France, still burning with indignation at the part Bulgaria played in their failure to reach the World Cup finals of 1994, gained revenge at St James' Park yesterday to ensure they finished top of Group B. The blow proved to be a fatal one for Bulgaria, who were denied a place in the last eight because of Spain's win over Romania 90 miles away at Elland Road.
The day began with any two of three teams capable of reaching the quarter- finals, but Spain prevailed at Leeds to finish with five points. That was one more than the Bulgarians, who will no doubt reflect on the Hristo Stoichkov "goal" that was wrongly disallowed for offside against the Spanish.
Stoichkov was implicated in further controversy after the match, when one of his opponents, Marcel Desailly, accused him of racism. "In the first 20 minutes he made racist comments towards me and other African players in our team," he said. "I do not consider Stoichkov to be a great player any more and I don't take anything from my battle from him. He was saying black this and black that."
Stoichkov replied: "It's normal, if you took a microphone on to the pitch you would find it was happening everywhere."
Departure from the tournament was a harsh outcome for Bulgaria, although they could have no complaints about the result of this match. Stoichkov, apart, their attack looked leaden and clumsy compared to the nimble French.
The Parma striker, almost inevitably, got the Bulgarian goal that would prove a consolation buried by the French strikes from Laurent Blanc, an own goal by Luboslav Penev, and Patrice Loko. In the closing moments, Stoichkov stood on his own on the half-way line, totally uninterested in the proceedings. "We were punished for our mistakes," Dimitar Penev, the Bulgarian coach, said, "but despite this defeat I still feel my team has done well. France have paid us back now."
The French still look back in horror on the November night two and half years ago when the Bulgarians pinched a place in USA 94 with a last-minute goal in Paris. From the lusty singing of "La Marseillaise" beforehand to the crunching foul Desailly inflicted on Stoichkov in the third minute, it was clear they were highly motivated.
This energy was nearly sated as early in the 13th minute, Borislav Mikhailov diving low to his left to tip Youri Djorkaeff's free-kick round the post. It proved to be a temporary reprieve, however, because seven minutes later Djorkaeff floated over a corner from the right that Blanc met emphatically with his head, thumping the ball between Mikhailov and Emil Kremenliev on the line.
Mikhailov also had to be agile to save a chip from Christophe Dugarry after 43 minutes and only just got a boot to the ball when Djorkaeff missed a through ball from Vincent Guerin and almost wrong-footed him. The Bulgarian goalkeeper was stopping everything the French were throwing at him; he could not be expected to halt miscalculations from his own players. When Penev inadvertently flicked the ball backwards from Djorkaeff's corner after 62 minutes, he was stranded two yards off his line.
The Bulgarians looked beaten but, after 68 minutes, they were awarded a free-kick right of centre 25 yards out and, with arrogant ease, Stoichkov took just one step and then curled a left-foot shot past Bernard Lama. It was the first successful free-kick of Euro 96 and his third goal in three matches.
As the Bulgarians sensed hope, however, the Spanish got their winner five minutes from time. The white shirts deflated with despair and in the last minute the French landed the final blow. Christian Karembeu played a pass through a square Bulgarian back line and Loko beat Mikhaiklov on the right of the area before placing the ball past Ivailo Yordanov on the line.
BULGARIA (4-4-2): Mikhailov (Reading); Kremenliev (Olympiakos Piraeus), Ivanov (Rapid Vienna), Hubchev (Hamburg), Tsvetanov (Waldhof Mannheim); Lechkov (Hamburg), Yankov (Bayer Uerdingen), Yordanov (Sporting Lisbon), Balakov (VfB Stuttgart); Stoichkov (Parma), Penev (Atletico Madrid). Substitutes: Borimirov (1860 Munich) for Yankov, 78; Donkov (CSKA Sofia) for Balakov, 81.
FRANCE (4-3-2-1): Lama (Paris St-Germain); Thuram (Parma), Blanc (Barcelona), Desailly (Milan), Lizarazu (Bordeaux); Karembeu (Sampdoria), Deschamps (Juventus), Guerin (Paris St-Germain); Zidane (Bordeaux), Djorkaeff (Internazionale); Dugarry (Milan). Substitutes: Pedros (Nantes) for Zidane, 61; Loko (Paris St-Germain) for Dugarry, 69.
Bookings: Bulgaria: Ivanov, Kremenliev. France: Desailly, Dugarry.
Referee: D Gallagher (England) replaced by P Durkin (England), 27.
Man of the match: Djorkaeff.
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