Michael Fahey1 Comment


Michael Fahey1 Comment

In the modern technological age, it's quite easy to take for granted the vast amounts of information available to us about people and cultures from across the globe- the fact that we can, for instance, watch local news broadcasts from Papua New Guinea on Youtube or Snapchat with people working in a scientific base in Antarctica is no big deal. But for those of us who grew up in the late 80s and early 90s- a generation now popularly known as 'millennials'- vast swathes of the world's populations, despite experiencing unprecedented levels of social and political change at the time, still seemed so mysterious.

As a football-mad kid who was also fascinated by the newly-independent nations emerging from behind the Iron Curtain, the only real opportunities I could get to see what people from these places actually looked like - in a non-civil war setting at least - was via terrestrial TV coverage of tournaments such as the European Cup, the European Championships or the World Cup.

I was nine years old back in the summer of 1994 when the USA was entrusted with hosting the football - or "sawker" - World Cup, much to the suspicion of many in the traditional heartlands of the world's most popular sport. It was a summer that smelt of sun cream, playing football out on the street with my friends until it was just too dark to continue. It was also a summer in which I became entranced by one 'dark horse' team in particular that hailed from an exotic and mysterious corner of the world. As the birth of the world wide web was still a year or so away, the only glimpses that I got of these men in the lead-up to the tournament were via my Panini sticker books, 30 second highlights on Trans-World Sport or the 2-D brilliance of Sensible Soccer on the Commodore Amiga. And, despite now being part of a freer Europe, I knew next to nothing about Bulgaria.

Once the tournament kicked off however, I was enthralled by the collection of players that proudly represented this mysterious Balkan nation. They were a team that looked like no other; the antithesis of the overbearing "this-replay-is-brought-to-you-by-Budweiser" corporate razzmatazz of their hosts, drawing global awareness to a hitherto unremarkable country that had found itself struggling desperately both politically and economically following the end of communism. A mean, lean, well-drilled team of outsiders and outlaws, who had either too much or too little hair, they managed to produce some beautiful and lethal counter-attacking football to reach the semi-finals and, but for Italy's 'divine ponytail', could have gone all the way.

The members of the 1994 Bulgarian squad were unique in being the first generation of players from the country who were permitted to play club football abroad, after communist rule ended in 1989. Previously, players could only leave Bulgaria once they'd reached the age of 28, but once these restrictions were lifted in 1990, an exodus to the big leagues of central and southern Europe ensued. One of the first players to leave following the rule change would go on to win La Liga four times in a row, the European Cup in 1992, finish FIFA World Player of the Year runner-up twice, and claim the Ballon D'or in 1994. His name, aptly enough, meant "Christ" in Bulgarian.

Broody and temperamental, but forgiven his frequent moments of madness due to his immense talent, Hristo Stoichkov scored 38 goals in 30 league games for CSKA Sofia in the 1989-90 Group A season, enough to convince Johan Cruyff to make him a member of the "Dream Team" that he was constructing at Barcelona.

In his first season with the Catalan giants, Stoichkov received a 2 month suspension for stamping on a referee's foot, but the devastating partnership he forged with Romario quickly saw him become an idol to the club's fans. It wasn't the first time he had got himself into trouble with the authorities either, having received a lifelong ban from the Bulgarian FA (subsequently rescinded after 7 months) for his involvement in a riot that broke out during the 1985 Cup Final. He was only 19 years old at the time.

Hristo was well aware of his abilities, telling a reporter "There are only two Christs- one plays for Barcelona, and the other is in heaven" and claiming that God was Bulgarian after they qualified for the ’94 World Cup in dramatic circumstances. Barrel-chested, flaring nostrils, with a permanent five o'clock shadow, he reminded me of De Niro in Raging Bull. He was the daddy.

Although Stoichkov was the figurehead of the Bulgarian team throughout the early '90s, many of his compatriots also saw their stock improve after moving from the East. Some would fit into the traditional footballer archetypes of the time: the "Industrious Winger" with the flowing mullet, Emil Kostadinov, transferred to FC Porto and would score the crucial goal against France in Paris to get Bulgaria to the World Cup, despite the small matter of him being in the country illegally. The story goes that, having failed to obtain a visa to enter France, Kostadinov was smuggled over the German-French border in a car driven by his international teammate,  Georgi Georgiev, who played with Mulhouse in Ligue 1 and happened to know which border post would have low security. The other visa-less player in the car was the "Lanky Centre Forward", Luboslav Penev of Valencia, who also sported a mullet but would be forced to miss the tournament to undergo cancer treatment. Mullets, it seemed, were still fashionable in Bulgaria circa 1994.

Standing out among the Hair Bear Bunch, however, was Hamburg's Yordan Letchkov, aka "The Magician". Completely bald, save for a tiny tuft of hair at the top of his forehead, he blamed his premature hair loss on the 1986 Chernobyl disaster: "Sliven (his home town) is only 300 kilometers (180 miles) from Chernobyl and two to three months after the accident many young men in Sliven lost their hair," he was quoted as saying. Without a smartphone to hand, his interviewer would have had to go to the local library to confirm the fact that Sliven is in fact more like 500 miles from Chernobyl. Perhaps he could have attributed his ambidexterity to the nuclear fallout as well.

With his patchy beard, bushy monobrow and red sunken eyes, the team's central defender Trifan Ivanov, resembled a binman who had just completed a 40-hour shift. He had a penchant, to the annoyance of his teammates and fans, for booting the ball at the goal from 50 yards. You got the feeling he did it just because he wanted to. He also gave me the impression that he brought his boots to the game in a plastic Morrisons bag. Yet here he was, the man labelled the best central defender of the early 90s by Auxerre's legendary manager Guy Roux, neatly placing the elegant Argentinian Gabriel Batistuta, the very antithesis of Ivanov, in his proverbial back pocket.

Completing this exotic bunch of misfits was follically-challenged goalkeeper Borislav Mikhailov, who made the decision to wear a wig, even while playing, and Ilian Kiriakov, a 5’5 ginger haired right-back who ended up being a regular in the clubs and casinos of Aberdeen.

Going into the 1994 tournament, Bulgaria had never won a World Cup finals match, despite qualifying on five previous occasions, and the group draw wasn't kind to them on this occasion. An Argentinian team inspired by a coked-up Maradona and Claudio Caniggia, African new boys Nigeria and a typically solid Greek side comprised a tough Group D. Tensions were also high within the squad before setting out for the US, when the $100,000 bonus that the Bulgarian FA had promised to the players for qualifying back in November never materialised.

Although a pay compromise was agreed upon before their opening game at the tournament, it looked as though Bulgaria's retched record at the World Cup would continue as they were trashed 3-0 by Nigeria in Dallas. Reflecting the low expectations that the Bulgarians had of progressing in the tournament, following the defeat, coach Dimitar Penev allowed the players to bring their wives and girlfriends back to the team hotel with them. A night of drinking, smoking and pool parties ensued - unprecedented, even then, for a World Cup squad in the middle of a tournament.

Perhaps reinvigorated by the pool parties and the sexy time, the Bulgarians faced Greece in their second game, and things improved substantially as Stoichkov scored two penalties, Letchkov added a third and substitute Daniel Borimirov completed the impressive 4-0 rout. Without much attention being paid by neutrals, Bulgaria had finally won a game at the World Cup.

Their final game of the group, against an Argentinian side minus Maradona, marked the real turning point for the team however. Stoichkov scored following a sublime through-ball from Kostadinov and Nasko Sirakov put the icing on the cake in the last minute with a header, easing Bulgaria in to the last sixteen as the second placed side in the group, where they would face Mexico.

Notable mainly for the moment when one of the Mexican defenders snapped the crossbar after sliding into it, as well as the 8 yellow cards and 2 red dished out by the Syrian referee, Bulgaria prevailed on penalties following a 1-1 draw with the heavily-backed Mexicans in New Jersey. Delirious following his heroics in the penalty shootout, Mikhailov declared "I want to kiss my entire nation!" The 7 million celebrating back home probably would have obliged him as well.

Next up were holders Germany, who went ahead from captain Lothar Matthaus, after Letchkov conceded a penalty early in the second half. Once again however, Stoichkov scored, equalising with a stunning 40-yard free kick. Just a few minutes later it was Letchkov who would forever etch his shimmering dome into World Cup history, getting on the end of Balakov's cross to gracefully plant his diving header past Bodo Illgner in the German goal.

Bulgaria had just completed one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history. Penev would call it "the finest day in Bulgarian football history", while Stoichkov, in typical fashion, later remarked ‘To be honest, it was an easy win’. Watching in my grandmother's house, once the game had finished, I took my ball out to the garden and spent hours trying to emulate Stoichkov's curling free kick technique.

Bulgaria eventually lost out to Italy and the pony-tailed Roberto Baggio in the semis at The Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Echoing the claims he had made following the qualification victory over France in Paris, Stoichkov was asked by a reporter in the aftermath of the 2-1 defeat whether he still thought that God was Bulgarian. "Yes," he replied. "But the referee was French." Their fairytale adventure finally over, a shattered Bulgaria were subsequently beaten 4-0 by Sweden in the third-place play-off.

Welcomed home from the States as heroes, the Bulgarian players, the "Golden Generation", would never reach such dizzying heights again. In fact, they haven't won a World Cup game since that victory over Germany. The boys of the summer of '94, the air of freedom fresh in their lungs having lived under a repressive regime for so long, were proud to stand under the white, green and red flag and play for their country. One or two notable players aside (Petrov and Berbatov), Bulgaria have never seen their likes again. The comfortable lifestyle promised by the game have led many young talents astray and quelled any passion for the national team among those who do make it.

Still, we'll always have that summer.

This article originally appeared at No-Yolo.