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. But for those of us who grew up in the late 80s and early 90s- a generation now glibly labelled ‘millenials’– 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 sports-mad child 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 international tournaments such as the Olympics, the European Championships or the World Cup.
I was nine years old back in the summer of 1994 when the USA hosted the football, or “sawker” World Cup, and I became entranced by one ‘dark horse’ team who 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, and only one very famous player aside, I knew next to nothing about Bulgaria.
Once the tournament kicked off however, I was enthralled by this team that looked like no other. The antithesis of the Budweiser-sponsored razzmatazz bullshit of the hosts, they represented with pride a country struggling in the post-Communist political and economic shit storm, coming from nowhere to reach the last four in the world. A 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 and, but for Italy’s ‘divine ponytail’, could have gone all the way.
The 1994 squad were unique in that they were the first generation of Bulgarian players permitted to play club football abroad following the collapse of communist rule 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 ensued.
Broody and temperamental, but forgiven his frequent moments of madness due to his immense talent, Hristo Stoichkov was Bulgaria’s brightest star and moved from CSKA Sofia to John Cruyff’s Barcelona as soon as communism ended, where he would form a lethal partnership with the Brazilian Romario. He would make proclamations prior to USA ’94 like “There are only two Christs- one plays for Barcelona, and the other is in heaven.” At the age of 19 he was given a lifelong ban for his involvement in a fight during the 1985 Bulgarian Cup Final and in his first season at Barcelona he was suspended for 2 months for stamping on a referee’s foot. He reminded me of De Niro in Raging Bull. He was the daddy.
Other player archetypes whose stock improved after moving from the East included the mulleted “Industrious Winger” Kostadinov, who ended up at FC Porto and scored the crucial goal against France in Paris to get Bulgaria to the World Cup, and “The Lanky Centre Forward” 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 like a sore thumb among the Hair Bear Bunch however was Hamburg’s Yordan Letchkov, aka “The blg2Magician”. Letchkov was completely bald, save for a tiny tuft of hair at the top of his forehead, and 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. Letchkov was, however, ambidextrous.
With his patchy beard, bushy monobrow and red sunken eyes, the team’s central defender Trifan Ivanov, resembled a binman who had just done a 40-hour shift. To the annoyance of his teammates and fans, he had a penchant for booting the ball at the goal from 50 yards, just because he wanted to. He more than likely brought his boots to the game in a plastic Morrisonsshopping 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 wore 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 five times previously, and they found themselves drawn in a tough group with a coked-up-Maradona-inspired Argentina, African new boys Nigeria and a typically solid Greek side.
It looked as though their retched record at the World Cup would continue as they were trashed 3-0 by Nigeria in their opening game in Dallas. Reflecting the low expectations that the Bulgarians had of progressing in the tournament, following the defeat, coach Penev allowed the players to bring their wives and girlfriends back to the squad’s 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 Borimirov completed the impressive 4-0 rout. 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 where they would face Mexico.
Notable mainly for the moment when one of the Mexican defenders snapped the crossbar after sliding into it, along with the mental breakdown of the Syrian referee, who dished out 8 yellow cards and 2 red, Bulgaria prevailed on penalties following a 1-1 draw with the heavily-supported Mexicans in New Jersey. Delirious following his heroics in the penalty shootout, Mikhailov declared “I want to kiss my entire nation!” They probably would have obliged him as well.
Next up were holders Germany, who went ahead 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 The Magician, Letchkov, who with his dome shimmering in the summer sun, made the difference with an unstoppable and unforgettable diving header to make it an incredible 2-1.
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’. Once the game had finished, I took my ball out to the local playground and spent hours trying to emulate Stoichkov’s freekick technique.
Bulgaria eventually lost out to Italy and the pony-tailed Roberto Baggio in the semis at The Giants Stadium in New York and were subsequently beaten 4-0 by Sweden in the dreaded third-place play-off. The fairytale was over.
22 years on, finding myself in the cynical world of adulthood, where corporatism smothers creativity and imagination, I doubt that I’ll ever see another team so full of character that would create so many memorable moments like the Bulgarian team of 1994. The world has changed too much, for better or worse.