Bulgaria at the 1994 World Cup
In a series of underdogs with notable performances at final tournaments, Bulgaria would no doubt top it, back in 1994. A team representing a country struggling in the post-Communist economic climate came from nowhere to reach the semi finals – and not by dogging out turgid 1-0s. No, this team of rather unconventional looking footballers produced some stylish and lethal counterattacking football and almost went all the way. And the best thing regarding these guys is the way the players just seemed so unlike any others. They were outsiders. Outlaws. A mean and moody band of wanderers from The East unfazed, unmoved by the Diana Ross, Budweiser and Mickey Mouse Razzmatazz of the West’s USA 94 World Cup song and dance. I mean, their only more known players were the legend, Hristo Stoichkov, who was in his prime at Barcelona and well on his way of winning the Ballon D’Or, and Emil Kostadinov, a Porto player who gained some notoriety for eliminating France with a brace in the very last match at Paris. But it was also inconvenient, with the absence of Valencia’s Lyuboslav Penev, who had just been diagnosed with testicular cancer and couldn’t really take the plane to the USA. To complete the squad of misfits were the “magician”, Hamburg’s Yordan Letchkov, defender Trifon Ivanov (who’d play for Rapid Wien afterwards) and the goalkeeper, Borislav Mikhailov, who would be bought by Reading shortly after the World Cup.
Bulgaria drew a tough group in Argentina, African new boys Nigeria and Greece, and were only third favourites to advance. However despite a first game thrashing by Nigeria, they won both their next games; 4-0 over Greece and 2-0 against Argentina playing lethal counter attacking football. A remarkable achievement, especially given Bulgaria had never won a World Cup game in their history before and their next game was against a highly-rated Mexico side with huge support. Again, another fantastic counter attacking goal was finished by Stoichkov before Mexico equalised, and the game was eventually won on penalties to put Bulgaria through to the quarter finals.
Next were holders Germany, who went a goal up after Letchkov conceded a penalty. Stoichkov equalised with this stunning free kick from 40 yards. Just a few minutes later it was the Magician, Letchkov, making the difference and atoning for giving away the penalty with an unstoppable winning header to make it 2-1. One of the biggest shocks of modern World Cup history was complete. Stoichkov later remarked ‘To be honest, it was an easy win’. For which he must be saluted. Bulgaria eventually lost out to Italy and the rat-tailed Roberto Baggio in the semis at The Giants Stadium in New York. The fairytale was over.
In the increasingly corporate world cup with, we all look desperately for a team, to stand out, for us to get behind, to provide the real memories, not the identikit ’Top 100 World Cup Moments’ . In 1994, this ragtag Hair Bear Bunch – who wouldn’t look out of place in the Bulgarian Auf Weidersein, Pet – was that team.