The last time European football came to OFK Sliven's Hadzhi Dimitar Stadium, Juventus were the visitors in a 1990/91 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup game. It returned as hosts South-East Region AMA of Bulgaria kicked off the UEFA Regions' Cup last night.
With free entry throughout this tournament, nearly 1,000 fans turned up, unsurprisingly almost all backing the home side against Bosnia-Herzegovina's Tuzla Canton AMA - compatriots of the only UEFA competition visitors to Sliven before Juve, NK Željeznicar in 1984. The stadium retains a little of the feel of that decade with the massive scoreboard that dominates one end framed dramatically by the Blue Rock hills that dominate the Sliven skyline.
Those peaks and the 19th-century poet and revolutionary Hadzhi Dimitar, after who the ground is named, have put Sliven on the map, along with a certain Yordan Letchkov. Bulgaria's 1994 FIFA World Cup hero began his career here, and now owns the stadium, as well as being the town's mayor, so it was fitting that he performed the ceremonial kick-off, still unmistakable as the figure that shocked Germany in the United States 13 years ago.
It seemed that the event would have an anti-climactic end when Tuzla took a first-half lead and threatened to run away with the game but canny second-half substitutions from coach Angel Stankov transformed the game, as South-East Region kept up the pressure in the searing heat, and one of those replacements Ivan Petkov, from just down the road in Novo Zagora, equalised with less than ten minutes left to inspire a patriotic roar. "I am very happy, I didn’t expect to see so many people in the stands, none of us did," Petkov admitted. "I am very happy to have scored the goal, I dedicate it to the fans obviously."
Stankov concurred. "The players really needed the fans," the coach said. "At the start when we made some mistakes, the crowd were a bit negative. But after the break they helped the players, and they started playing better and it was a major part of the success." The point should also ensure the supporters return tomorrow for the crunch game with Basse-Normandie AMA - with the dream of reaching Tuesday’s decider here still alive.
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