Experience keeps travel sickness at bay

Euro 96: CHAMPIONSHIP COUNTDOWN: No 6 Bulgaria

Their ability is unquestioned, their capacity to stay the distance is. Many thought Bulgaria had peaked at the World Cup - when they knocked out Germany before losing in the semi-finals to Italy. However, they then won their first six qualifying matches, including another success over Germany from 2-0 down. Performances dipped towards the end of the campaign - but was that because the team had gone, or the need?

The bulk of the side survives from America, though several had poor domestic seasons. Hristo Stoichkov has not been a success at Parma but at least he has played regularly. Emil Kostadinov and Yordan Lechkov have been out of favour in Germany while Reading's Borislav Mikhailov and Hamburg's Petar Hubchev have suffered from injury.

Yet Kostadinov regained favour in time to win a Uefa Cup medal with Bayern Munich and Luboslav Penev has helped Atletico Madrid to the brink of the Spanish league title. Both Krasimir Balakov and Ilian Kiriakov have been in good form, the latter earning a transfer to Aberdeen.

Bulgaria have never previously qualified for a finals tournament. In 1968 they reached the last eight, which was then a knock-out stage, when they lost to Italy partly because of an own goal by Dimitar Penev.

Penev, who won 90 caps, has since redeemed himself by becoming the first Bulgarian coach to forge a team from their often volatile talents. His nephew, Luboslav Penev, who overcame testicular cancer earlier in his career, is likely to be the focal point of a fluid and dangerous attack. Stoichkov will be alongside, interchanging with Kostadinov, while Balakov and Lechkov are adept at raiding from deep positions.

They can be very impressive on the counter-attack but are not so clever defensively, as Emil Kremenliev's Keystone Kops display against Steve McManaman at Wembley illustrated. The way Les Ferdinand brushed Trifon Ivanov aside to score does not augur well either.

Other doubts surround their strength in depth and their age. That Boncho Genchev, just relegated to the Second Division with Luton Town, is in the squad speaks volumes for the former while the youngest player used in qualifying was 26. The problems are related, Bulgaria's economic difficulties mean that good young players are no longer being produced and the domestic league has slumped in standard.

The flip side is that the team are both experienced and used to playing with each other. Most are also used to playing abroad. In the past Bulgaria were very poor travellers.

They are in a demanding group but will have a psychological edge over France - who they knocked out of the World Cup in Paris - and plenty of motivation against neighbouring Romania. Their fate may depend on a good performance in the opening game, against Spain, where Stoichkov will renew a few acquaintances.

SQUAD

Goalkeepers

Borislav Mikhailov Reading

Dimitar Popov CSKA Sofia

Zdravko Zdravkov Slavia Sofia

Defenders

Emil Kremenliev Olympiakos

Trifon Ivanov Rapid Vienna

Tsanko Tsvetanov Waldhof Mannheim

Petar Hubchev Hamburg

Ilian Kiriakov Aberdeen

Gosho Ginchev Denizlispor

Radostin Kishishev Neftochimik Bourgas

Midfielders

Zlatko Yankov Bayer Uerdingen

Yordan Lechkov Hamburg

Daniel Borimirov 1860 Munich

Boncho Genchev Luton Town

Krasimir Balakov VfB Stuttgart

Ivailo Yordanov Sporting Lisbon

Forwards

Emil Kostadinov Bayern Munich

Hristo Stoichkov Parma

Nasko Sirakov Slavia Prague

Luboslav Penev Atletico Madrid

Georgi Donkov CSKA Sofia

Ivo Georgiev Spartak Varna

Player to watch

Hristo Stoichkov

(Parma)

If his left foot does not catch the eye, his temperament should. He has previously been banned for life for his part in a brawl (later rescinded) and for three months (for stamping on a referee's foot). Had a disappointing time at club level since being named 1994 European Player of the Year but has continued to score for Bulgaria. Followed the World Cup, where he was joint top scorer, with 10 goals in as many qualifying matches. Another good tournament will lead to mixed feelings at Parma, but it might help them recoup some of the pounds 5.5m they spent on the 30-year- old.

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