v Bulgaria, 1994 World Cup Quarter-Final
v Bulgaria, Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, New York (Quarter-Final) 10.07.1994
Matthäus pen 47. / Stoichkov 75., Letchkov 78.
When Germany found themselves pitted against Bulgaria in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, the differences could not be more stark. On one side there were the three-time World Champions, six-time finalists, nine-time semi-finalists and eleven-time quarter-finalists. On the other there was a country that had competed in only five previous World Cup finals tournaments, going beyond the first phase on only one occasion. In all that time, they had failed to win a single match – drawing six and losing ten.
The record between the teams was not that much better for the men from the Balkans. In fifty-nine years of football they had beaten the Germans only once in seventeen games, losing fifteen of them. The Mannschaft had not been beaten in eleven encounters by this opposition since 1960, winning ten and drawing one. As far as the four World Cup quarter-finals went, this one was arguably the easiest one to call: it was a simple case of David and Goliath.
While Berti Vogts’ side had picked up seven out of a possible nine points in the first phase and had overcome Belgium in an exciting five-goal second-round encounter, Bulgaria must have wondered how they were still in the tournament. Having been torn apart by Nigeria in their opening match – extending their winless streak in World Cup finals matches to seventeen – they finally got themselves off the mark in the most emphatic fashion as they battered neighbours Greece 4-0. This was then followed by a surprising 2-0 win against two-time World Champions and 1990 finalists Argentina, enough to take them through to the knock-out phase in second place.
The second phase saw Dimitar Penev’s side overcome a far more fluent Mexican side on penalties after a 1-1 draw, securing their first-ever appearance in a World Cup quarter-final. The win against Mexico has been seen by many as something of a surprise, but against Germany at the Giants Stadium in New York everybody bar the most enthusiastic Bulgarian supporter fully expected this Balkan fairytale to come to an end.
For this match the Nationaltrainer would make a slight tactical switch, reverting back to a slightly more defensive 1-3-3-1-2 lineup. Thomas Berthold was moved from the midfield to join Jürgen Kohler and Thomas Helmer in a three-man defensive unit in front of Libero Lothar Matthäus, Thomas Häßler, Guido Buchwald and Martin Wagner teamed up in the middle, with the recalled Andreas Möller playing a more advanced role just behind the two man attack consisting of Jürgen Klinsmann and Rudi Völler – as he had done in the opening match against Bolivia.
On what was a bright and pleasant day in the Giants Stadium, Colombian referee José Torres Cadena led the teams out in front of a capacity crowd of seventy-two thousand people. The Germans would once again be in their traditional Trikot, with the Bulgarians in red shirts, white shorts and red socks. The German supporters in the crowd were expectant, so was I – sitting in my Trikot in front of my television set at home. It was my twenty-third birthday, and I was certain that the Mannschaft wouldn’t let me down.
When the final whistle blew and the Bulgarians celebrated, the Germans silently sloped off the pitch. There was little in the way of emotion, simply a sense of shock and disbelief. The most circulated immediate post-match story concerned midfielder Martin Wagner, who had been in the dressing room recovering from the blow to the head that had seen him substituted ten minutes after Lothar Matthäus had given the Mannschaft the lead. When informed by his blank-faced teammates that the game had finished 2-1, the groggy 1. FC Kaiserslautern player casually asked who had scored Germany’s second. When informed that the Bulgarians had won, it was just too much. Wagner must have felt that he was still in a daze.
The shock would be hard to bear. At 1-0 up, the Mannschaft had one foot in the last four. Then there was the Möller shot off the post and the disallowed Völler goal. Then, in the space of five minutes, everything had been turned upon its head. Or rather, upon the bald head of Yordan Letchkov. It was actually difficult to believe that it the World Cup dream was all over. This wasn’t Brazil, Italy or even England. This was Bulgaria. Bulgaria. Bulgaria, the name of the great uncle from the Wombles. Bulgaria, the country ridiculed for having gone seventeen World Cup finals matches without a win. Bulgaria, the team with the toupee-wearing goalkeeper.
The rest of the afternoon would turn into a damp squib. My birthday had been completely ruined – by a balding Bulgarian. A balding Bulgarian that played for HSV, no less. As for the German team, they would return home having not made at least the final four for the first time since 1978; rather than look at his own shortcomings and what was arguably a weak team performance that had clearly been fuelled by a fantastic sense of destiny and overconfidence, the coach decided to name his scapegoat: goalkeeper Bodo Illgner.
It was a sad postscript to the campaign: at the age of twenty-seven – an age when he would have been approaching his prime – Illgner chose to retire from international football.
Germany: Illgner – Matthäus (c) – Berthold, Kohler, Helmer – Häßler (83. Brehme), Buchwald, Wagner (59. Strunz) – Möller – Völler, Klinsmann
Bulgaria: Mikhailov – Kiriakov, Houbchev, Tsvetanov, Ivanov – Jankov, Letchkov, Sirakov, Balakov – Kostadinov (89. Guenchev), Stoichkov (84. Jordanov)
Referee: José Torres Cadena (Colombia)
Assistants: Venancio Concepción Zarate (Paraguay), Sándor Marton (Hungary)
Fourth Official: Neji Jouini (Tunisia)
Yellow Cards: Helmer, Wagner, Häßler, Klinsmann, Völler / Ivanov, Stoichkov, Michailov
Red Cards: – / –