It was not fun to be Bulgarian on November 16, 1993. At least if you were a football fan. Their national team needed a win against France at Parc des Princes the next day to qualify for the 1994 FIFA World Cup. But let’s have a look at the entire story and the history of Bulgaria’s World Cup campaigns.
The History of Bulgaria’s World Cup Campaigns
The First of Bulgaria’s World Cup Campaigns
Bulgaria were in an equally miserable situation 32 years earlier, as they needed a victory against France to qualify for the 1962 World Cup. France and Bulgaria finished on equal points in their qualifying group, so a play-off match would be played on neutral soil to determine which of the two nations qualify. The Bulgarian’s recorded an astounding 1-0 against Le Bleus, securing a place at their first-ever major tournament. However, their performance at the World Cup was disappointing, losing respectably to Argentina 1-0, before being demolished 6-1 by Hungary. A 0-0 draw against England in their final group game rounded off their campaign.
Four Consecutive World Cup Appearances
Bulgaria subsequently went on to qualify for every World Cup up until the 1974 edition. They never made it past the group, though, failing to win a single match. After being blessed with consecutive World Cup appearances for twelve years between 1962 and 1974, they were then cursed with a twelve-year hiatus from the competition.
Reaching the Knockout Stage for the First Time
The wait proved to be worth it, as it would be at the 1986 World Cup where Bulgaria advanced to the knockout stage for the first time ever. Reigning world champions Italy were their first opponents. Bulgaria managed to keep Italy at bay for 43 impressive minutes, but then Alessandro Altobelli gave the Azzurri the lead right on the stroke of half-time. For the vast majority of the second half, it seemed his goal was decisive. That was until the 85th minute, when Nasko Sirakov equalised, scoring Bulgaria’s first World Cup goal in twelve years, and earning them a crucial point.
South Korea were up next, a much easier foe than Italy. However, they could still only manage a 1-1 draw. Extremely disappointing, even though all hope was far from lost. Bulgaria lost 2-0 to Argentina in their final group game, but still advanced to the last 16 as one of the best third-placed teams. Group B winners and hosts Mexico proved to be too strong, winning 2-0 in front of 114,580 spectators. This World Cup was over for Bulgaria.
God is Bulgarian
Bulgaria didn’t even come close to qualifying for the subsequent 1990 World Cup, as they finished last in their group behind Romania, Denmark, and Greece. This massive failure gave them little reason to be optimistic heading into 1994 World Cup qualifying, but Bulgaria ended up surpassing everyone’s expectations. However, they were still in third place ahead of the final matchday, meaning qualifying for the World Cup essentially was an impossible dream. After all, Bulgaria needed a win against France in Paris to qualify.
The French crowd booed Bulgaria’s mighty national anthem. Little did the French know that they would boo their own players when the match was over. France predictably obtained the lead in the 31st minute through Eric Cantona, before Emil Kostadinov equalised with a brilliant header shortly afterwards. The match was tied 1-1 at half-time. This deadlock persisted for the vast majority of the second half, too, until the 90th minute. The ball once again found its way to Kostadinov, or rather he found the ball and won the game for Bulgaria with an amazing strike.
“God is Bulgarian!” the commentator famously shouted as Bulgaria qualified for the 1994 World Cup against all odds.
1994 World Cup Group Stage
Bulgaria’s first match couldn’t have gone much worse, losing 3-0 to Nigeria. Their 4-0 demolition of Greece kept the Bulgarian dream alive and gave them confidence heading into their final group match against Argentina, though. It was a match where a draw would be enough to advance to the knockout stage. However, Bulgaria once again exceeded expectations, defeating La Albiceleste comfortably 2-0. Mexico, who had won the ‘group of death’ where every team obtained four points, awaited Bulgaria in the round of 16.
Clash with Mexico
The talismanic Hristo Stoichkov of Barcelona gave Bulgaria an early lead, but Garcia Aspe’s penalty tied the match. This deadlock could not be broken, meaning the game would have to be decided by a penalty shootout. Mexico failed to score their first three penalties and Bulgaria won the shootout 3-1. Reigning World champions Germany were Bulgaria’s quarter-final opponent.
Sensational Win Against Germany
The game was tied 0-0 at half-time, but Lothar Matthäus scored a penalty in the 47th minute to put the Bulgarian dream in danger. Stoichkov was determined to keep this dream alive though, scoring a superb free kick in the 75th minute. It seemed Bulgaria was heading towards a penalty shootout again. That is, until just three minutes later when Yordan Letchkov scored an iconic diving header. Bulgaria had advanced to the semi-finals where they were gonna face Italy.
Success Yet to Be Replicated
Roberto Baggio proved to be too much for this Bulgarian team, as his brace won Italy the match. Bulgaria were hoping to redeem themselves in the third-place play-off, but suffered a 4-0 loss against Sweden. An ending unworthy of this great Bulgarian side. It was still a superb World Cup performance by Bulgaria, though, and they should be proud. They have not been able to replicate this success. Their most recent World Cup appearance being in 1998 where they only obtained one point. Hopefully, Bulgaria’s future give them reasons to celebrate again.
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