Pulling back the curtains in my hotel room, I was rewarded with the sight of blue skies, bright sun, the huge, hulking shape of Mount Vitosha — still mottled with snow on its upper slopes — and, clearly visible just across the trees and rooftops of the city, the pencil-thin floodlights of the Vassil Levski Stadium.
So this must be Sofia. It’s as well to check because after two weeks on the road shuttling between Rome, London and now the capital of Bulgaria — pausing just briefly for a stop-off at home in Dublin to kiss my dirty laundry and throw my loved ones in the washing machine — your roving correspondent is prone to being more brain-addled than usual.
Still, I am a professional after all, and this being my second visit to Sofia — the first was last Autumn to see Bulgaria and Italy share the spoils in their Group Eight qualifier — I was determined to use my insider’s knowledge to get the jump on my colleagues, like a canny student getting his Leaving Cert paper in advance.
So, bright and early before breakfast, I was down at reception asking for a copy of the Sofia Echo, the handy English language newssheet which I remembered hits the streets here every Friday.
Unfortunately, for all the recognition factor shown by the concierge, I might as well have been asking him for the Evening Echo. He did his best, mind, bringing me a first a copy of the Financial Times and then a selection of maps and tourist guides, before I sussed that I was probably better off hitting the streets myself.
Not too far from the hotel, I came upon a newsstand, where the friendly proprietor assured me that the only place I could get a copy of the paper was in the Sheraton Hotel, a brisk walk away. No matter, it was a lovely warm morning and the ramble would take me past some of the sights of Sofia, including the scintillating golden onion domes of the Russian Church and the real life toy soldiers doing their goose-stepping changing of the guard outside government buildings.
Finally, it was into the cool grandeur of the Sheraton lobby where, sure enough, I was able to pick up a hot-off-the-presses copy of the Echo before rather more wearily retracing my steps — stomach now beginning to rumble as the temperature rose — and returning to my own slightly more humble lodgings.
Still, pleased with myself for so successfully exploiting my local knowledge, I sauntered into the restaurant, newspaper ostentatiously tucked under my arm, to find a group of my colleagues all relaxing after a hearty breakfast and now happily devouring copies of the self-same Echo, a huge, fresh pile of which had been ferried directly to their table in my absence.
Ah, yes, no flies on Liam Mackey of the Irish Examiner. (The same, incidentally, can’t be said of a colleague whose bright yellow t-shirt proved a magnet for a swarm of small winged creatures which literally besieged him at Arsenal’s leafy training ground back in London the other day. As he furiously scratched, squashed and attempted to flick them away, one was reminded of Flann O’ Brien’s immortal line about the man who was “infested be hoppers”. To add to our colleague’s trauma — and the unconcealed amusement of everyone else — the rest of his more soberly attired companions remained a strictly no-fly zone).
MEANWHILE, tension is rising out here ahead of today’s big game — and I don’t mean the sideshow that is the Group Eight World Cup qualifier in the Vassil Levksi stadium. Nope, the one they’re all talking about is this afternoon’s Tullamore Dew-sponsored mini-tournament at the rather more modest Sportna Sofia venue, involving teams drawn from the ranks of the local and visiting meeja, the Irish Embassy and a selection of Bulgarian football legends and celebrities, including big names from the celebrated USA ‘94 squad like Emil Kostadinov, Emil Kremenliev and Tzanko Tzvetanov.
Unconfirmed rumours that the legendary Hristo Stoichkov might also feature prompted an uncompromising response from the visitors, who immediately threatened to call up Ireland kit man and one-time super Hoop Mick Lawlor. Indeed, the extent to which the Irish media are taking the thing seriously may be measured by the fact that, last night, quite a few of the squad actually came close to observing the strict 4am curfew.
Sadly, your present correspondent will be unable to take part. The regular reader of these letters from foreign fields will recall that, during the European Championships last summer, I incurred a savage, career-ending injury, by “tweaking a hammer” while running for a tram in Zurich.
On the basis then that I would be doing well to emerge intact from just the warm-up today — and, furthermore, being very ancient and thus having a passing interest in wakin’ up tomorrow mawnin’ as well — I regrettably had to inform our coach that my services would no longer be available to the Irish cause.
Bravely, he tried to disguise his shock but I could tell he was hurting inside from the way he briefly looked up and said “grand so” before asking if I’d like to borrow his copy of the Sofia Echo.