Love Letters to the European Union: Sofia to Nowhere

On the 29th March 2019, the United Kingdom is (currently) scheduled to exit the European Union. To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. In 2007 Bulgaria joined the European Union, sparking panic among the bigots of Great Britain, who for some reason thought this would in anyway affect their day to day lives. Today we’re looking at the tragic story of the original Bulgarian folk hero, as well as their finest moment on the world stage.

 

The Player: Georgi Asparuhov

Asparuhov

Born shortly before the Bulgaria Communist Party rose to take the power of the nation away from the monarchy, Asparuhov is the Bulgarian’s Bulgarian. A strapping young lad, standing 6’1 in his teens, it didn’t take long for the player later christened ‘Gundi’ to make his mark at the top level. By the age of 16, Asparuhov had been signed up by Levski Sofia, at the time tussling for supremacy at the top of the Bulgarian A League with CSKA. Having arrived at the club playing at centre back for a clutch of local sides, the teenager impressed coaches in his trial with Levski, with one proclaiming him “a born footballer”. After spending a year being roughed up as part of the youth team by physical opposition, and feeling his technical approach to the game was being wasted, Gundi branched out into handball, and was offered a route into the sport as a professional. Reaching a fork in the road, Asparuhov opted to continue his career in football, and aged 17 made his full debut for the Levski first team.

Against Botev Plovdiv, playing in defence, Asparuhov marked his debut with a goal, but it wasn’t until his goalscoring debut with the Bulgaria youth team that his coaches would decide to switch his position, and he ended his first season with seven goals. As with many European professionals in the mid-20th century, Gundi’s career was interrupted by the call for military service but, having been relocated to Plovdiv, he was allowed to continue playing with the local team – coincidentally the same side he’d made his Levski debut against. Asparuhov had an immediate impact on Botev, helping them soar up the league table and winning the first piece of silverware in their history with the 1962 Bulgarian Cup. The striker left the club after two seasons, having scored 25 goals and establishing them as one of the leading sides in the country. A call-up to the senior national team followed, and despite Bulgaria’s disappointing performance, Asparuhov could add a World Cup appearance to his name at Chile ’62.

Gundi’s return to Levski in 1963, still aged just twenty, saw the club embark on one of the most successful periods in their history. Three league titles and four cups followed over the course of the following eight years, with Asparuhov helping himself to 118 goals in 178 appearances. His finest season, in 64/65, saw him finish as top scorer in Bulgaria with 27 goals and voted Bulgarian Sportsman of the Year, even placing in the voting for the Ballon D’or. This sterling form alerted the attentions of some of Europe’s biggest teams, with Benfica in particular interested in securing the Bulgarian’s services. They wouldn’t have to wait long to catch a glimpse of the marksman up close, as Levski traveled to Lisbon in the following season’s European Cup looking to build on the 2-2 draw secured in Sofia. Asparuhov scored twice on the night, becoming the first visiting player to score a brace at Benfica’s Estádio da Luz, but it was too little too late as the Portuguese side ran out 3-2 winners.

With interest in the striker intesifying, Asparuhov pledged his alliegence to Levski, telling representatives from Milan “I was born in this team, and in this team I will die.” Tragically, these words would be prescient. On 30th June 1971, Asparuhov and teammate Nikola Kotkov were killed in a car crash in the Stara Planina Mountain. He was 28. Over half  a million people would attend his funeral, and in 1990 Levski renamed their ground The Georgi Asparuhov Stadium. For many Bulgarians he is the greatest footballer the country has ever produced.

 

The Game: Bulgaria 2-1 Germany, 1994

letchkov

In his short career Asparuhov was fortunate enough to represent Bulgaria at three World Cups, but by the time they arrived in the United States in 1994, they’d been to five tournament and were yet to win a game. Their place in America had been booked via a last-gasp winner from Porto winger Emil Kostadinov, who’d capitalised on David Ginola’s international suicide and put the finishing touch to a devastating Bulgarian counter-attack. Placed in the original Group of Death with Argentina, Greece and Nigeria, expectations of progression beyond the group stage were slim, but with arguably the most talented squad the country has ever produced, they could be considered the original dark horses.

In front of eccentric wig-wearing goalkeeper Boris Mikhailov, wolfman Trifon Ivanov and veteran Petar Hubchev patrolled the defence, allowing the talents of Kostadinov and Yordan Letchkov to roam forwards. The talisman of the team, of course, was Hristo Stoichkov. The second greatest Bulgarian footballer ever was already a household name across Europe, playing a key role in Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ at Barcelona, with four La Liga titles on the bounce and a runners-up spot in the 1992 Ballon D’or. A mercurial talent, Stoichkov was deadly from set-pieces and even deadlier when the red mist descended – he’d already had a lifetime ban from football rescinded when he received censure for stamping on a referee’s foot in his first month at the Camp Nou. Disciplinary issues aside, Stoichkov was undoubtedly one of the best in the world.

Even with a host of star names in the squad, Bulgaria found their opening game against a boisterous Nigeria side too much to handle. The speed and silk of Rashid Yekini and co. too much for Bulgaria’s more agricultural approach, as the Super Eagles ran out 3-0 winners. Against Greece, however, Dimitar Penev’s team came to life, none more so than Stoitchkov. A fifth minute penalty from El Pistolero put the Bulgarian’s on their way, and the Greeks continued to bear gifts in the second half, as a second penalty award allowed Stoitchkov to double his tally. Letchkov and Daniel Borimov added sheen to an already impressive performance and finally, after sixteen World Cup matches, Bulgaria had their first win. But they’d need a result against Argentina to guarantee their place in the second round. Rocked by the expulsion of Diego Maradona after a failed drugs test, Argentina wilted in the face of another Stoichkov masterclass. His goal set Bulgaria on their way,  and Nasko Sirakov’s second in stoppage time put the result beyond doubt. A meeting with Mexico followed, in which Stoitchkov added his fourth goal of the tournament but Mikhailov was crowed the hero, saving three penalties in the shootout to send Bulgaria into an unprecented quarter-final. There, surely, their run would come to an end, as holders Germany lay in wait.

The Germans had, of course, been functional and efficient, if lacking a little of the panache that saw them lift the trophy in Italy four years previous. Two wins and a draw in a group they would have expected to top was par for the course, while the 3-2 scoreline against Belgium in the second round was misleading – Germany through comfortably if not confidently. As is the case with many World Cup winning teams most of the old guard were still present and, true to form, ideas were beginning to run out. The familiar faces of Bodo Illgner, Jurgen Kohler, Guido Buchwald, Thomas Berthold, Lothar Matthaus, Jurgen Klinsmann and Rudi Voller were all regular starters in the US, while Andreas Brehme was a regular from the bench. Only Matthias Sammer had nailed down a regular place following the unification of Germany, and new blood was scarce – 32 year old Stefan Kuntz was drafted in as third choice striker.

Even so, little old Bulgaria were nothing to fear for Germany, surely. The respective teams approach to the first half would suggest otherwise, with a cagey game typical of the latter stages of a tournament reaching half-time without the scoresheet troubled. Thankfully for Germany, the script appeared to have been located two minutes into the second half, as Klinsmann’s characteristically theatrical response to a challenge saw the referee award a penalty. Matthaus dispatched, and normal service was resumed. Then, with fifteen minutes to go, the game was turned on its head. First Andreas Moller fouled Stoitchkov thirty yards from goal and, with Illgner leaving a chasm of space for the dead-ball specialist to aim at, Bulgaria’s talisman took a short run up before curling an inch perfect effort into the top corner. Three minutes later, with the Germans still reeling, Letchkov delivered the knockout blow. Zlatko Yankov, receiving the ball from a throw, cut inside to deliver a floating cross towards the penalty spot and, with Germany’s centre-backs hesitant, the balding Hamburger flung his body towards the ball to dispatch a spectacular diving header. The wind taken from their sails, Germany were unable to fight back. Bulgaria had reached the semi-finals of the World Cup, and taken the holders out on their way.

There would be no dream ending to the story, however, as three days later a Roberto Baggio inspired Italy ran Bulgaria ragged in the same stadium that Germany had been humbled. Stoichkov did manage to add his sixth goal of the tournament in a 2-1 defeat to leave him as joint top scorer for the tournament, but by the time they met Sweden in the third-placed play-off, the Bulgarians had nothing left. Tomas Brolin led the charge as the Swedes rampaged into a four goal lead by the break, but for one summer at least, Stoichkov and co were among the four best teams in the world. At the time of writing, their victory over Germany remains the last time Bulgaria won a game at the World Cup.

 

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