Bodo Illgner had no time to react. Before he knew it, the ball had flashed past him, nestling in the top left corner, exactly where Yordan Letchkov had intended. The sight of the Bulgarian wheeling away in ecstasy with his arms outstretched aloft – a slight anachronistic picture, as the pose was reminiscent of the kind of goal celebration that was more popular in previous decades – immediately became one of the iconic moments of the 1994 World Cup.
It wasn’t the first time in the tournament Bulgaria had forced fans and pundits to sit up and take notice, either. As football expanded its horizons by staging its showpiece event in North America, a crop of supremely talented players put Bulgaria on the map.
Inspired by Hristo Stoichkov, Krasimir Balakov, Emil Kostadinov and Letchkov, the Lions reached their first World Cup in eight years after Kostadinov’s last-minute winner silenced the Parc des Princes in Paris, eliminating France. The result prompted Gérard Houllier to describe David Ginola, whose misplaced pass had sparked the crucial counter-attack, as the “assassin of French football”.
Bulgaria’s sojourn across the Atlantic, however, had got off to the worst possible start thanks to a 3-0 thumping at the hands of Nigeria, before the so-called golden generation quickly rallied to thrash Greece 4-0 and beat a Diego Maradona-less Argentina to qualify for the next round.
The South Americans were not the only finalist from four years earlier whose scalp would end up adorning Bulgaria’s belt, as Letchkov’s goal capped a remarkable comeback against Germany in the quarter-finals.
Despite his remarkable high, could all have been so different for the man they called the magician. With only two minutes of the second half played in the searing heat of Giants Stadium in New Jersey, Letchkov tripped Jürgen Klinsmann in the box and Lothar Matthäus converted the resulting penalty.
The defending champions – who were competing in their first World Cup as a reunified nation – held onto their lead until the final quarter of the game, when they were pinned back by a trademark Stoichkov free-kick. Three minutes later, Letchkov rushed to meet Zlatko Yankov’s cross from the right and the balding midfielder’s diving header secured his country a spot in the semi-finals for the first time in their history.
“Before the tournament began, I predicted that we would reach the semi-finals,” Letchkov told FourFourTwo in 2014. “The day before the match we celebrated two birthdays, mine and the coach Dimitar Penev’s. We felt there was no pressure on us, while the Germans were under pressure. We played with freedom and did really well.”
Penev’s men could not contain Italy in the semis as Roberto Baggio’s brace took the Azzurri to their first final in 12 years. Bulgaria were then ruthlessly swept aside by Sweden in the third-place playoff.
The impression they left, however, would prove to be long-lasting. Stoichkov and Balakov were both voted in the best team of the tournament and, in December 1994, the former would become the first – and so far only – Bulgarian to win the Ballon d’Or. The latter, meanwhile, would leave Sporting CP in 1995 after four seasons for VfB Stuttgart, where he would remain until 2003 and be named as the club’s greatest player.
For Letchkov, who had scored Bulgaria’ second goal in the rout against Greece and had converted the winning penalty in the shootout against Mexico in the round of 16, the 1994 World Cup would prove to be the pinnacle of his international career.
That it came during arguably his most successful spell at any of the clubs he played at throughout his 20-year life as a professional footballer was no coincidence. As Bulgaria headed to the United States for the World Cup, the crafty midfielder had just completed his second season in the Bundesliga with Hamburg.
Die Rothosen were Letchkov’s first club outside his home country, joining them in the summer of 1992 after spending just one season with CSKA Sofia. Letchkov’s 17 goals in 29 games inspired Bulgaria’s most successful club to their 27th title, but he quickly waved goodbye to the capital as a trip to Germany beckoned.
The midfielder’s reluctance to put down roots would soon become as synonymous with his career as his ability to execute perfectly timed runs into the box. Letchkov’s spell in Hamburg came to an end shortly before he travelled to England with the national side for Euro 96.
Still riding the wave of their heroics two years earlier, Bulgaria had qualified for the European Championship for the first time in their history, thanks in no small part to a remarkable comeback win against eventual tournament winners Germany in the qualifiers.
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In England, however, there would be no repeat of the fairy tale that had unfolded across the Atlantic two years earlier. Two Stoichkov’s goals earned Bulgaria four points from the first two games, before France dished out revenge that had been three years in the making and knocked them out in the last group match.
While the Lions failed to progress to the quarter-finals, Letchkov left the tournament with his reputation intact, producing impressive displays in each game. Within less than three months, he would come across many of the players who helped knock his country out as he swapped Hamburg’s rigid winters for Marseille’s sunny summers.
Transition is a term used too often to describe sides that have lost their way, but it fitted the Marseille side Letchkov joined to perfection. OM had just returned to Ligue 1 after suffering the ignominy of being relegated due to financial irregularities and the match-fixing scandal involving former president Bernard Tapie.
Despite their recent fall, backed by then-Adidas boss Robert Louis-Dreyfus, Marseille marked their return to the top flight by embarking on a signing spree that would bring Euro 96 winner Andreas Köpke, France’s defensive linchpin Laurent Blanc, and 1996 Champions League winner Fabrizio Ravanelli to the Stade Vélodrome within two years.
By the time the latter pair set foot in OM’s dressing room, Letchkov had already emptied his locker. Two goals in 28 appearances for Marseille were enough to convince player and club that they would be better off breaking what was already shaping into a turbulent relationship. The Bulgarian was off to Beşiktaş, where his career would unravel spectacularly.
Depending on who you believe, the root of Letchkov’s problems in Istanbul was either his combustible nature, his wife’s difficulty to settle in Turkey, or John Toshack’s iron-fisted approach. After just six months with Beşiktaş, the midfielder and the Welsh manager became embroiled in a fiery argument after the former returned late from a holiday. Beşiktaş fined Letchkov, who reacted with the usual consummate aplomb by refusing to play and returned to Bulgaria, telling anyone who would listen he had retired from football.
However, when he started training with a Bulgarian club soon after leaving Turkey, Beşiktaş took the dispute to FIFA and football’s governing body fined the Magician, deeming him to be in breach of contract.
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Letchkov’s already precarious circumstances took a turn for the worse when he appeared in a friendly between Bulgaria and Argentina without his club’s consent. Already incensed with the Bulgarian’s behaviour, Beşiktaş renewed their appeals to UEFA and FIFA, with the latter subsequently banning the midfielder from playing for any other team without receiving clearance from the Turkish club.
Given the veto applied to international competition and that Beşiktaş were in no mood to offer an olive branch, Letchkov had to watch the 1998 World Cup from his sofa. The ban was a major blow to the plans of Hristo Bonev – who had since replaced Penev in charge of Bulgaria – as his midfield master had been an instrumental figure in the qualifying campaign.
Letchkov played in five of Bulgaria’s eight games, scoring what would prove to be the last of his five international goals in a 4-0 thrashing of Luxembourg. “I always gave my best for the national team,” he explained in 2014. “That is what I am. If you want to succeed, you must give your best. I don’t think I have changed much in the last 15 years. I am still the same person and I always say it as it is. I am a straight talker.”
Bulgaria topped their group but their fortunes in France would prove vastly different to those that had captivated football fans four years earlier. If 1994 had taken Bulgarian football to an all-time high, 1998 brought down the curtain on one of their greatest generations in dramatic and unquestionable fashion.
Bulgaria scored two goals in three games, picked up a single point, and were thrashed 6-1 by Spain. The Lions’ midfield cried out for some of Letchkov’s vision and passing, but hopes he would come to the rescue never got off the ground – and not just because of the ban.
Despite being only 31, soon after Bulgaria’s World Cup fiasco, Letchkov left football altogether for about three years, before bringing his hiatus to an end when he returned to CSKA Sofia for a second spell in 2001. Following a season in the capital, he then returned to his hometown to take charge of second division side OFC Sliven, the club where his professional career began in 1984.
In two seasons at player-manager, Letchkov added a further four goals and 21 appearances to his record, before swapping the dugout for an altogether different position.
The former midfielder turned away from the pitch and into politics, successfully winning the race to become mayor of Sliven. The post, however, ultimately proved to be his downfall as, in April 2010, he was removed from office for official misconduct. Undeterred, Letchkov reassumed the role two years later but in January 2013 was sentenced to two years in jail after being found guilty of tax irregularities related to a water deal.
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Letchkov’s spell in politics appeared to follow the same trajectory of his footballing career, with early success leading to a largely disappointing coda. As usual when it comes to fallen stars, critics were swift to suggest his conduct in office had tarnished his achievements on the pitch. In truth, Letchkov was just another footballer whose ability with a ball at his feet sadly fell a few steps short of his stature off the pitch.
Almost two decades since his retirement, he remains one of the greatest players Bulgaria has ever produced, and no amount of off-field scandals could alter that perception. Nor could his role in one of the finest international teams of the last three decades be belittled.
The 1994 World Cup arrived at the right time for Bulgaria, a country that was still struggling to get back on its feet after escaping the clutches of communism. In June 1990, just weeks before England was captivated by Paul Gascoigne’s tears, Bulgaria held its first free elections in almost six decades.
Four years later, however, surging unemployment and their exclusion from regional and world trade organisations had combined to produce a toxic cocktail. The country was in desperate need of industrial modernisation, but neither its politicians nor its citizens seemed ready for it.
Almost simultaneously, the new-found freedom brought upon by the disbandment of the former State police was almost immediately offset by surging crime rates. In 1994, as the stars of Bulgarian football prepared to cross the Atlantic, the country they left behind was still trying to come to terms with its new reality.
However, as has often been the case throughout history, football proved to be a powerful unifying force. Thousands of Bulgarians cheered on the Lions at every step of their adventure Stateside, while millions more supported them from home, taking to the streets to celebrate each victory.
As Letchkov explained to FourFourTwo two decades after that magical summer, the meaning of their fourth-place finish transcended football and the sport’s boundaries. “The most important thing was that the win united the nation,” he said. “The way we were greeted on our return in Sofia was unbelievable. A player can only dream about receiving such love and passion from people. I always gave my best for the national team. That is what I am. If you want to succeed, you must give your best.”
A cynic might suggest it was the failed politician in him talking, but it would be hard to disagree with him either way. For one summer, Bulgarian football called the tunes and almost everyone else danced along, with Yordan Letchkov supporting Stoichkov and Balakov in a way that few else could.
By Dan Cancian @dan_cancian