that rugby in Bulgaria was small, it was still rugby. Those involved in the game become as absorbed by the culture irrespective of the outside interest. They felt a little despondent that newly emerging teams such as Hungary were making quicker progress, but were not giving up hope. It was a privilege to have met with such influential figures in Bulgarian rugby and I hope that for their efforts, the sport shows progress over the next generation.

We went upstairs to a food court to eat some lunch before setting off, here we were joined by another ex National player, Roman. He was a giant of a second row, and certainly a contender for biggest player on our trip. We’ve met with some big guys this far, but Roman is now proudly leading the way, with possibly only Michael Owen from Wales in contention. He had played in the same national side as Plamen during the early 90s . He now spends 6 months a year working on tug boats in Karachi, but  has remained firm friends with his co-players and in particular Plamen. Despite having no real interest in the sport, he started playing through a social invitation, and after one match never walked away. A common theme throughout the rugby world, and for me, a very familiar story.

Departing Varna late Friday afternoon we ignored the rain and headed south to Turkey, and the gateway to Asia.


One Response

  1. Good morning, Jodie and Tom:

    Your blogs are amazing! I’d most definitely buy your book. You write so well and it’s fascinating to know about all the remarkable people and places you have visited and that you are doing this for such a great cause.

    It was horrible to read that Tom had been ill and it’s particularly worrying when you are far away from creature comforts and have that relentless schedule to keep to. It’s hard to have a really good rest and a decent chance to recover and when you feel unwell, the last thing you feel like is doing another 70 miles on your bike, in driving rain, with dodgy directions. By the sounds of your latest blog, you are both hale and hearty now and long may that continue.

    Mr M and his cycle club completed their Land’s End to John O’Groats trip last month but they were afflicted with a stomach bug and were living cheek by jowel in youth hostels (and horribly sleep deprived, and eating rubbish every day).

    He had an accident when his brakes failed going down a steep hill with a main road running at the bottom of it and had to bail out by crashing into a hedge, went over the handlebars and ended up laying on the road wondering if he’d dislocated his hip (again). Fortunately, apart from bruises and a wonky wheel – and perhaps a bit of concussion – all was OK. One of the other cyclists crashed into the back of a Smart car (of all things), when she was so tired, she forgot to stop when the car in front did.

    …. and that was only for 2 weeks! The good news is that they have raised more than £10k for Marie Curie Cancer Care Now they’ve had a month to recover, the memories of the youth hostels (with no bed-making butlers on call – Mr M could not believe he had to make his own bed!), enormous hills and aching limbs will fade and the stunning scenery, camaraderie and sense of achievement will stay with them forever.

    I’m utterly in awe of what you are doing and wish you good luck, good health and good fortunate on your trip. I have no idea if Aldi has a presence in Turkey – no doubt time (and your blogs) will tell.

    All the very best to you both.

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