Out of the 200 FIFA member nations, only eight of those have so far successfully triumphed at the World Cup over the competition’s almost 100 year history.
While those eight countries (Brazil, Italy, Germany, France, Argentina, Uruguay, Spain and England) can claim “We were once Champions of the World”, World Cups are also remembered just as much for the shocks and surprises that we witness by less fancied national teams who punch above their weight.
Enter Bulgaria at the 1994 World Cup in the USA.
Before they amazed the world in the summer of 94, the Bulgarians made headlines with the manner in which they qualified to the big dance.
Heading into their final qualifying match against traditional powerhouse France in Paris on 17 November 1993, not many people gave the Eastern European nation a chance to progress since anything other than a win would not be enough. On the other hand, the French only needed a point to book their place.
With the score tied at 1-1 with seconds remaining, France were on course to get the job done. However, a horror mistake from French midfielder David Ginola led to a Bulgarian counterattack in which striker Emil Kostadinov smashed home to win it 2-1 for Bulgaria and book their ticket to the United States. Those at the stadium in Paris were stunned. The world, even the Bulgarians themselves couldn’t quite believe it. The giants Les Bleus failed to qualify for a 2nd consecutive World Cup.
At the 1994 World Cup finals, Bulgaria were drawn with two time winner Argentina, the exciting African debutants Nigeria and European debutant Greece. The team consisted of quality players including Krasimir Balakov, Yordan Letchkov and one of Bulgaria’s greatest players of all time, Hristo Stoichkov (winner of the 1994 Ballon D'Or).
The tournament got off to an awful start for Bulgaria as they went down 3-0 to Nigeria. The Baltic nation bounced back in their second game by thrashing Greece 4-0 and thus recording their first ever win at a World Cup finals.
In their final group game, Bulgaria defeated Argentina 2-0, who had Diego Maradona sent home earlier in the competition due to a drugs ban.
The victory would see Dimitar Penev’s side set up a Round of 16 clash with Mexico, a game which would be decided on penalties after ending 1-1. Goalkeeper Borislav Mihaylov was the hero as he saved two spot kicks to book a quarterfinal matchup with defending champions Germany.
The Germans took the lead through a penalty from Lothar Matthaus. However in the 75th minute and buoyed by the majority of the fans at Giants Stadium, Bulgaria equalised from Stoichkov’s well struck free-kick. Then just 3 minutes later, Yordan Letchkov (recognizable from his baldness), connected perfectly with a brilliant diving header to score the winner and send the Bulgarians to an unthinkable spot in the World Cup semi-finals.
Standing in the way of Bulgaria and a place in the final was Italy. The Eastern Europeans were gallant in a 2-1 defeat against a Roberto Baggio inspired Azzurri outfit.
Bulgaria’s memorable journey ended with a heavy 4-0 defeat to fellow surprise packet Sweden in the 3rd Place Playoff. Nevertheless, this proud group of players returned home to the capital Sofia as heroes and was a welcome change for a nation going through economic problems at the time.
The Bulgarians haven’t had much to cheer about following that dream run at USA 94 as they have only made one World Cup and two European Championships ever since.
However, they can always look to the ‘Golden 'Generation’ from the summer of 1994 as inspiration and motivation when looking to make another splash on the world stage.
- Rayan Adasi for www.footballretro.com