Football / World Cup USA '94: Bulgarians forge delight from disunity: Conquerors of Germany count their blessings as vanquished holders

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The Independent Online
TO SAY they were firmly established among the also- rans at the start of the tournament is an understatement. Put simply, no one gave Bulgaria a second glance. Before this year, they had not won a single game in the finals and it was agreed they were only here because of French ineptitude and a last-minute goal in Paris that pushed them through the back door.

They were reckoned to be a low- spirited bunch, arguing over who should go to America, how they should play, where they should stay. For the games in New Jersey, they wanted a piece of the Manhattan action rather than their allotted base camp miles and miles from town. Their top player, Hristo Stoichkov, was said to be more interested in his club career with Barcelona than the national squad. Another, Yordan Lechkov, had to admit: 'We are not very close to each other.'

What could they do at the World Cup finals? How could they be expected to give the defending champions from Germany a game? They did more, they beat Germany - and what is more they did it from a goal down so that, tomorrow against Italy back in New Jersey, they stand just 90 minutes away from a place in the final itself.

In the most famous sporting tournament of all, it was one of the most sensational upsets ever seen. In a showpiece event taking place at the home of football (the American version), it rightly endorsed the round ball as the people's game, because it is a game that never ceases to delight and amaze.

Germany had been expected to achieve their victory without undue alarm. The media centre inside Giants Stadium had already prepared their notes for the anticipated semi-final encounter with the Italians. It was thought Germany had already booked their hotel in California for Sunday's final. The towels were already laying claim to the sunbeds.

Enter two principal characters to sabotage all the plans. Dark, east Europeans by the names of Stoichkov and Lechkov, outstanding members of an outstanding team that the wider world is now awakening to. The exuberance at right-back of Ilian Kiryakov, the dependability of Trifon Ivanov, the counter-attacking thrusts of Krasimir Balakov and Nasko Sirakov all combined to produce one outstanding team effort.

It had Americans everywhere yesterday spinning the globe to try and locate their strange fatherland. Newspapers here attempted to equate the achievement in terms their readers could understand. Struggling to find a grid-iron equivalent, they went further back into history. 'It was David slipping on the blindfold and still knocking out Goliath,' declared USA Today. Their columnist, Rachel Schuster, informed her readers that visitors to Bulgaria should remember that over there it is a nod for 'no' and a shake of the head for 'yes'.

She wrote that in no way should Bulgaria be considered a backward nation. It does better at immunising one-year-old children than does America. Bulgarians learn quickly, too. Their embassy in Washington DC was the seventh worst among diplomats between 1990 and '93 for collecting unpaid parking tickets, accumulating a total debt of dollars 54,630 ( pounds 36,300).

All very interesting and ever so slightly patronising. Not surprisingly, the men of the moment are slightly irritated at the attention they are only now attracting. After their penalty shoot-out defeat of Mexico in the second round, a journalist travelling with the team was asked: 'Where is Bulgaria, anyway, in Africa? In South America?'

Lechkov said: 'I have known for several years that I am a star. Now you all know I am a star.' Their emergence is being explained by the fall of communism in the 1989 uprising in eastern Europe, which has enabled them to pursue a more lucrative living in the West. Lechkov, who plays for Hamburg, was given a valuable insight into German football.

The transfers, including that of Ipswich Town's Boncho Genchev, whose contribution has been only 17 minutes in five games, gave the Bulgarian Football Federation the chance to realise a profit. Stoichkov alone has brought in close on pounds 3m. Sirakov, back playing professionally in his homeland, used the money he earned abroad to open a string of bars and hotels. He saw this World Cup as 'a nice way to end my career, and maybe there are some deals too.'

Deals. They were the prime motivation for their football federation chief, when he set off for the land of plenty. Reminded of Bulgaria's 16 game no-win record at previous finals, Valentin Mihov said: 'It's not what you do, it's how you use it. Besides, I'd rather make a deal.' It is some deal that they have got themselves now.

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