THE BACKBONE of the Bulgarian team who claimed God must be a compatriot after beating Germany to reach the semi-finals of USA 94 were present in body, if not in spirit, yesterday as Fifa's new cleansing edict claimed its first victim.
In the first goalless draw of these World Cup finals, Anatoli Nankov became the earliest recipient of a red card for a tackle from behind in this competition, a decision which drew a stinging rebuke from the Bulgarian coach, Hristo Bonev.
Nankov, one of the few privileged younger players to be allowed into the side among Stoichkov, Ivanov and company, had already been cautioned for a 27th-minute foul on Jorge Campos when, with two minutes remaining, he slid in from behind to fell Juan Carlos Yegros.
The Saudi Arabian official, Abdul Al Zeid, had as little hesitation in plucking out his red card as Bonev did in saying afterwards: "Fifa will regret what they are doing with the new rule. It is going to make football soft.
"People come to the World Cup to watch a man's game, but what Fifa are doing will change all that. The people will not be happy. I thought the decision on my player was harsh. He is the first victim of the new rule."
The distraction of the dismissal could not mask the reality, however, that Bulgaria had let slip a total dominance of this game and they ended somewhat gratefully with a single point.
The sight of Paraguay's eccentric goalkeeping captain, Jose Luis Chilavert, rushing the full length of the field to take a 73rd-minute free-kick had seemed destined to complete Bulgaria's fall from grace.
Chilavert, a beloved, if controversial, iconoclastic figure in South American football, is not to be taken lightly when he forages forward to within sight of his opposite number's goal. The four goals he has scored for his country include one in the draw in Argentina that helped ensure qualification for France 98.
These past few days he has been witnessed staying behind after training practising his dead-ball kicks. And from 25 yards yesterday, with all the finesse of David Beckham, his strike curled menacingly towards the top corner, requiring Zdravko Zdravkov to make the save of the game.
Yet Bulgaria started with the belief and swagger that suggested the advancing years would not hold them back from picking up where they left off in America; Euro 96 might, after all, have been just a blip.
Stoichkov, all shrugs and snarls, suddenly came alive when Roberto Acuna gifted him a sight of goal, but the former Barcelona striker's left-footed shot hit the post.
Stoichkov has relinquished the captain's armband to Trifon Ivanov who, despite wearing his hair shorter these days, retains that loveable "wolfman" image. When he started pacing slowly back in preparation for a 40 yard free-kick strike shortly before half-time, Krassimir Balakov nipped in to play the ball short. Ivanov was furious. It is to be hoped Balakov, the stylish but temperamental Stuttgart midfielder, has his health insurance sorted.
From the moment Jose Cardozo insipidly shot wide when running through in injury time in the first half, however, Paraguay - who, after all, only qualified one point behind Argentina - cast aside their inferiority complex in their first World Cup finals match since Gary Lineker's goals eclipsed them in Mexico 12 years ago.
In a group where Spain would appear to stand head and shoulders above the other teams, a winning start was crucial. If Miguel Benitez had shown more composure in front of goal in the second half, Paraguay would have achieved such a feat. Chilavert, typically dominant at the post-match press conference, said: "We played well and we should have won. But we weren't talented enough to take our chances."
PARAGUAY (3-4-3): Chilavert (Velez Sarsfield); Sarabia (River Plate), Ayala (River Plate), Gamarra (Corinthians); Acuna (Real Zaragoza), Enciso (Internacional Porto Alegre), Paredes (Olimpia), Morales (Gimnasia Jujuy); Cardozo (Necaxa), Benitez (Espanyol), Campos (Guoan Peking). Substitutes: Caniza (Olimpia) for Morales, 41; Ramirez (Sporting Lisbon) for Cardozo, 70; Yegros (Cruz Azul) for Campos, 78.
BULGARIA (4-2-2-2): Zdravkov (Istanbulspor); Nankov (Locomotiv Sofia), Yordanov (Sporting Lisbon), T Ivanov (CSKA Sofia), I Petkov (Litex Lovetch); Kishishev (Bursaspor), Yankov (Besiktas); Iliev (Bursaspor), Balakov (VfB Stuttgart); Stoichkov (CSKA Sofia), Penev (Compostela). Substitutes: Kostadinov (CSKA Sofia) for Penev, 68; Borimirov (1860 Munich) for Iliev, 78
Referee: Abdul Al-Zeid (Saudi Arabia).
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