Football folklore is replete with tales of unfancied teams fighting back in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity, recovering from an apparently inevitable defeat to down one of the giants of the game; when a last-minute goal gets a team through a difficult match that seemed to be pointing to elimination, when the opposition fails to convert any of the first three penalties in a shoot-out or when a team comes back after losing an opening game to unexpectedly qualify from a group stage of the biggest tournament in the world.
Other tales may speak of seemingly hopeless situations when unforeseen results conspire to offer a chance that had surely been extinguished, when last-minute goals work wonders and unexpectedly transform successive matches, when winning goals are created and scored by players who really shouldn’t have been on the pitch or when a giant stumbles and lets the little guy through; when the most unexpected of events happen again and again and again.
Some tales have such a feature, some have two or three, but very few have all of them. The story of Bulgaria’s American Dream at the 1994 World Cup and the strange combination of results and events off the park that conspired to get them there, however, is one of the best.
It’s a hot day at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. The 1994 World Cup is being played out in the USA and in the quarter-final the Germans, perennial frontrunners for any such event, are pitched against surprise package Bulgaria. Surprise? Well, despite having Hristo Stoichkov amongst their number, and aside from achieving a qualification for the tournament proper that bordered on the outlandish, prior to the finals kicking off, Bulgaria’s win total at this level of the international game was stuck on zero.
A penalty by German skipper Lothar Matthäus just after the break had given the Germans an expected lead, but with 15 minutes left, Stoitchkov was brought down some 25 metres or so from goal. Between the sticks for the Germans Bodo Illgner, the Köln stopper, would have been fairly confident of dealing with any direct shot from such a distance. Stoichkov however – christened as ‘El Pistolero’ by the Culés seated in Barcelona’s Camp Nou – was determined to shoot.
After spinning the ball around a few times on the ground, selecting precisely the correct spot to strike, he summarily dismissed teammates from around the ball. He was taking charge. With a short run-up, he wrapped his left foot around the ball and whipped it over the wall and inside the near post. A static Illgner was a mere spectator. The Bulgarians were back in the game. Two minutes later, the script was set for its denouement.
Zlatko Yankov had possession as players concentrated around the left-hand side of the German defence, just outside of the penalty area. Aware of the opportunity offered as opposition players were drawn towards him, the Levski Sofia midfielder looked up before playing a cross into the box. Fellow midfielder Yordan Letchkov had moved forward to support Yankov and as he reached the penalty area, was being shadowed by the much smaller German, Thomas Hässler.
At 1.8m tall, compared to Hässler at 1.66m, the advantages were with the Bulgarian, and he exacted full price for them. Diving forward ahead of his marker he flicked a spectacular header from his balding pate across and beyond Illgner to give the Bulgarians the lead and, ultimately, an unlikely victory.
The game was a fitting finale to the fairy-tale ending to the Bulgarian adventure. They lost the semi-final 2-1 to Italy, before being soundly beaten in the third-place playoff by Sweden. None of that, however, could dim the light that had lit their run to the last four of the 1994 World Cup.
An unheralded team, not expected to even qualify, and on the brink of elimination before even arriving on American shores, a weird combination of circumstances had dropped into line to see them to the tournament, then despite being on the edge of going home a number of times, something had happened – something unexpected – to keep their dream alive. If this was an American Dream, it was one of a very Bulgarian nature.
It had been an improbable adventure, one that no one could surely have foreseen for a country that had never previously even won a single game in a World Cup finals tournament. For such dreams to come true, for such phoenix-like rising, a certain alignment of the stars is required. For this Bulgarian team, not only in the tournament itself, but even more so in the qualifying matches, a series of events conspired that suggested some celestial guidance was taking a hand. If God was ever a Bulgarian, he surely was then.
It’s a more than a bit of a tired old cliché to describe a certain crop of players as a country’s golden generation, but for Bulgaria however, the team of the early to mid-1990s probably fitted that bill better than any other in their history. As well as Stoichkov’s gun-slinging exploits as part of Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona Dream Team, Letchkov’s midfield skills were being deployed in the Bundesliga for Hamburger SV and Emil Kostadinov had made his name playing over a hundred games for Porto and netting at a rate of nearly a goal every other game.
Read | Hristo Stoichkov: the architect in Cruyff’s Barcelona
Entering the tournament as winless also-rans after losing their opening game to Nigeria, Bulgaria had then perhaps expectedly defeated Greece and then, certainly unexpectedly, Argentina. A late headed goal from a corner secured the required two-goal margin that would see Bulgaria through and relegate the South Americans from top to third place in the group.
On they went to a last-16 match-up with Mexico, with progress secured via a penalty shootout after the game had ended 1-1. All of this was then, of course, topped off by beating the Germans. Such exploits in the tournament were remarkable in themselves, but the series of results and intriguing events that led to Bulgaria’s remarkable World Cup qualification, and particularly the final game that earned them their passage across the Atlantic, was the ponderings so of the unlikeliest of fantasies.
The qualifying draw had pitched the Eastern Europeans into Group 6 alongside top-seeds France, Austria, Sweden, Finland and Israel. With two countries qualifying, it was hardly a Group of Death, but despite victories against the makeweights of the group, a 2-2 home draw with Israel and a failure to take points away from the top sides suggested that pursuit of qualification would be a forlorn exercise.
On 8 September 1993, when Sweden visited Sofia, leaving with a draw, and France travelled to Helsinki to defeat the Finns, Bulgarian prospects appeared decidedly dicey. At that stage, France topped the group with 13 points. With home games to come against an Israel side that had failed to win a single game in the group, and the Bulgarians themselves, Les Bleus seemed home and dry, merely requiring to check the expiry dates on their passports and organise visas.
In second place, Sweden also looked comfortable, sitting just a single point behind the French with a home game against the Finns and visit to Austria to round off their programme. Bulgaria had ten points and faced a home game against Austria before visiting Paris. Their goal difference was also inferior to that of both the Swedes and the French. The gaps may seem small, but remember this was the time when the reward for a win was a mere two points, rather than three.
On 13 October all three countries played at home. A 3-2 victory for Sweden in Solna put them on 14 points, meaning the gap was now four points and, still having a match to play, even two wins for Bulgaria would probably not be enough to catch them, plus they had a better goal difference. In Sofia, a goal from Penev and a Stoichkov penalty before the break just about kept the home team’s slim hopes alive, albeit on life-support. Despite Hertzog netting just after the break, further goals from Penev and Letchkov saw the Bulgarians home. That it was a fairly comfortable victory, however, only highlighted the unlikelihood of the Swedes being defeated when they visited Vienna.
The consequence was that the gap to the Swedes was still two points and even in the unlikely event of the Scandinavians being beaten in Austria, Bulgaria would need to win in Paris to draw level on points and hope that goal difference would swing in their favour. Mathematically possible, but their chances were as slim as the width of the thread by which they hung. Even less likely, however, was the prospect of catching the French. A win at home to Israel would put Les Bleus beyond the reach of the Bulgarians. Even a draw would, in all probability, have a similar effect. To many, France’s home game against Israel was deemed a foregone conclusion as the group leaders took on the bottom team, who had failed to even score in their previous two games.
In February of the same year, the French had visited Tel Aviv and come away with a comfortable win – a brace from Blanc plus goals from Eric Cantona and Roche delivering a 4-0 victory. Anything like a repeat performance at home would suffice nicely for France. In 1982, Les Bleus had crossed the Pyrenees to contest the World Cup finals in Spain and finished fourth. Four years later, they journeyed to Mexico and improved to third place. Failure to qualify for the 1990 tournament in Italy after defeats to Yugoslavia and Scotland, draws against Cyprus, Norway and Yugoslavia at home, during the qualifying groups was a stain on their record that required removal. This, therefore, was a group of players with a reputation to reestablish, and an aberration to dismiss.
At the time, the French team could boast the likes of Laurent Blanc and Marcel Desailly at the heart of their defence, not that many thought there would be that much pressure on the home team’s back line. In midfield, Deschamps was the engine room ‘carrying water’ to a forward line comprised of Cantona, David Ginola and captain, Jean-Pierre Papin. Such power would surely overcome the so-far winless Israelis, rubber-stamp the qualification and cut the thread from which Bulgarian hopes were dangling. As the game got underway, there was an indication that things were starting to turn in Bulgaria’s favour.
In the 21st minute, Ronen Harazi had the apparent temerity to put the underdogs ahead. Marcel Desailly probably assumed he had cleared any immediate danger when he played the ball into touch down by the French right-hand corner flag to prevent an attack developing. The ball was, however, thrown to Liverpool’s Ronny Rosenthal positioned inside the penalty area, and as the striker pivoted around the French defender, he crossed to the far post. Almost unchallenged, a teammate headed back across goal invitingly for Harazi to score.
On the bench, French manager Gérard Houllier must have been feeling the first beginnings of doubt as the excited centre-forward celebrated with his colleagues. There was, however, some 70 minutes left: plenty of time for France to overcome any doubts and take control of the game.
Just over ten minutes later, it seemed that things were getting back onto an even keel. France regained possession inside the Israeli half and neat interplay opened up the defence for Franck Sauzée to shoot from just outside the area. His placed shot unerringly found the corner and France breathed a sigh of relief. Skipper Papin picked the ball out of the net and kissed it.
Just a couple of minutes were left in the first half when Deschamps swept a pass out to the left flank where Ginola – the darling of the Paris crowd – neatly controlled the ball on his chest. With an elegant sway of the hips, he drifted inside his marker to hit a curling shot across goal that evaded Ginzburg before nestling in the far corner of the net.
Houllier stepped from the bench, beamed a smile in salute, and applauded his mercurial star player’s audacity. As with risk sometimes bringing reward, a manager’s favour can be a fickle thing. Such was to be played out a few short weeks later. It was an exquisite piece of play though, one that seemed destined to illustrate the gulf in class between the two teams, and as the referee blew for the break, with France ahead 2-1, thoughts in many Gallic minds were surely drifting towards a summer across the Atlantic.
When play resumed, France continued to dominate but could not get the surely decisive third goal. Efforts by Papin and Cantona were thwarted, sometimes at the last gasp by the Israeli back line, but as the clock clicked around to 80 minutes the score remained unchanged. Now there were less than 10 minutes to play, and perhaps the Israeli team began to feel that they had little to lose. A sally forward would perhaps find French nerves on edge. A chance? A half-chance? And who knows what could happen.
With a mere seven minutes remaining, the ball broke to Rosenthal midway into the French half, and turning, he drove at the heart of the defence. Evading Blanc’s lunging tackle, he skated past Desailly but tangled with the centre-back’s leg, slipping to the floor. The ball ran on to Harazi, who must have thought a second goal in the game was his for the taking. Off-balance, his shot was only half-hit and Bernard Lama advanced and reached across to paw the ball away as his defenders regained ground behind him. From the ‘keeper’s glove, the ball broke to Eyal Berkovic who flicked it goalwards with the outside of his right boot. This time, Lama was helpless as the scooped ball evaded him.
Read | Yordan Letchkov: the grand magician of Bulgaria
Running back, Desailly had got himself in position to cover for his ‘keeper. Unable to legitimately keep the ball out, however, he slapped it to the ground with his left hand, and it ended up between his feet. It was only a fleeting respite. As the French defender fell to the ground, his momentum carried him into the net, and unable to disentangle his legs from the ball – despite forlorn efforts to the contrary – he dragged it over the line. Researching this article, I’ve seen French coverage of this moment where the commentator calls for a penalty, perhaps hoping the goal would be wiped out in favour of the spot-kick for the initial handball. Un fol espoir!
As the Israeli players peeled away in celebration, a distraught Desailly lay in the goal with the ball in his hands. Resignedly, he lowered his head to the turf, before rolling the ball away and turning onto his back. Lama went back to help his teammate to his feet. There were still six minutes left, and some inevitable injury time to play. There was still time to grab a winning goal. Indeed there was. Indeed there was.
The French poured forward in pursuit of another goal. Into injury time, the Israelis were still holding out. Then, as yet another sortie from Les Bleus broke down on the edge of the Israeli penalty area, Urey merely hoofed clear to earn some respite, but found the head of Rosenthal on the halfway line. The Liverpool striker nodded the ball back to a teammate before spinning and sprinting wide down the left flank.
The ball was played back to him and, as the French defenders retreated, he ran powerfully past Desailly and then Blanc, who pulled out of any challenge as the striker entered the penalty area, fearing any contact would surely bring a penalty. Even the non-contact attentions of Blanc, however, had forced the Liverpool striker wide, and as he closed on Lama’s goal, the French ‘keeper narrowed the angle, at the same time widening the odds on any direct shot on goal being successful.
Rosenthal had other ideas. Lama’s advance had opened up the goal completely and as the striker pulled the ball back across the goalmouth, he found Reuven Atar unmarked in front of an empty net. The finish was struck powerfully and high, offering Lama no chance of a save. In less than ten minutes, France had fallen from a comfortable winning position, with a trip to the USA all but booked and sorted, to an embarrassing defeat. There would still be a chance at redemption in the final game of the group when Bulgaria came to visit. In place of confidence – perhaps over-confidence –there was now doubt. As Houllier turned from where he had been standing pitchside and slumped into his seat in the dugout, the smile had vanished.
The Israel game against a team bereft of a single victory, a team that hadn’t scored in their previous two games, and had not netted three times in a single game throughout the qualifying process, had been the game when qualification should have been confirmed. The Bulgaria game was a safety net that the French probably never thought they would need. Now that game was their last chance. Despite the calamitous defeat, their early success in the group meant that only a draw was needed. The problem is that sometimes safety nets contain more holes than should be the case.
When 17 November rolled around, it seemed that Houllier’s brief flirtation with affection for Ginola had fled on a breeze of caprice. The maverick scorer of France’s second goal had been relegated to the bench. The team selected reflected a more cautious approach by Houllier. There was concern in his mind, and also of the crowd.
In place of the air of optimism and confidence apparent in the game against Israel, the 48,000 crowd in the Parc des Princes were far more bellicose, with the Bulgarian anthem being accompanied by whistles and boos. Any entente was definitely somewhat short of cordial. The Marseillaise was then delivered with the sort of gusto befitting a game that the team simply dare not fail in. As the camera panned along the French team, it was clear that the importance of the task was clear to them. Deep breaths and concerned expressions told the tale. As the teams broke away, a moment broke the tension.
As is often the case in supporting events involving the national team in France, someone had managed to smuggle a cockerel – the emblem of French sporting endeavour – into the stadium, and for a couple of minutes it ran around the pitch comfortably evading the efforts of the players to catch it. Eventually to cheers from the crowd, and applause from Scottish referee Leslie Mottram, it scuttled towards the sidelines, its fate from that point being unknown. The fate of the aspirations of both France and Bulgaria, however, were about to be played out as the referee blew to begin the match.
With 30 minutes on the clock, Deschamps delivered a crunching scissor tackle on Izvetanov near the halfway line to regain possession for the French. Another referee may have given a free-kick, but Mottram saw nothing wrong with the challenge. The ball broke towards the French defence, and as the Bulgarian lay stricken on the floor, was returned to Deschamps.
Advancing down the right flank, he crossed towards Papin, stationed between the arc and the spot. A direct attempt at goal with a header would have been difficult, and with the Bulgarian defence closing in, there was little time to control the ball. Astutely, the French skipper saw his teammate, Cantona, advancing and nodded the ball back across goal. The header was a little firm, however, and forced Cantona wider than he would have liked.
Nevertheless, the striker connected with the ball on the corner of the goal area and unleashed a fierce right-footed shot that flew into the far corner of the net, with Mikhailov a helpless spectator. Momentum took Cantona behind the goal and onto an advertising board, before returning to celebrate with his teammates. The goal gave the French breathing space. Unless they conceded two now, qualification was in the bag. Relief and joy on the pitch was matched in the stands. It wasn’t to last long.
Just six minutes later, the Bulgarians earned a corner down their left flank. It was a crowded penalty area, but with a preponderance of blue shirts back to defend, there surely didn’t seem any imminent danger. As Balakov swung the ball in, Porto striker Emil Kostadinov leapt at the near post and powered a header past Lama. It’s often said that someone doesn’t know how dark the night is until they have seen the light of day. France’s time in daylight had lasted a mere six minutes, and now the prospect of a long and very dark night hung over them.
Bulgaria were back in the game and one more goal would see the French collapse, that had begun against Israel, now complete. Houllier, who had been standing by the side of the pitch, turned and walked slowly back to his seat in the dugout, slapping his legs in frustration as he sat down. Just a single point needed from home games against Israel and then Bulgaria: it shouldn’t have come to this, but it had. France simply had to hang on now. The alternative was beyond contemplation.
With 20 minutes to go, the exhausted Papin was withdrawn and Houllier turned to Ginola. The scenario for France’s nadir was now in place. As the final minute of the 90 was entered, France were awarded a free-kick by the Bulgarian corner flag. The ball was tapped short to Ginola with everyone expecting him to guard it in the corner, retaining possession, perhaps earning a corner-kick or a thrown in; at least to eat away a few more seconds. Some would say the next seconds were the inevitable result of putting a flair player in such a position. Others would argue that what happened next was bordering on the extremes of foolhardy hubris.
Eschewing the sanctity of the corner flag, Ginola pivoted and slung a cross in towards Cantona, the lone French player in the box. As the ball flew 10 metres above the striker’s head, the clock showed a mere 15 seconds remaining. With Cantona taken out of the game by the wildly inaccurate cross, the ball travelled across the field and was picked up by right-back, Emil Kremenliev. Turning, he sprinted upfield with the ball at his feet. A couple of quick passes saw the ball cross the halfway line and reach Penev. Now there were only six seconds remaining.
Spotting the run of Kostadinov cutting in from the right, Penev hoisted a pass over the French defence, and the striker brought it under control with three seconds on the clock. He ran forward and crashed a right-foot shot into the French net off the underside of the bar. Blanc’s despairing lunge of a challenge was ineffective. As the ball settled behind Lama, the clock showed a single second to play.
Read | “The assassin of French football”: David Ginola’s unfulfilled international career
France were as devastated as the Bulgarians were jubilant. Nobody had expected such an outcome. One team had secretly feared it, whilst the other had quietly hoped for it. Now it was reality. The best part of three minutes had elapsed before the game was restarted. Mottram blew the whistle to offer the French the slimmest of slim chances of salvation. The ball was moved out to the left, before being scrambled away for a throw-in. Seconds later the Scot blew to end French hopes and affirm Bulgarian qualification. “God is Bulgarian!” screamed a local television commentator. “God is Bulgarian!”
The French certainly would not have claimed he was on their side at that moment. Houllier left his seat and walked down the tunnel without a word to anyone. He was to resign shortly afterwards. The final minutes of the game fuelled a row between manager and the former favoured player that was to rumble on for many years, including legal action. “[Ginola] sent an Exocet missile through the heart of French football. He committed a crime against the team, I repeat: a crime against the team,” insisted the irate Houllier. He manager’s reaction led to a total breakdown in the relationship with Ginola. The animosity even led to legal proceedings in 2011, when Ginola was primed to sue his ex-manager after being further criticised in a book Houllier had written.
Deschamps walked from the pitch in tears, and Blanc sank to his haunches before also trudging away. Ginola, whose errant cross had opened the way for the Bulgarian goal, crouched in front of an advertising board, his head in his hands. Eric Cantona was later to describe the events as being “the worst defeat of (his) life.”
Was Houllier’s reaction to blame Ginola’s error for the failure to qualify justified? It seems a very harsh judgement. The defeat against Israel – surely an even bigger shock given the relative merits of the two teams – was being ignored totally. Had that game produced a more favourable result, as was on the cards ahead of the late capitulation, the Bulgaria game would have been a mere coming-out party, instead of a do-or-die trial. Even in the game itself, although Ginola apparently wantonly sacrificed possession for Bulgaria’s winning goal, there were opportunities for the defence to better cope with Kostadinov’s threat. It’s also true that Ginola wasn’t even on the pitch when the Bulgarians equalised.
Stoichkov clearly thought that there was plenty of blame to go around. After the game he decried the attitude of the French ream as a whole, claiming: “They were so scared they played with their buttocks clenched. We knew that’s how they would be and our tactics were based on that. They played for a draw and never went looking for a win. They didn’t deserve to qualify and we hit them where it hurt most.”
Teammate Zlatko Yankov took a different view: “We’re just waiting for the referee to blow the final whistle at that moment,” he was to relate after the game. “We and even our coaching staff on the bench were convinced that it’s over and nothing more can be done. Ginola could’ve done better – to waste some time and it should have been the end of the match. But he probably thought they could win the game.” In summary, he added: “The French look sick after the game, nobody could believe what happened. I remember the face of Papin. He was so pale, he looked like he was very ill.”
As if there had not been enough drama on the pitch, it was later revealed that the two players involved in the winning goals should not have played, having entered France illegally. Yankov related that both Penev and Kostadinov had experienced visa problems, but as both were key members of the squad, a pact was made between the two and skipper Mikhailov, together with former international teammate Georgi Georgiev – both of whom were ironically then playing for French club, Mulhouse – to get them across the border between Germany and France at a crossing with very low key security. The ruse succeeded and when the call came, they were on the pitch to play their parts to the full. Whether this is true or merely fabrication is perhaps open to conjecture, but Yankov insists upon its validity.
Less than 20 seconds had elapsed between the free-kick being played to Ginola and Kostadinov lashing the ball past Lama. That brief time would have massive repercussions for so many involved. For the Bulgarians, it was a ticket to the most exhilarating series of performances at a World Cup before or since. Stoichkov ended as the tournament’s joint winner of the Golden Boot as top scorer and would later be named as European Footballer of the Year. In December, he would be able to add the Ballon d’Or to his collection of awards. It was the first – and so far only – occasion such an honour has fallen to a Bulgarian.
Perhaps for France there was a positive to be taken if a longer-term perspective was applied. How would French football have developed if qualification had been achieved and a fairly successful campaign in America followed? With the Clairefontaine academy already five years into its work in 1993, the time was ripe for a review and application of a new system across the board. It led to a new structure being put in place to focus more attention on the fortunes of the national team and remedy the malady of two successive failures to qualify for the World Cup.
Was it successful? Seven years after Kostadinov’s Paris moment of fame, the new Les Bleus were crowned as both champions of Europe and World Cup winners. If God was a Bulgarian, perhaps he also had a soft spot for France.
By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze