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In this series of Flashbacks we present teams, players and happenings that people remember from the history of the World Cup.

1-1. Stoitchkov's amazing bending free-kick that gave Bulgaria the equalizer against the world champions. Even if the players in the wall jumped, the ball still went over them and into the low corner of the goal.

2-1. The goal that sent shockwaves around the world of football. Letchkov's diving header gave Bulgaria the lead which they kept until the final whistle. For the first time since 1978 Germany would not reach the Final of the World Cup.

The Bulgarian team celebrating the quarterfinal victory over Germany.

Previous editions of this column





By Mike Gibbons

    The clock was ticking down at the Parc des Princes, and the French players were showboating. What a team they promised to be in America – Franck Sauzee, Jean-Pierre Papin, Marcel Desailly, Eric Cantona and, in possession of the ball on the left wing, David Ginola. It was November 17, 1993 and France were level with Bulgaria at one-all. All they had to do was play out the remaining injury time and they would be going to the World Cup finals in the USA, where they would surely start as one of the favourites.

    Then Ginola, trying too hard to be the matador-esque showman, lost possession. Bulgaria, needing the win to qualify, broke upfield for one last time, death or glory. The ball was switched to Emil Kostadinov on the edge of the French penalty area. He took aim and fired the best shot of his life into the top corner. Cue an agonising, stunned silence; in the blink of an eye France were out, Ginola’s international career was finished and, miraculously, Bulgaria were going to America.

    For Bulgaria, the World Cup had hitherto been a miserable experience. Six tournaments played, six draws, ten losses and no wins. In their previous appearance at Mexico 86 they bored the watching world rigid to scrape two draws together to qualify for round two where they were well beaten in the Azteca by the hosts. This time around they would be blessed with their best ever generation of players, many of whom after the fall of communism had sought careers all over Europe that had helped to shake off the inferiority complex that had long dogged their football. Goalkeeper and hair implants pioneer Boris Mihailov played in France, defender and extra from ‘Thriller’ Trofik Ivanov in Switzerland, hero of Paris Kostadinov and midfield schemer Krassimir Balakov played in Portugal, Peter Houbchev and balding midfielder Yordan Letchkov were at Hamburg and the star of the team Hristo Stoichkov earned a wondrous living in Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team at Barcelona. Add to that a smattering of home based players at the top club Levski Sofia, and there was reason to be optimistic that this time their campaign wouldn’t be the car crash so many others had been.

    Unfortunately their tournament would start on the day Rachidi Yekini and friends decided to bring Nigerian football to world attention. Bulgaria were slaughtered 3-0 in Dallas after an emphatic display from the Super Eagles. Luck was smiling on them however; for their next match they were up against a Greek team who are probably the worst representatives the UEFA region has ever sent to a World Cup. Bulgaria thrashed the old foe 4-0 in Chicago, with two penalties by Stoichkov and a goal each from Letchkov and Borimirov. To qualify Bulgaria had the daunting prospect of trying to hold Argentina to a draw, but the preparation for the match was thrown into disarray with the suspension of Maradona. Even so, to all neutral observers it looked like a tacit agreement of nil-nil had been arranged between the teams until Stoichkov broke away to score near the end and Nasko Sirakov, a survivor of 1986, headed in an injury time corner. A handy result, as it sent Argentina out to the Rose Bowl to face the excellent Romanians, leaving Bulgaria in New York to face Mexico.

    Stoichkov gave Bulgaria the lead with a howitzer of a hit from twenty yards, but what was a good open game was then ruined by some atrocious refereeing. Kremenliev for Bulgaria and Garcia Aspe for Mexico were sent off for non-existent fouls, and Mexico drew level after being awarded a penalty for another foul dreamt up by the referee. The game drifted into extra time and then on to penalties, where Yordan Letchkov made himself, for the first time, a national hero by scoring the winning kick. After a terrible beginning, Bulgaria were in the quarter-finals for the first time.

    And here, through sheer weight of history, is where the story should have come to a crushing finale. Their opponents in Giants Stadium, New York would be Germany, the world champions. Nowadays of course, we see Germany lose to a Czech B team with nothing to play for, or draw with Latvia – even England can beat them on occasion. In 1994 they were awesome, having reached eight finals in the previous twelve tournaments, and their four wins made them for the previous quarter of a century the most successful side in international football. They still had the great players – Matthaus, Sammer, Buchwald, Moller, Hassler, Klinsmann, Illgner et al. Playing Bulgaria looked like a total mismatch. Unless you live in Brazil, Italy, Argentina or Germany, reaching the World Cup quarter-finals is considered quite an achievement. At the very least you have not disgraced yourself, at the most you have wildly exceeded expectations. You get a big crowd to meet you at the airport when you get home and a champagne reception from the president/monarch/dictator/whoever. Hard luck lads, but you did us proud. This was very much where the Bulgarians were at – all Germany had to do was flick them out of the competition and get down to the real stuff with Italy and Brazil.

    Not that all ist gut in the German camp; they won their first round group quite comfortably, but were perhaps over-reliant on the goals of Klinsmann, who had scored in every game at this point. Stefan Effenberg had been sent home by coach Berti Vogts for a non to friendly hand gesture to his own fans, and Lothar Matthaus was making no bones about his displeasure at playing sweeper. Against Belgium in round two however, everything seemed to click back into place. 34 years young Rudi Voller was recalled to partner Klinsmann and scored twice, the two of them slipping back into the old routine like they’d never been apart. Belgium still managed to score twice though, which offered hope for Bulgaria.

    Like many games in this World Cup, the quarter-final was played in searing midday heat to accommodate European television audiences. Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New York was the setting on the tenth of July as the teams came out to do battle. The winner would get to face Italy, who rode their luck in Boston against Spain a day earlier, in the semi-finals. There weren’t many in the stadium who thought that Sacchi’s troops would face anyone other than Germany.

    The first half however sowed seeds of concern. Having been reunited like long lost brothers against Belgium, Klinsmann and Voller now played like complete strangers. Germany surrendered possession easily, and Bulgaria came more and more into the game, clearly seeing that Germany weren’t the masters of old and could be beaten. Just before half-time Bulgaria clipped the outside of the post. There was definitely a game on here.

    Straight after half-time though, Klinsmann found a way to get his team back in the game. A long ball looped into the area, Klinsmann controlled the ball and as Letchkov came in for the tackle he collapsed to the floor in mock agony, a pseudo-injury as pathetic and nauseating as the one he dreamt up to get Pedro Monzon dismissed in the 1990 World Cup Final. The referee bought it though, and Germany were awarded a penalty. Up-stepped Lothar Matthaus, the furthest forward he had been in the whole competition. One quick thud of the right foot later and Germany had a scarcely deserved lead.

    At this point in the story Bulgaria should have rolled over and died, and they very nearly did. Hassler broke free down the left in acres of space, played the ball across to Moller who hit a thunderous twenty-five yard shot that crashed off the post. The rebound fell to Voller who swept the ball in, and was already wheeling away in triumph before realising he had been called offside. Having survived this scare, Bulgaria pushed forward and won a corner. As it was cleared, Stoichkov took an innocuous looking tumble on the edge of the area and won a free-kick despite very audible (and surely ironic) protests from the Academy award winning Klinsmann. Do unto others Jurgen…

    Having narrowly missed from a similar position earlier in the half, Stoichkov this time locked the radar on perfectly. His sweet left-foot strike got up and over the wall and down again so quickly it only just cleared the goal-line before it touched the floor again. So inch-perfect was the kick that it went into the bottom corner, leaving Bodo Illgner leaden-footed and stranded on his goal-line. With fifteen minutes to go, the score was one-all.

    If the Stoichkov free-kick was a left hook, what followed three minutes later was a right cross flush on the jaw of the Germans. Yankov worked himself into space on the right and flighted a delicate chip to the back post. Hassler, the shortest player on the pitch, was the man underneath it, but making a late run into the box was Yordan Letchkov. He launched himself into a full length dive, the ball glanced off his bald plate and flew past Bodo Illgner into the corner of the net. Cue delirium; from the look on Letchkov’s face, even he can’t quite comprehend what he has just done. The stadium was buzzing to one of the most famous goals in world football. Indeed, it was celebrated all over Europe. People across the continent have a variety of reasons of why they want to see Germany lose, but there really is nothing like seeing the underdog about to have their day, especially against the champions of the world.

    In desperation, Germany threw on Andy Brehme for Hassler to stream an endless supply of crosses in from the left. Bulgaria counteracted by taking off Stoichkov and Kostadinov and replacing them with midfielders. In the last desperate attack Brehme whipped in a cross that was just too high for Voller, who tried the Maradona trick of fist slightly above the head to divert the ball in, but missed. The referee was having none of it and booked Voller. Bulgaria cleared the ball to the other end of the field and the game was over.

    The party on the pitch could have gone on forever for Bulgaria on the greatest day in their footballing history. The looks on the faces of the players said it all – they were in the semi-finals, they had beaten Germany, and they could not believe it. Morocco beating Belgium in round one had been a surprise result, but this was off the scale. It also marked the beginning of the end for German dominance of world football, particularly at the World Cup. They may have gone on to win Euro 96, but the cloak of invincibility that used to guard their football was stripped away forever in New York.


    The semi-finals would prove too much for Bulgaria. They were the talk of America in the days following their sensational win over Germany, and this unprecedented level attention caused them to freeze against Italy, and they were two-nil down to a pair of brilliant goals by Roberto Baggio before they knew where they were. Stoichkov got them back into the game with a penalty but the damage had been done, and their situation was not helped by an appalling referee who failed to send Pagliuca off for the foul that caused the penalty and later refused to award an even more blatant penalty for handball by Costacurta. In the play-off for third place they were hammered 4-0 by Sweden.

Date: July 10th 1994
Venue: Giants Stadium (att: 72,000)
City: New York, USA
Referee: Jose Torres Cadena (Colombia)
Bulgaria 2, (0)
Goals: Stoitchkov 75, Letchkov 78
Line-up: Mikhailov, Ivanov, Tzvetanov, Houbtchev, Kiriakov, Yankov, Letchkov, Balakov, Kostadinov (Guentchev), Stoitchkov (Yordanov), Sirakov.
Germany 1, (0)
Goals: Matthäus 48(p)
Line-up: Illgner, Kohler, Helmer, Buchwald, Matthäus, Berthold, Wagner (Strunz), Möller, Hässler (Brehme), Völler, Klinsmann.

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