Histrionic Hristo and the Beguiling Bulgarians
USA 1994. A World Cup with record attendances and the tournament’s most financially successful till date. The soccer on display was quite good too and two unfancied teams made it as far as the semi finals. One of them was Sweden but the bigger surprise was Bulgaria.
Bulgaria had qualified for the world cup on five occasions prior to USA 94 and had experienced much hell with more than a few ‘L’s and zero wins. That trend seemed ready to continue for the Bulgarians when they lost their opening game 3-0 to world cup debutants, Nigeria. The most memorable thing in that defeat, from a Bulgarian perspective, was likely to be a wonderfully scored and wonderfully disallowed freekick goal from Hristo Stoichkov.
Hristo Stoichkov. Hot-tempered and hard-running, Hristo also loved to harangue and harass and he was generally harmful to opposition defenders, verbally or physically or both. Referees were also not exempted from his list of adversaries and he had earlier received a two month ban in Spain for stomping on a ref’s foot. Gangster.
He was also, more importantly, a genius with the ball. A brilliant creator and scorer of goals. He was a crucial Barcelona player for the ‘Dream Team’ assembled by Johan Cruyff. Stoichkov, Romario, Koeman, Guardiola and the others helped that Barcelona team to four consecutive La Liga titles between 1991 and 1994 (with an European Cup in 1992 thrown in for good measure).
With such a brilliant player providing the driving force, Bulgaria bounced back from their defeat to Nigeria by hammering Greece 4-0. They then beat Argentina 2-0 in their final group game and advanced to the second round. Stoichkov scored his 4th goal of the tournament against Mexico as both sides tied 1-1, with Bulgaria advancing on penalties.
The quarter-final win against Germany was a major upset. The defending champions were overwhelming favorites but a fantastic Stoichkov freekick helped knock out the Germans. A team which had never won a world cup game in 5 previous editions were suddenly in the semis.
Italy, led by the mercurial Roberto Baggio, proved too strong and Bulgaria lost 2-1. Hristo ended the tournament as the golden boot winner with 6 goals and also later won the 1994 Ballon Dor award.
Hats off Hristo. You and your Bulgarian team-mates were true world cup wonders.
And here is a typically frank and amusing interview from Hristo summing up Bulgaria’s USA 94 journey.