Victims alive to late bonus

Simon Turnbull finds some losers still looking forward to a final pay-day
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The Independent Online
It was a black day around the Black Sea on Tuesday. Bulgaria and Romania became the first teams to be knocked out of Euro 96 and the neighbours turned their thoughts from thwarted glory to home.

The Bulgarians looked ready for action, sporting their green track-suits in the foyer of Newcastle's Holiday Inn the next morning. But they had kicked their last ball of Euro 96 at St James' Park the previous afternoon. By night-time they would be back in Sofia.

The prevailing mood was surprisingly buoyant, despite the early return ticket guaranteed by the 3-1 defeat inflicted by France, and despite warnings that knives were being sharpened back home. News had arrived of the headline in that morning's national sports daily. "Penev and Penev Ltd knock Bulgaria out", was the accusation delivered to the coach, Dimitar Penev, and his nephew, Luboslav, the great striking hope whose only goal in three Group B games was inadvertently scored for France.

The younger Penev's most pressing concern was settling the extras on his bill at the check-out desk. A consoling night on the Newcastle Brown might well have accounted for the frown and the need to dig into his wallet for a second time. Otherwise, the spirit level seemed high.

Trifon Ivanov, he whose glower would be at home in the Hammer House of Horror, could even be seen smiling as he strolled along the corridor with an arm around Ilian Kiriakov, the Aberdeen new boy who looks like Gordon Strachan after a night on the tiles and a fortnight in a suet dumpling factory. Hristo Stoichkov, the acknowledged wild man of the squad, looked at peace with the world too, despite the lingering aftershocks from his latest eruption - accusations by Marcel Desailly that he had delivered racist remarks during the France match.

He sat quietly in the corner, building towers of pound coins as he counted his English currency. Too tight to invest in a razor, as his stubble confirms, Stoichkov clearly has a flair for monetary matters, having helped to set up a bank after the downfall of Communism in Bulgaria. And the whisper on the Balkan grapevine was that he would not have minded staying on Tyneside to count some of Sir John Hall's fortune.

In public, Stoichkov said he had been flattered by the complimentary remarks Kevin Keegan had made about him on television, but that he was under contract to stay in Italy. Privately, the word was he would be keen to join his fellow Parma misfit Faustino Asprilla on Tyneside. Coincidence or not, his girlfriend was wearing a black and white Toon Army cap.

"He'd be a great signing," one of the coach drivers mused. "But that lad's the best player they've got." He gestured towards Iordan Lechkov, who had been linked in the local papers with Sunderland, but who had in fact finalised a deal with Marseille that morning.

They may not have been returning home as national heroes, as they had after their semi-final appearance in the 1994 World Cup, but the beaten Bulgars could look forward to reaping the rewards of their individual efforts at the international hiring fair. Maybe that accounted for the air of contentment that surrounded the squad.

Borislav Mihailov was certainly keeping his hair on (or whoever else's happens to cover his head). "Yes, we are disappointed," Bulgaria's captain and custodian said. "We are better than Spain. We would have beaten them had Stoichkov's goal not been disallowed. But this is what happens in football. This is the sport. We are still a strong team. We will be back for the World Cup qualifying. We play Israel on 1 September, in Tel Aviv."

Mihailov's first destination was the Black Sea for a holiday. And he could look forward to the start of Reading's season in the first division. Well, he could. But he quite obviously wasn't. No, he confessed, he did not even know the date of the opening fixture, let alone that Sheffield United will be the opponents at Elm Park on 17 August.

"I may look to move," he said matter-of-factly. "I think I play very well in Euro 96. Maybe there are some clubs who want me." And with that the Balkan boys had to push off - although many of them seemed to have pay-offs on their mind.