A trip to Slovenia’s two biggest cities reveals a colourful footballing rivalry, finds Stuart Forster
For the duration of 2016, Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, will be the European Green Capital. And, as I’m learning in Maribor, the country’s second city, green is also the colour of Ljubljana’s football club, Olimpija.
“The sign here asks you to wipe any dirt from your shoes onto this piece of green before you enter,” says Tomaž, my guide, as we stand by the doorway of the NK Maribor club shop. A well-worn rectangle of artificial turf covers the step. It takes me a couple of seconds to comprehend the symbolic dig at Olimpija Ljubljana, NK Maribor’s main rival.
Throughout our tour of the city, Tomaž has been sharing insights into Maribor’s medieval origins. We’ve strolled from the castle, now the site of a museum about the history of this wine-producing region, to the riverside Lent district, where the world’s oldest vine continues to produce grapes after more than 400 years. Chatting has revealed a common passion: football.
Despite my love of the sport, ticket prices in the UK mean I can rarely attend games featuring two neutral teams in England, let alone a derby match or cup final. In the NK Maribor shop, I discover a main stand seat for the league clash with NK Celje costs €7.50 (£6). I’d struggle to buy even a pie and a pint for that in the grounds of UK Premier League clubs.
“Don’t wear that green shirt to the game,” says Tomaž with a grin as I purchase a ticket. It’s not a fashion-savvy comment on the shabby state of the creased, multi-pocket number I wear while travelling. “You don’t want the Maribor fans to think you support Olimpija.” I nod, only too aware of football’s tribal nature. I’d never dream of wearing my red and white Sunderland scarf in Newcastle.
Admittedly, I hadn’t clocked that Ljubljana’s football team plays in green while exploring the Slovenian capital over the preceding days. The city’s pedestrianised core made a positive impression as I wandered through its cobbled lanes and along the riverside promenade.
In cabins by the town hall, I learnt about the environmental initiatives that have resulted in Ljubljana being awarded European Green Capital status, which included a revolutionised public transport network, a commitment to sustainable tourism and plans to expand its already sizeable green spaces. But green football jerseys? I didn’t spot one.
Making my way to Ljudski vrt, NK Maribor’s 12,994-seat stadium, I mingle with home fans wearing the purple of their team. The mood is good-humoured, though there’s an underlying hint of nervous anticipation. NK Maribor are in with a chance of winning the Slovenian title; they’re second in the table, behind arch rivals Olimpija.
I bypass the fan zone by the south stand, the home of NK Maribor’s loudest supporters, up the steps into the more laid-back east stand.
The design of the compact, modern ground is impressive; it’s essentially a concrete bowl. There’s no track around the pitch, and sleek floodlights lean in over the oval sweep of the cantilever roof.
A food and drinks stall sells huge chargrilled burgers and many fans munch from cardboard cartons of popcorn. A half-litre of beer costs the equivalent of a couple of quid; it seems no-one is put off by the green labelling of the Laško brand. I join the home fans in knocking one back before heading to my seat.