Will There Ever Be Another Team Like USA 94's Bulgaria?
So, Brazil 2014. Exciting eh? All happy and wide eyed optimism at the beginning of the tournament, isn’t it?
But by the time the 5 million sponsors, the cheating, the diving, the terrible fans dressed in cheap St George outfits and Adrian Chiles and ITV in general have finished with it, I’m going to be honest, I’ll hate almost every team in the tournament.
None more so than England.
It wasn’t always this way. Without the saturation the World Cup has now, at USA ‘94 it was just about still possible to be entranced, seduced by a team. Pre-internet, there were teams and players you knew very little of and you had no football hipster cunt blogs to tell you everything about them. And, despite now being in Europe, only one very famous player aside, I knew absolutely nothing of Bulgaria.
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.
It wasn’t just the on field success that made Bulgaria my favourite team. It was also 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.
To tell the story of Bulgaria 94, you need to go back to 1989, as the fall of Communism and lifting of trade restrictions meant players could now go play wherever the hell they liked.
Mercurial Hristo Stoichkov - whose bursts of paces and fantastic shot earned him the nickname ‘The Dagger’ - moved to Barcelona under Cruyff’s Dream Team tenure in 1990 and started racking up goals in partnership with Romario. All that happened after he served a two month suspension in his first season for stamping on a referee’s foot.
Dark features, broody, a short fuse but bags of talent, Stoichkov could have been played by a Raging Bull-era De Niro.
Other player archetypes to have improved after moves from the Eastern Bloc included "Industrious Winger" Kostadinov (FC Porto), whose look was Steve Hodge circa 86, and "The Big Man Up Top" Penev (Valencia). Think Diego Costa with a mullet. Mullets, in Bulgaria, it seems, were still a thing in 1994.
The exception to the rule (hair and football wise) was ‘The Magician’, Yordan Letchkov, a 27 year old trapped in the body of a 200 year old man. Completely bald save for a tiny tuft of hair. Letchkov was notoriously ‘difficult’ yet a very talented midfielder.
But it was defender Trifan Ivanov, who really made us sit up and say ‘What the fuck is that’?
With his wild mane, beard, monobrow and red sunken eyes, he resembled a mountain wolf on a methadone programme. He looked so strung out it was a surprise he even reached his half time fix without doubling up with stomach cramps and I’ll be damned if his ‘water bottle’ didn’t contain Special Brew. Yet here he was, gracefully sweeping the ball away from the beautifully pampered show-pony, Gabriel Batistuta. The very antithesis of Ivanov.
To add to this portfolio of misfits there was the totally bald wearer of a shoddy wig, keeper Borislav Mikhailov, who, after the World Cup, was signed up by Reading and was a total disaster by all accounts, and Ilian Kiriakow a 5’5 ginger haired right-back.
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 v Greece and 2-0 v 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.
I’m still looking for a new Bulgaria.