When Bulgaria (almost) ruled the world

The Parc des Princes, November 1993. France are seconds away from securing qualification for the 1994 World Cup, albeit nervously. Tied at 1-1 with Group rivals Bulgaria, they know a point is enough to send them to America the following summer.

In possession is David Ginola, as enigmatic, stylish and confident then as he would prove to be later on in his career, when English fans got to see him up close. All he really needs to do is to run it into a safe area and play for time, but he looks for a killer pass, and Bulgaria win the ball back. Seconds later, Emil Kostadinov is played in down the inside right channel, gets free of the French backline, and thuds an incredible strike inside Bernard Lama’s near post from an improbable angle. 2-1.

The fallout for France- a side featuring not only Ginola, but Eric Cantona, Didier Deschamps, Laurent Blanc, Jean-Pierre Papin & Marcel Desailly- is well-documented, Ginola was publicly blamed by French boss Gérard Houllier, and would never play for his country again. Cantona would never get the chance to show off his skills at a World Cup, whilst it took Desailly, Deschamps & Blanc five years to banish the memories with success on home soil in 1998.

But largely forgotten when this story is re-laid are the team who beat the French. In qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, Bulgaria’s coach Dimitar Penev could have been forgiven for thinking he had done enough to justify the faith shown in him by the Bulgarian Football Union. But eight months later, Penev and his team would find themselves national heroes after an incredible tournament which saw The Tricolours finish USA 94 in fourth place, defeating holders Germany en route.

This particular Bulgarian side may well have been packed with talent- Hristo Stoichkov was the undoubted talisman of the team, and would finish the 1993/94 season with a La Liga title, and the European Footballer of the Year award. Alongside him Kostadinov was a pacy and prolific forward with FC Porto & Deportivo La Coruña, Krassimir Balakov spent twelve hugely successful seasons with Sporting & VfB Stuttgart, whilst goalkeeper Borislav Mikhailov (later of Reading and hairpiece fame) remains the country’s most capped player.

But it had its flaws too. Most of them home made, the BFU had reacted with dictatorial severity to a 1985 brawl between Sofia-based sides CSKA & Levski in the Bulgarian cup final. Lifetime bans were dished out to Mikhailov, Stoichkov, Emil Spasov & Plamen Nikolov, whilst several others received bans ranging from three to twelve months and the coaching staff of both sides were dismissed.

These draconian sanctions, coupled with the Communist rule in Eastern Europe, meant that the best talent in the country were denied the chance to test and improve themselves outside of Bulgaria (indeed, Spasov & Nikolov had been set to join Porto for the 1985/86 season, but saw their pre-contract agreements torn up by the BFU). Although the lifetime bans were lifted in time for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, neither Stoichkov nor Spasov were included in the squad, and Bulgaria were eliminated without breaking their World Cup duck.

In addition, Bulgarian footballers were- until 1990- banned from moving abroad to play until they reached the age of twenty-eight, denying several fine players the chance to develop their game, and subsequently aid the ailing national team. When this restriction was lifted following the World Cup in Italy (the World Cup that a home-based Bulgarian national side had failed to qualify for), the country witnessed a mass exodus of its best talent. Stoichkov went to Barcelona, Kostadinov to Porto, Mikhailov to Belenenses, Ilian Kiriakov to Deportivo, and so forth. For the first time, the best Bulgarian players were playing week in, week out, with and against top class European counterparts.

And so with this European experience gained and used wisely, it was off to America. As mentioned earlier, the Tricolours had never previously tasted victory in a World Cup match, and so when they were stuffed 3-0 by a Daniel Amokachi-inspired Nigeria in their opening match in Dallas, there was an air of resignation surrounding the side.

It didn’t last long, their next game was against Greece in Chicago, and saw Bulgaria run riot. Stoichkov scored twice, Yordan Letchkov & Daniel Borimirov once apiece, as the Greeks were hammered 4-0. It left Bulgaria still needing a result in their last game (against Argentina no less) to be assured of progression to the last sixteen however, as these were the days of “Best Third Place Team” qualification.

Back in Dallas, Bulgaria were majestic.
Stoichkov gave them the lead just after the hour mark and, despite the dismissal of defender Tzanko Tzvetanov soon after, Penev’s side were rarely troubled and wrapped up the win with a last minute goal by veteran striker Nasko Sirakov (another victim of the punishments meted out after the 1985 Cup final). Indeed, only a last minute Amokachi goal for Nigeria in their final game with Greece denied Bulgaria the honour of topping the group.

The Giants Stadium, and Mexico, awaited the Bulgarians in the last sixteen, probably more favourable opposition than either Argentina (who lost to Romania) or Nigeria (who were beaten by Italy) faced, and so it proved. Stoichkov scored again, Mexico equalised from a highly dubious penalty awarded by a Syrian referee who would later send off a man from each team, and Bulgaria eventually won through 3-1 on penalties in searing heat. After failing to record a victory in four previous finals appearances, suddenly they had three in succession here, and the holders Germany were next in line.

Memories of that game are pretty vivid for most. They involve the flashing bald head of Letchkov, which met Zlatko Yankov’s right wing cross at pace to power the ball past Bodo Illgner just three minutes after you-know-who had cancelled out Lothar Matthäus’ penalty (conceded, ironically, by Letchkov) with a deliciously curled free kick. Germany had a goal ruled out through Rudi Völler at 1-0 which would have killed the game off, but the manner in which Bulgaria fought back was impressive to say the least. Germany had failed to reach at least the semi finals only once since 1962 (and that was due in part to the fact that there were no semi finals in 1978), yet they were on their way home, disgraced. Sent packing by a man with a bald head. A man with a bald head who played his football…you guessed it….in Germany, with Hamburg.

The Bulgarians, on the other hand, were understandably overjoyed. “It’s difficult to explain how we managed to achieve that,” midfield maestro Krassimir Balakov told Reuters. “Let’s just say that God was Bulgarian that summer.”

Before the semi final with Italy, the Azzurri boss Arrigo Sacchi was asked how he intended to combat the threat of the irrepressible Stoichkov. His reply was simple, and you sensed only half-joking: “I don’t know, maybe with a pistol,”

Stoichkov would score his sixth goal, a penalty, of the tournament in the semi final, leaving him joint top scorer with Russia’s Oleg Salenko, but by then Roberto Baggio had done irreparable damage to the scoreline with two early strikes, and Bulgaria were unable to perform another miracle. Though they protested long and hard about what they believed to be a blatant second penalty missed by French referee Joel Quiniou: “God was still on our side but the referee was French,” said Stoichkov after the final whistle.

It is perhaps harsh to say their World Cup ended in farce, a 4-0 defeat to a very good Sweden side in the 3rd/4th place play-off mattered little in the grand scheme of things, and Stoichkov was ensured his share of the Golden Boot, but Bulgaria left an indelible mark on the World Cup of 1994, one which, fifteen years on, should not be forgotten.

That group of players- predictably dubbed “The Golden Generation”- never scaled those heights again, a first round exit at Euro 96 was followed by a woeful showing at France 98, and Bulgaria have not been to a World Cup since, but with a useful crop of players at his disposal- Dimitar Berbatov, Valeri Bojinov, Martin & Stiliyan Petrov- they retain a half-chance of qualifying for South Africa next season. They are unbeaten in qualification thus far, though five draws from their six matches have left them five points adrift of the Republic of Ireland with four games to play.

If Berba and co do reach South Africa next year, they should study some tapes from the early 1990s, when Bulgaria (almost) ruled the world.

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