Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, New York, 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 have been more stark. On one side there would be the three-time World Champions, six-time finalists, nine-time semi-finalists and eleven-time quarter-finalists. On the other there was unfashionable Bulgaria, 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 Natrionalmannschaft 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 versus 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 would finally get themselves off the mark in the most emphatic fashion as they battered neighbours Greece 4-0. This would then be 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 would see 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 had 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 would be 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 would lead 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.
Everything going to plan. Lothar Matthäus scores from the penalty spot to give Germany the lead
One of the darkest days in Germany’s rich World Cup history. Hamburger SV’s Jordan Letchkov gets in front of Thomas Häßler to score for Bulgaria, and the holders are out
When the final whistle blew and the Bulgarians started to celebrate, the Germans would silently slope off the pitch. There would be little in the way of emotion, simply a profound sense of shock and disbelief. The most circulated immediate post-match story would concern 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 would casually ask who had scored Germany’s second. When told that the Bulgarians had won, it would be 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 would have one foot in the last four. There was the Möller shot off the post and the disallowed Völler goal. Then, in the space of five minutes, everything would be turned upon its head. Or rather, upon the bald head of Yordan Letchkov. It was actually difficult to believe that 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 Hamburger SV, 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 should have been approaching his prime – Illgner would announce his immediate retirement from international football. Also heading into retirement would be the thirty-four year old Rudi Völler, one of the team’s stalwarts for over a decade. Finishing on a total of ninety caps in which he had scored forty-seven goals, the much-travelled and highly-respected striker would call time on a career that had seen him play in two World Cup finals and take the winner’s medal in 1990. Denied what would have surely been a match-winning forty-eighth international goal by the linesman’s flag, the defeat in New York would be a sad ending to what had been a memorable international career.
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: – / –