USA ’94: The “Bronze Summer” of Bulgaria’s Golden Boys
16.05.2012 § 1 Comment
Among the national soccer teams of the world, the elite group of “top” teams has gradually bubbled up – Brazil, Argentina, England, Italy, Spain, Holland, Germany, France, Portugal, and so on. These teams invariably make up the finals of European and World Cups and trade shots on goal, victories and titles. Every subsequent tournament tends to be a reshuffling of these teams in the “best-of” listing.
But sometimes there are surprises at these tournaments. For example, South Korea reached the semi-finals in 2002 and Greece won the European title as a host in 2006. And yet, the biggest surprise in a world soccer tournament in the last twenty years took place at the World Cup finals in the USA in 1994.
On the rainy evening of November 17, 1993, on France’s national stadium Parc du Prince in Paris the Bulgarian team is battling all game for a qualifying spot in the World Cup. The French squad is two points ahead in the ranking and only a victory in this last qualifying game would give the Bulgarians a ticket to the US. Two enormous red ones are glowing on the scoreboard, and below, the last seconds of the game are trickling down.
But suddenly, almost in jest, ten seconds before the end of regulation time Bulgaria’s Number 7 Emil Kostadinov gets a pass along the right flank, sprints forward and fires over goalie Bernard Lama’s plunge. The ball bounces off the crossbar and into the French net. Bulgaria leads 2:1. The game clock is showing 90:02 when Bulgarian commentator Nikolai Kolev famously exclaims “God is Bulgarian,” breaking the stunned silence in the stadium. In the final minute of its last qualifying game, the Bulgarian team eliminates the favourite France and qualifies for the World Cup.
In the US, Bulgaria begins the tournament with a 3:0 loss to the more resilient Nigerian team, but records its first victory at a World Cup tournament against Greece (4:0). Its fate once again depends on a face-off with a world power – the silver medalist from the previous World Cup Argentina, led by the legendary Diego Maradona. On June 30, 1994, with goals by Hristo Stoichkov and Nasko Sirakov Bulgaria wins the game and qualifies for the final sixteen.
At the eighth-final with Mexico on July 5 Bulgaria finishes 1:1 in regulation time and the game is decided with penalty kicks. This time the hero of the hour is Bulgaria’s captain – goaltender Borislav Mihailov, who saves two penalties. The Bulgarian team qualifies for the quarter-finals for the first time. Back home, the national team’s success elicits the jubilation of hundreds of thousands. Everyone is eagerly anticipating the following game against world champion Germany.
On July 10 the game starts off badly – after a scoreless first half Lothar Matthäus scores on a disputed penalty in the 47th minute. But in the 75th minute Stoichkov defends his reputation as a world-class striker by equalizing from a free kick. Only three minutes later Iordan Lechkov is battling for a centering pass in the crease when he launches forward, finding the ball with his head and sending it behind the stunned Bodo Illgner into the German net. Every family glued to the TV in Bulgaria, the thousands of Bulgarians in the stadium, an entire nation is celebrating with its soccer nationals, the streets are flooded with exalted fans waving tricolour flags and setting off fireworks. Bulgaria defeats the world champion of 1990 and takes its place among the four best teams in the world.
In the end, Bulgaria would remain fourth in the world. It would lose to Italy 2:1 on July 13 and Sweden would finish it off 4:0 in the third-place match. But this fact would do nothing to dampen the joy of the Bulgarian people and the sense of solidarity and triumph that it felt during the tournament. And when the Bulgarians would ascend the UEFA stage to receive their bronze medals, in their eyes they’d be more valuable than the Brazilians’ gold ones, and Hristo Stoichkov would become the top goal scorer of the tournament with 6 goals.
In the most divisive decade of Bulgaria’s modern history, a decade of poverty, overinflation and corruption, Bulgaria stood united in joy around its soccer heroes. The “golden boys” of 1994 would later become regular Joes with ordinary professions – co-owners of the Levski Sofia soccer team, presidents of the Bulgarian Football Union, mayors of Lovech or controversial head coaches of the national team. The miracle of ’94 would not be repeated, but for everyone who waited with bated breath for the final whistle against Germany to flood the streets with tricolour flags, that summer would forever remain sunny, joyful and untarnished – the Golden Summer of the bronze medals.