David Ginola is an unlikely hero in Bulgaria.
With moments remaining of their last qualifying match, it looked as though the Eastern European nation were going to miss out on a place at the 1994 World Cup. France had the draw they needed, and Ginola had the ball near the corner flag.
Then Ginola spotted Eric Cantona in the area and couldn’t resist, inexplicably crossing the ball towards the Manchester United man. But it was overhit, and straight to a Bulgarian player. Three passes later, the ball found Emil Kostadinov in the box. He fired past Bernard Lama, and one of the greatest underdog stories in World Cup history began.
Bulgaria’s World Cup record up to that point was something of a laughing stock. They’d competed at five previous tournaments without winning once. Two draws and a defeat had been enough to make the last 16 in 1986, but with the new three points rule coming in, Bulgaria would need to do something they hadn’t managed in 16 World Cup games: win.
Bulgarian football had been boosted by the relaxation of a Communist-era rule which prevented players under 28 from playing abroad. Inevitably, a mass exodus of top Bulgarian players ensued when these restrictions were lifted in 1990. 13 of Bulgaria’s 22-man squad in 1994 played their club football abroad, compared with just two in 1986.
The most famous player to seek his fame and fortune abroad, and the most famous Bulgarian footballer ever, was Hristo Stoichkov. 38 goals in 30 league games for CSKA Sofia in 1989/90 had convinced Johan Cruyff to make him a part of the Barcelona side he was assembling.
“There are only two Christs – one plays for Barcelona, and the other is in heaven,” Stoichkov once told a reporter. But Stoichkov alternated between being the messiah and being a very naughty boy. A two month ban for stamping on a referee’s foot marred his first season in Spain, but by 1994 he had scored 91 goals in four title-winning seasons to become one of the most feared strikers in Europe.
With Stoichkov leading the line, Bulgaria were right to be confident going into their first game against Nigeria. But the Desert Eagles had won the Africa Cup of Nations just two months before and boasted a talented squad. The debutants played joyful football, winning 3-0 as Bulgaria wilted in the Texas sun.
Before his team’s second game, Bulgaria manager Dimitar Penev took the unusual step of allowing his players to bring their wives and girlfriends into the team hotel for a night of drinking, smoking and...other stuff. It was a risky move – after all, a pool party cost the Netherlands before the 1974 World Cup final – but it helped to relax the players after the Nigeria defeat.
After the extreme humidity of Dallas, Chicago offered a more appealing climate, and Greece a more appealing opponent. Stoichkov scored two penalties and there were also goals for Yordan Letchkov and Daniel Borimirov as the Greeks succumbed to a second 4-0 defeat. A point against Argentina would now be enough to go through, and Diego Maradona’s failed drugs test was a huge boost to their chances.
Devoid of their inspiration, Argentina were a pale imitation of themselves and fell behind when Stoichkov raced onto Kostadinov’s pass to score his third of the tournament. Tsanko Tsvetanov’s red card left Bulgaria in the lurch but they held on and Nasko Sirakov doubled their lead in the third minute of injury time.
Mexico were Bulgaria’s second round opponents, as they had been in 1986, and Stoichkov was on target again as Penev’s side led within six minutes. Alberto Garcia Aspe equalised for Mexico, but he was one of three Mexicans to miss in the penalty shoot out. Bulgaria scored three of their four penalties to advance to the quarter finals for the first time.
Having beaten the 1990 runners-up Argentina, Bulgaria would now come up against the reigning champions, Germany. The Germans had already conceded as many goals in this tournament as in the whole of the 1990 run, but it was still Bulgaria’s toughest test yet.
With 75 minutes on the clock Germany led 1-0 and had done an impressive job of keeping Stoichkov quiet. Then Andreas Moller fouled him 30 yards from goal. Bodo Illgner positioned himself next to his far post, believing his wall had the other side covered. Stoichkov saw the gap and beat the wall, finding the corner with Illgner rooted to the spot.
Germany were still reeling when the unthinkable comeback was complete three minutes later. Zlatko Yankov found space to float a perfect cross into the box and Letchkov, using the bald head he attributed to his hometown’s proximity to Chernobyl, powered it past Illgner’s desperate dive.
Penev called it “the finest day in Bulgarian football history.” Stoichkov, naturally, was less emotional. “To be honest, it was an easy win,” he said later. Bulgaria feared nobody, least of all their semi final opponents Italy. They had made it out of the group on goal difference, and only avoided a last 16 exit thanks to Roberto Baggio’s 88th minute equaliser against Nigeria.
As a cohesive team, Bulgaria might have been better than Italy. But I Azzurri had Baggio. Two sublime goals from one of the players of the tournament gave Italy the lead and although Stoichkov scored a penalty before half time, it was not the start of another comeback. The dream had ended one game early.
After the France game in qualifying, Stoichkov had declared: “God is Bulgarian!” After the Italy defeat, he was asked if he still believed that. “Yes,” he said. “But the referee was French.”
The exhausted Bulgarians were 4-0 down by half time in the third place play off against Sweden, but they returned home as heroes to their own people and to the world.
Few underdogs have ever captured the imagination quite like Bulgaria, who might have gone all the way were it not for the Divine Ponytail.