Soccer success kick-starts Bulgarian self-confidence

AFTER nearly five years of struggling in the lower reaches of East Europe's second division, Bulgarians at last have something to cheer about: the astonishing success of their footballers in the World Cup.

The Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians - who early in the post-Communist era broke away to form their own super 'Visegrad' league - did not even make it to the United States for the finals. Even neighbouring Romania, also hitherto seen as Balkan no-hopers, only got as far as the quarter-finals.

Whatever the outcome of last night's semi-final against Italy, the Bulgarian squad had already secured its place in the history books, and in the hearts and minds of a grateful nation.

'This is the greatest feat anyone has ever done for this country,' declared President Zhelyu Zhelev after the 2-1 victory against reigning champions Germany on Sunday. 'The government has not done anything like it; the President has not done anything like it. It is the players who have done it.'

Bulgaria's endless political squabbles have been firmly set to one side as all eyes have been on the progress of the team. So, too, has the frequent moaning about the difficulties of the transition to a market economy, high unemployment and inflation.

'In the current climate, such problems are dismissed as 'those little things',' said Veselin Toshkov, a Sofia-based journalist. 'The news starts with soccer, carries on with soccer and ends with soccer: nothing else matters.'

When the final whistle blew at the end of the match against Germany, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Sofia in a frenzied celebration that in its scale and intensity outdid anything in the revolutionary days of 1989-1990.

The gunshots ringing out in celebratory salvoes across the city reflected more than simple jubilation at the success of the national team. For many Bulgarians, the World Cup run has put their country firmly on the world map and has restored some badly needed self-confidence. 'From a generally depressing picture, the World Cup has come as tremendous news for all,' said a Western diplomat in Sofia. 'Going out and showing that you can not only compete with a team like Germany but actually beat it gives the national identity a great boost.'

Many Bulgarians are hoping there will be long-term spin-offs too: particularly in the form of increased investment from the West, and a general sense of Bulgaria as a nation of achievers. Realistically, few expect the country's economy to become as strong as those of the Visegrad Four, which are considered to be in the fast lane towards integration into the European Union and Nato. But they do feel that they have now shown they have something to contribute to the new Europe.

'The success of both Bulgaria and Romania has shown that Balkan countries can offer a bit of flair and new life to a Northern Europe that appeared to be getting rather stale and staid in its ways,' said the diplomat. 'The World Cup has shown that the people from this part of the world possess real flair and talent - and they are sure it is not confined to the football field.'

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