Football: World Cup - Spain's cheers turn to tears

Spain 6 Hierro pen 6, Luis Enrique 18 Morientes 53, 81, Kiko 88, 90 Bulgaria 1 Kostadinov 57 Att: 41,275
SURELY IT couldn't happen again. Yes, it could. For the second night running at the World Cup, a team fighting for survival produced a sublime performance, only to be thwarted by events elsewhere.

Spain's crushing 6-1 victory over Bulgaria here was not enough to take Javier Clemente's team of perennial under-achievers into the last 16 and a chance to face the host nation back here on Sunday.

That challenge falls instead to Paraguay, South America's poorer sisters, who beat the Super Eagles of Nigeria in Toulouse.

On Tuesday night, Morocco thought they had made it with their 3-0 demolition of Scotland, only for a scandalously awarded late penalty against Brazil to stop the advance of the entertaining north Africans.

Last night, it was Spain's turn to suffer in front of thousands of their fans on a balmy evening at the home of the French league champions. In the most one-sided match of the tournament so far, Spain tore Bulgaria apart with two goals from Francisco Morientes, two more from the substitute Kiko, an early penalty by Fernando Hierro, he of European Cup fame with Real Madrid, and a shot that went in off the post from Luis Enrique. Bulgaria's only reply was Emil Kostadinov's swivel and shot halfway through the Spanish onslaught.

Sadly for Spain and, one has to say, the tournament, it was too little too late. The World Cup cannot afford to lose teams of this quality so early, but there are those who will say it was Spain's own fault for such a poor start to the tournament and they are probably right.

The Spanish, who managed a meagre one point from their first two games, often start slowly. But unlike the Germans, they never seem to have the luck, a crucial ingredient when emerging victorious at a major competition. Witness the Spanish display against England at Euro 96.

Were it not for the appalling blunder of their goalkeeper and captain, Andoni Zubizarreta, in the opening game against Nigeria, Spain would be in the second round. Who knows, maybe even at the top of the group. Instead, they are on their way home. Such is the thin line between euphoria and desperation at the highest level. Zubizarretta has called a press conference for later today, possibly to announce his retirement from international football.

Clemente, a proud and self-respecting coach, paid tribute to his players as he hid the pain. "Our game against Nigeria had a big psychological effect," he said of the 3-2 setback that preceded a dour goalless bore with Paraguay.

"I could give lots of 'ifs', but at the end of the day we only have four points and Nigeria and Paraguay have more," Clemente said. "It's a bitter pill to swallow because we have to leave the World Cup after playing like this. We expected Nigeria to win tonight but you don't always get what you want. We fought tooth and nail to stay in the tournament."

As far as his opposite number is concerned, things are far more clearcut. Hristo Bonev is calling it a day. "Basically what happened today demonstrates the state of Bulgarian football," he said. "Being a man of principle, I can't contemplate any longer coaching this team after what happened at this World Cup."

Bonev may not be the only one to disappear. Hristo Stoichkov, top scorer at USA 94 with six goals, ended France 98 with absolutely none. He was a sad figure last night, hardly creating a worthwhile chance.

Just as Paraguay took an early lead in Toulouse, so Clemente's team got off to the perfect start with a penalty after five minutes. Luis Enrique was barged over by Ivailo Yordanov and Hierro coolly sent the goalkeeper the wrong way from the spot. He had already had a blistering free-kick saved from just outside the box.

The ever-dangerous Luis Enrique brought another good save out of Zdravko Zdravkov, this time courtesy of the keeper's legs, as a transformed Spain tried to give themselves the cushion of a two-goal lead just as news filtered through that Nigeria had equalised.

His next effort, in the 18th minute, had the desired effect. Joseba Etxeberria crossed from the right and Luis Enrique timed his run to perfection, darting through to fire the ball into the net off the far post. The goal brought a huge smile to the face of King Juan Carlos sitting in the stands.

A shell-shocked Bulgaria were non-existent as an attacking force and Morientes almost made it three with a point-blank header that Zdravkov palmed away.

At this stage, only occasionally was Spanish captain Zubizarreta called into action at the other end to the relief, no doubt, of the massed ranks of Spanish fans behind his goal who will have remembered his howler against Nigeria.

With half an hour gone, however, Bulgaria sent on an extra striker, Lyuboslav Penev - Stoichkov's partner in crime during their unofficial leave of absence - for Anatoli Nankov.

Two more goals were scored within 11 minutes of the restart. With the precocious Raul now on the field after being surprisingly omitted from the starting line-up, Spain quickly went 3-0 up.

In a sweeping counter-attack, Morientes ran on to a pinpoint pass from Luis Enrique and planted his shot neatly in the corner. But Bulgaria hit straight back, Kostadinov, who hardly threatened in the opening 45 minutes, somehow managing to swivel and shoot into the net from the tightest of angles, but he hardly stemmed the tide.

Just after his goal, Paraguay took the lead in Toulouse for the second and final time, consigning Spain to elimination.

SPAIN (4-2-3-1): Zubizarreta (Valencia); Alkorta (Athletic Bilbao), Sergi (Barcelona), Aguilera (Atletico Madrid), Nadal (Barcelona); Hierro (Real Madrid), Amor (Barcelona); Luis Enrique (Barcelona), Alfonso (Real Betis), Etxeberria (Athletic Bilbao); Morientes (Real Madrid). Substitutes: Raul (Real Madrid) for Exteberria, 52; Kiko (Atletico Madrid) for Alfonso, 65; Guerrero (Athletic Bilbao) for Luis Enrique, 70.

BULGARIA (4-1-2-3): Zdravkov (Istanbulspor); Kishishev (Bursapor), T Ivanov (CSKA Sofia), Iordanov (Sporting Lisbon), Ginchev (Antaliaspor); Nankov (Locomotiv Sofia); Balakov (VfB Stuttgart), Borimirov (1860 Munich); Bachev (Slavia Sofia), Kostadinov (CSKA Sofia), Stoichkov (CSKA Sofia). Substitutes: Penev (Compostela) for Nankov, 29; Iliev (Bursaspor) for Stoichkov, h-t; Hristov (Kaiserslautern) for Balakov, 60.

Referee: M Van der Ende (Netherlands).

World Cup, pages 28 to 31