Bulgaria: makes no sense, but makes semis

July 11, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- If you can locate Bulgaria on a map, raise your hand.

C'mon, be honest. Your social studies teacher isn't watching.

No, I didn't think you could.

OK, let's try again. Can you name the monetary unit of Bulgaria? The largest city? The form of government? The national food and drink?

Helloooo, anyone out there?

Can you name a Bulgarian athlete who has made a major mark on the global stage?

Sorry, Nadia Comaneci was Romanian. Good try, though.

OK, one more question: How much sense does it make that Germany, Argentina, England, France, the Netherlands, Ireland and 158 other soccer-playing countries no longer have a chance to win the 1994 World Cup, but Bulgaria, which had never won a Cup game until two weeks ago, is one of the four that still can win?

You're right. It makes no sense.

Just as it makes no sense that Germany, the much-trumpeted defending Cup champion, would blow a lead to Bulgaria in the last 20 minutes and get knocked out of the tournament on a goal by a prematurely balding forward from Sofia. (That's the biggest city in Bulgaria, in case you didn't know.)

But that's exactly what happened yesterday at Giants Stadium in a Cup quarterfinal played in front of 72,416 slack-jawed witnesses.

Bulgaria 2, Germany 1.

Say hello to the unlikeliest semifinalist in the 64-year history of the world's biggest sporting event.

Germany had the names, the hype, the tradition and the fans on their side yesterday. The Bulgarians? They had needed a miracle just to qualify for the Cup. They were clobbered in their first game. They bicker among themselves. They were listed as 50-1 shots to win the Cup before the tournament.

Get this: After absorbing a 3-0 loss to Nigeria in their Cup opener, their lifetime Cup record stood at 0-11-6.

Seventeen games, no wins.

This did not appear to be the team to break the decades-long shutout. Iordan Letchkov, a forward, conceded after one practice that the players "were not close." But they rallied together and beat Greece and Maradona-less Argentina to advance to the second round, where they eliminated Mexico on penalty kicks, putting them into yesterday's quarterfinals.

"It'll be the end of the world if we win," goalkeeper Borislav Mikhailov said.

It appeared that the world would not end after Germany scored on a penalty kick in the 49th minute, after a debatable foul against Letchkov. The Germans began to dominate. Andreas Moeller banged a shot off the post. A goal by Rudi Voeller was disallowed by an offside penalty. The Bulgarians looked beaten.

They weren't.

Hristo Stoitchkov, the Bulgarian star who plays in Spain, scored on a spectacular 30-yard free kick in the 76th minute. His shot spun over a six-man wall and into the upper corner of the net. The German goalkeeper, Bodo Illgner, was fooled so completely that he never flinched.

As if that wasn't stunning enough, Letchkov made amends for rTC his penalty by angling a header past Illgner just three minutes later.

The Germans, pressing, had several scoring chances in the final minutes but failed to convert. They sank to the ground in disbelief at the final whistle, as the Bulgarians danced across the grass hugging and crying. The world had indeed ended. In the quarterfinals, of all places.

"God was a Bulgarian today," Stoitchkov said.

It could be argued that God has been a Bulgarian for a while, as far as this team was concerned. It was not even going to qualify for the Cup if France tied one of its last two qualifying-round games. Both were in France, against Israel and Bulgaria. Israel beat the French with two late goals. The Bulgarians beat them -- and qualified for the Cup -- on a goal with 10 seconds to play.

Ten seconds from elimination.

Now, they're in the Final Four.

"Is this the greatest moment in Bulgarian soccer history?" a reporter asked Letchkov yesterday.

He smiled. "I think," he said, "that is obvious."

Indeed. The country was ruled by a Soviet-style regime until 1990, and the best soccer players had to play at home instead of in Europe, where their skills could have become more developed. Now, the country is democratic and Bulgarians are playing in Spain, Germany, France and Portugal.

"We built the team around the players who have gone abroad," coach Dimitar Penev said yesterday. (He added, through a translator, that the players "would be heavily loaded" after the game. Hey, we don't make this stuff up.)

"Maybe now people will realize that we have great soccer players in Bulgaria," Stoitchkov said.

For that matter, maybe now people will take the time to look up Bulgaria and see that it is located below Romania, on the Black Sea, in the eastern Balkan peninsula. And that it is roughly the size of Tennessee, with a population of 9 million and a 95 percent literacy rate. And that the biggest cities are Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and Burgas. And that the currency is the lev.

The favorite food of the people?

"Beans, I guess you can say," a Bulgarian translator said yesterday. "Spicy beans."

The favorite drink?

"It is called rakiya," he said. "Kind of like brandy, made of plums or grapes."

Someone asked him: There will be a run on rakiya now, no doubt?

"Oh," he said, rolling his eyes, "I can only speculate."

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