Lost in…Maribor

NK Maribor v Olimpija Ljubljana

Ljudski vrt / Slovenian PrvaLiga / 17th November 2017

“So how is Slovenia going Matt?”

“I live in Slovakia…”

“Well, you know what I mean – it’s all the same isn’t it.”

Eh, no…it really isn’t…”

I’ve had this conversation many, many times over the past year or so. Just because both places start with ‘Slov’, it seems some lazily believe that Slovakia and Slovenia are one and the same. God help these people if they switched to the Slovak language, as they sound even more similar: Slovensko (Slovakia) and Slovinsko (Slovenia). Cock-Ups mixing up the two countries are a plenty – for example: when Slovakia recently beat Italy at the ice hockey World Championships in Germany, the Slovenia national anthem played; Silvio Berlusconi once introduced the Slovenian prime minster as ‘the Prime Minister of Slovakia”; and it has been confirmed by the embassies of both Slovakia and Slovenia that the rumour that they meet once a month to exchange wrongly addressed mail is in fact true.

Geographically, they do not even share a border with each other and never have. Also, despite some similarities, I’d heard the countries are pretty different too and I thought I should see for myself. Slovenia had eluded me so far, but with a Friday bank holiday in Slovakia, a wonderful opportunity presented itself…

NK Maribor v Olimpija Ljubljana – the biggest game in Slovenian football – was to be a Friday night kick-off. It may not be as well-known as other European derbies, but the locals still call the game Večni derbi – Eternal Derby. The rivalry is not a one city derby, but a battle of Slovenian’s two most successful clubs and Slovenian’s two largest cities. Some say the derby is representative of a clash between the richer west of Slovenia in and around Ljubljana and the poorer east where Maribor is the main city. Whilst Ljubljana thrived as a political centre for Slovenia for years, Maribor was heavily industrialised during the years Slovenia was a part of Yugoslavia and perhaps gave the more eastern region more ‘edge’.

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Arriving into Maribor.

In footballing terms, the two clubs have completely dominated Slovenian football since the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the independence of Slovenia in 1991. Olimpija are technically a new club on paper after the old club was dissolved in 2004, but they are generally and unofficially recognised as the successors to the old club with fans and owners (which includes Milan Mandaric) treating the current Olimpija Ljubljana as such. Under their current and former name, Olimpija have won 5 league titles, but it is Maribor who soar ahead in those stakes with 14 Slovenian league titles to their name. I’d arrive in Maribor with an interesting scenario setup for the derby that night: Maribor and Olimpija found themselves level-pegging at the top of the league with both teams having won all 15 of their league games before. However, the two clubs had met in Ljubljana the week before for the first of a two-legged cup game – a game won 3-0 by Olimpija. Maribor sought revenge.

At 10:30am, after a 3 hour bus journey from Vienna, I arrived into Maribor. As mentioned previously, Maribor is the second biggest city in Slovenia with it holding 95,000 inhabitants. However, it is far from a sprawling metropolis and it does not take too long to get around it. The main hub of the city in the old downtown is beautiful and with the Drava river flowing through the middle of the city and beautiful valleys and mountains surrounding it, making it a scenic city. A sign of Maribor’s burgeoning reputation as a city can be seen from the fact it was awarded the title of European Capital of Culture for 2012.

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The main square area in front of the town hall.

As I walked through the streets, past the The Franciscan church of St. Mary and Maribor Cathedral and towards the town hall, I noticed one thing about Maribor: for such as small space, I’d never seen so many coffee places and so many people drinking coffee outside in the cold. We were close to 0 degrees, but the morning locals were still determined to enjoy their coffee on the street outside rather than the warm innards of the coffeehouses. More worryingly (for me at least), the pubs and bars were not making themselves obvious. I’m sure I’d find some though. In fact, I could do with a pint after travelling for a few hours and there’s always one place you can always rely on no matter where you are in the world…

As I’ve questioned before: are you really a shit British tourist unless you visit the local Irish Pub? Well, it seemed I was the only shit British tourist in town and the only late morning frequenter of Patrick’s. It did give me my first chance to taste Slovenian beer, beginning with what appeared to be the country’s main beer, Union. A decent beer to be fair. However, better was to come beer-wise, as I popped across the street having seen a chalkboard sign stating they did craft ale in the cafe opposite. Again, coffees were the order of the day for everyone else, but they were missing out on the exceptional Seasonal ale from Ljubljana-based brewery, HumanFish. Superb.

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Crossing the Drava.

I opted to continue my slow wander of the city and I was learning quickly that Maribor is a lovely, little city at that. My favourite thing about it though was the fact that the football club was everywhere. Every shop, bar, hotel etc. all were draped in the florid, dark purple of NK Maribor. Every wall covered in graffiti in ode to ‘MBFC’ and their ultras group, Viole Maribor. I love a one club city where the football club is like a religion. I thought of places like Newcastle back in the UK, where again everything is dominated by the football club. And similar to Tyneside’s St. James Park, Maribor’s stadium sits right in the heart of the city – but more on that later.

Without meaning to, I found the club shop in the old town and went in to purchase a scarf for the evening. The staff were all very friendly and happy that they had a foreigner in town for the game. Shop assistants being welcoming to a customer may not be surprising but the other part of the shop was; as well as being the club shop, the one side of the shop was a Maribor-themed barbershop. Odd. I just took the scarf and left my hair alone.

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Noomm bar up ahead.

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Prices of a haircut…at the club shop. Weird.

As I walked out of the shop, an old man shouted at me to stop in the street. He seemed to be a bit of a drunken oddball, so I thought I’d carry on walking, but he insisted I stop again. I had nothing on me to suggest I was English-speaking or anything like that, but he spoke in my native immediately on seeing me and then declared “I want a photo of a Liverpool fan.” I had no idea why he thought I was of Liverpool fandom although I suppose I was wearing a big red coat. Liverpool had been in town weeks earlier for their Champions League game against Maribor, where they won 7-0 and broke a Champions League record for largest away win in the competition’s history. Maybe this drunken chap thought I was a straggler from that trip! Anyway, I wasn’t having it being called a scouser, so I told him I was a Swansea fan and hastily walked off as he stood  there confused.

I ended up in the lovely named Noomm bar, which, like most places, had NK Maribor flags hanging outside. The bar was modern and quite cool, but more importantly the beer recommended to me by the barman was superb and the best of the weekend. I don’t usually like white beers, but, wow, Laško’s Weißbier was just immense. Two bottles were had before I decided to head across the Drava and away from the centre to my guesthouse 20 minutes from the centre. Weirdly, I did find a rather random Sherlock Holmes themed pub near the more Commie tower block part of the town and despite its quirky, darkened interior, the fact that they only had Staropramen meant that it was elementary that I left quickly.

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A rather oddly-placed Holmes pub…

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…sadly, they did Staropramen…

Later in the afternoon and now showered and fed and with my new scarf around my neck, I headed back out into the Maribor cold and back down towards the old town. I hadn’t seen the ground yet today, but as I crossed the Drava I could see the floodlights clearly in the town; it seemed that I had been minutes away from the ground all day, a sign of just how central Maribor’s football home is. Conveniently, the ground looked very close to Noomm and so I headed back there for another one of those Laško Weißbier . It was whilst back in Noomm that I noticed that at the bottom of half of my ‘Print at home’ ticket there seemed to be a form. I asked the bar staff what it said and it did actually turn out to be a form part of the ticket weirdly. They were kind enough to help me with translation as I had to fill in my personal details (nothing too personal, don’t worry) to get into the ground apparently.

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More Weissbier in Noomm.

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Before ending up in this rather more ‘local’ pub down the road.

We were less than two hours away from kick-off, so I began to head a bit closer to the floodlight hue resonating into the evening sky. I was hoping to find a bar or two en route and my hopes were answered. The first one I found was easily the most interesting of the two with it being located on the corner of a tall building and a bit ‘blink and you’ll miss it.’ The bar inside felt more like one of those London boozers that hark back to a more glorious era of pubs – like a more tacky Queen Vic. Immediately the barmaid was intrigued why a Brit was here for the derby tonight and was happy to welcome me, since her last Brit visitors – the scousers who had been in the city weeks before – were apparently great fun. I was introduced by the barmaid to a few of the old locals, who didn’t fancy the cold tonight and were going to watch the game on TV from the warmth of the bar. It was also these who were to deliver the bad news that there’d probably be no alcohol at the game tonight. Bugger. These locals were also full of love for the visiting Liverpool fans from week before; Liverpool certainly made a good name for Brits in Maribor – maybe they should take a more active role in improving our dented relationship with Europe…

I made a quick visit to another bar just around the corner from the stadium, but it was only to be a quick one in there, as its small space began to very quickly fill up with a purple flood of Maribor fans. Instead, I headed directly for the ground now and for the fanzone outside it.

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Arriving at the fanzone.

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Floodlight fancy.

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Fanzone behind the lively Ultras’ stand.

Firstly, I should add that Maribor’s home looked superb from outside it with the floodlights looming overhead. From what I’d seen on TV and in photos, the ground is very similar to Huddersfield Town’s ground and this was definitely evident from outside it, although there would be little quirks to it that give it its own signature.

The ground is named Ljudski vrt, which wonderfully translates into English as ‘People’s Garden’. Rather eerily, hundreds of years ago, the area was used as a cemetery outside the town walls, but as time went on and the site was closed down, it became a park area for the city at the start of the 20th century. Sports were regularly played there amongst its new-found greenery. Tennis and athletics were popular there, but after World War I football became increasingly played. However, by the Second World War, sport and culture amongst the Slovenians was shut down by the Nazi conquerors.

By the end of the war, Maribor was left as the most bombed city in Yugoslavia, but the city rose from the ashes – as did football there. The football ground of Ljudski vrt began to take life in the 1950s with the most basic of facilities (benches, earth banking, a pitch). More basic additions were made, such as a stands, before European football arrived in the 1990s and the stadium began to take shape us a modern arena. A couple of redevelopments in the mid-2000s gave us the rather snazzy stadium that sits there today.

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Was a big fan of this guy’s massive Maribor scarf.

There was a great little fanzone outside the ground with plenty of food stalls, bars and tables to enjoy said prematch snacks and drinks. The area was busy and lively, but the sheer quantity of stuff on offer meant there was no frustrating queuing to be had. I got chatting to some Maribor fans (again, more love for Liverpool) and they said they had to win tonight to get over the pain of the 3-0 loss to Olimpija in the cup a week earlier. “Tavares will be our hero again,” stated one. We’d see…

As kick-off approached, I headed around to the other side of the ground, giving me plenty of time to get in. Even then, there’s was a queue forming at the entrance, but it seemed many hadn’t filled in their details at the bottom of their ticket and were engaging themselves in frantically writing their details at a designated table before the security check. Despite the queuing and a slight squash at the narrow barrier, I was in quickly and easily enough.

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Loved the curving glass panels of the stadium.

Immediately I realised that the stadium was very much a summer stadium. This was down to the fact that the place is remarkably open with no interior concourses to speak of. I imagined a summer evening here would be beautiful; a bit of shelter may have been welcome on a chilly November night though. Being a tough Welsh valleys boy, I could take it. Ultimately, the stadium design gives it a rather swish look. And having now been to both Huddersfield and Maribor’s grounds now, curving stands aside, I felt there wasn’t many other similarities to talk of. After a walk around to take some photos, it was time to head up to my seat in the corner of the ground.

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About 20 minutes before kick-off – the ground did fill up more.

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The People’s Garden.

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Ready to start.

The Maribor stands were still slightly threadbare as I arrived at my seat, but that certainly couldn’t be said for the pocket given to the away end. The Olimpija fans were already wedged into their section of the away stand like a buoyant cocoon of green and I imagined they had been marched there by the police a while before kick-off. They would certainly play their part in the night’s atmosphere, although it would be the bouncing wave of purple to my left who would be the main noisemakers of he night: this was Maribor’s Ultras, the Viole Maribor. The stadium would have small pockets of empty seats, but generally the place was fairly full. There would be a great atmosphere in the ground too. You can’t beat a European derby under the Friday night floodlights.

The teams were out with Maribor in their famous purple shirts and Olimpija in their away white with green trim number. The kick-off brought a huge roar around the stadium, although it wouldn’t be long until an even louder one was heard.

Marco Tavares is the king of Slovenian football. The Brazilian never settled in his homeland and after a brief spell playing in Malaysia for Kedan, another failed effort to play in his homeland and then a short spell at APOEL Nicosia, he arrived at Maribor in 2008. Fair to say, he is now a club legend. Tavares is the club’s all-time record appearance holder and all-time top goalscorer, as well as being the all-time top goalscorer in the Slovenian PrvaLiga. So it was unsurprising that when the Olimpija defence could only header away a cross just past the 6 yard box, that 33-year-old Tavares would be there to thunder home a volley that almost took the net off. 1-0 to Maribor and there were a lot of happy locals in the stand. There was just 5 minutes on the clock…

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Match action.

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The Olimpija away end.

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And the lively home end.

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A closer look.

Tensions on the pitch were raised when a low ball into the Maribor box led to the Maribor keeper retrieving the cross, but taking a slide tackle to the head from an opponent. There were some heated scenes and the crowd were furious, but things soon died down and the game proved to be nervy from there. A lot of tough tackling with little only little glimmers of magic. A  typical derby really.

Maribor definitely should have gone 2-0 up 5 minutes from half-time, as Dare Vršič broke through on goal 1-v-1. Sadly, for the home team, he took too long and his dinked attempt at goal was locked by the keeper. The attacker was the real winner though, as his first name is Dare; cool name that.

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Match action.

Half-time: NK Maribor 1 – 0 Olimpija Ljubljana

Maribor hero Tavares had had a few chances to make it 2-0 and none were better than at the start of the second half, when he met a header at the near post, only for him to send it skyward.

To be honest, the second half was fairly dull, although Maribor were probably the team most on top. There were a few more ‘handbags’ on the pitch, especially when an Olimpija player dared to chop down Tavares with a very late kick to the ankles. The game may have been dying down a bit, but the atmosphere continued though as the Ultras now was now a sea of bouncing and flag waving.

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Match action.

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There were a lot more flags in the second half…

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…and pyro.

The only other real moment of excitement in the game came in the 87th minute, when Olimpija’s sub Kronaveter tricked his way into a shooting position from the edge of the box; he delivered an excellent shot, which had to be well saved by the Maribor keeper. Even after the save, Olimpija’s Abass should have really finished the rebound at the far post, but failed to connect properly. Panic over for Maribor.

After that chance for Olimpija, it just felt like that the game was destined to finish 1-0 and the away fans seemed to decide to have the last impact on the match. A roar of noise from the away fan seemed to be the cue to release a barrage of flares and smoke bombs. The smoke would spread across the whole pitch and despite the limiting effect it had on play for the players, the ref played on throughout it. In fact, it was almost the home team who made the most of it, as a powerful 30 yard freekick flew through the smoke and was dipping in, but was thwarted at the last second by the Olimpija keeper who saw it very, very late. That was to be the last action of the game too.

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With minutes left…

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…the away end lights up.

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The smoke spread across the pitch…

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…until you really couldn’t see much from the stands.

Full-time: NK Maribor 1 – 0 Olimpija Ljubljana.

Not a great game, but a great atmosphere. The home team, along with their joyous coach Darko Milanič (remember him Leeds fans?), headed over to the Ultras’ stand to celebrate their victory and for getting revenge over the previous weeks cup loss. The noise from that end could still be heard booming into the Maribor night air, as I headed through the streets away from the ‘People’s Garden’.

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The final score emerges from the smoke.

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The smoke clears enough to see the home team celebrate with the Ultras.

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Thumbs up.

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Bye NK Maribor.

By the time I got back to the old town area, it was almost 11pm and I thought Maribor would be bursting with life. It definitely wasn’t though and the town away from the ground seemed fairly quiet really. The only place that seemed to have a lot of life to it was the Irish Bar, where most of the post match revellers had seemed to have congregated; so I did too. As for ‘nightlife’, I had more fun the next night to be honest, as I discovered the awesome underground music bar called KGB Bar (the best bar I found in Maribor probably) and then a late night coffeehouse/bar by the old bridge over the Drava. This place was particularly bizarre as at 2.30am in the morning I found people dancing to 50s swing and jive music, amongst vintage tables with dimly lit lampshades; I felt like the APA I drank in there had magically sent me on some sort of Timewarp – it was a really cool place to be fair.

The Maribor-Olimpija derby was certainly worth experiencing, even if it is not as well-known as some of Europe’s more infamous derbies. The game was okay without truly thrilling, but at least I could say that I saw Maribor icon Tavavres score in a derby game – the winning goal too. The atmosphere and the ground were the real winners on the night for me though.

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Maribor looking lovely the next evening.

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Definitely need to explore Slovenia some more.

Maribor too, what a lovely, little place. I spent two days there and to be honest, a day is probably all you need there to see most of it and get the gist of the city. Nonetheless, I never got bored on my second day there. With Maribor just over the Austria/Slovenia border, I definitely need to delve further into the country next time, as I know many people rave about the country’s wonderful scenery. Surely, my next trip there will be the capital and the much lauded Lake Bled located north of it.

Highlights: nice city, easy to get around, ground central in the city, good fanzone, nice ground, good atmosphere, Tavares scoring.

Low Points: not the best game, no beer served during the game.

All my photos from NK Maribor can be found here.

And some photos of the city of Maribor taken over the weekend can be found here.

 

 

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