Bulgaria 3 Germany 2

Mark McQuinn recalls a thriller on 7th June 1995

The previous meeting between these two teams had resulted in Bulgaria’s glorious 2-1 triumph in the quarter-finals of the 1994 World Cup. Both were unbeaten in the qualifying group, although Bulgaria’s form was the more impressive – 5 straight victories, while the Germans had drawn with Wales and scraped past Albania, 2-1 home and away. The general consensus amongst the pundits was that it would be a tight match, in which Germany would play for a draw and probably get it.

Unsurprisingly, it was also predicted that the Germans would do everything possible to crowd out ‘the King of Calm’, Stoichkov. A 90 minutes spent ranting at team-mates, officials, ball boys and peanut sellers or even a red card were considered strong possibilities for Hristo if the German shackling proved to be effective.

The match ended as a 5 goal thriller, in which the Germans threw away a 2-0 lead, and ended up looking more ragged than Gazza after a night on the town. Stoichkov turned in a performance in which he showed qualities of maturity, leadership and coolness under pressure. His constant encouragement of every member of the team, his stoic acceptance of adverse decisions and his exemplary ‘Heads up lads, we’re still in it’ attitude when Bulgaria were losing have people debating to this day whether temporary insanity, hard drugs or the possession of his body by the spirit of Gary Lineker were involved.

Getting to Sofia on the day of the match had been more than a little tense. The mid morning train was  already more than full when I got on, with flags and banners adorning every window, including the driver’s. Two and a half hours then ensued of standing so packed in a corridor that everyone found it impossible to get at the vodka bottle stuck inside their jackets. A long afternoon of singing and drinking restored the spirits, despite the fact in was conducted in a rainstorm so vicious that it was difficult to see your hand in front of your face.

Amazingly the rain stopped just before the kick off and the spectacle that enfolded more than matched the weather in terms of its strange and intense nature. If the coaches had given any instructions, nobody seemed to have been listening. Players seemed to vie with each other to do more outrageous pieces of trickery. Bulgaria forced some fine saves from Kopke in the German goal. Stoichkov brought the crowd to its feet with a shot on the turn from 30 yards that hit the inside of the post.

However, the Germans, spoilsports as ever, got tired of playing in an exhibition match and counterattacked to deadly effect twice midway through the half, scoring through Kuntz and Klinsmann. As the crowd’s fervour died, Balakov raced through the German defence yet again, this time to be tripped in the box.

A penalty without question. Tension in the crowd? Of course not. Stoichkov takes the penalties. Belief in the man is total. People were already talking about whether an equalizer was possible before the ball had been placed on the spot. Hristo duly obliged by slotting the ball nonchalantly home before engaging in a bizarre piece of behaviour. He went round every player giving them a word of encouragement and a pat on the back. An uneasy murmur went through the crowd. What the hell was up with the lad?

Could the second half live up to the first? No problem. This was a match in which every player seemed to have been told that if they failed to do something dramatic punishment would consist of being forced to watch endless recordings of England v Ireland matches. Kopke continued to make great saves, Stoichkov continued to praise and rally his team. Intense Bulgarian pressure led to another penalty. This time Stoichkov did not even bother to follow the kick with his eyes and was running back to the centre circle as soon as he had struck the ball.

Since this match had obviously been pre-ordained as a classic, the Bulgarians finally realized that the winner would have to come from that classic source, the super sub. Emil Kostadinov, an all-time Bulgarian hero since his last minute winner in the Parc des Princes had taken Bulgaria to Disneyland, had been out of form and then injured, hence his demotion to the bench for this match. Now he was thrown on, to a nervous reception. The reason for apprehension was that Kostadinov is burdened with an unfortunate superstition – his first touch in a game is regarded by supporters as unfailingly indicative of the rest of his performance and often of the fortune of the team as a whole. The crowd therefore noticeably quietened as Kostadinov received the ball for the first time with his back to goal just outside the German box. A shimmy followed by a fine shot later and the crowd knew it was going to be Bulgaria’s night.

Within a few more minutes Kostadinov had dribbled round two defenders in the box before firing a low shot beneath Kopke’s dive and into the net. Delirium. The crowd bayed for the final whistle,which the referee ignored as there were still 20 minutes to go. Germany created some chances late on and Bobby Mikhailov made a couple of fine saves late on (A video is available for Reading fans, who will understandably find this hard to believe). Overall, however, Bulgaria remained in charge and Berti Vogts was shaking his head resignedly before the end.

The final whistle produced an outburst of emotion in the crowd akin to that to those displayed at a Jimmy Swaggart revivalist meeting. Hristo had returned from far off Catalonia to show the faithful that triumph could be born of adversity. The entire team reappeared on the pitch after a short break to do a brief, linked-arm dance, before bowing as one to all sections of the crowd and exiting to an ovation.

It was going to be the mother of all parties – but not for those of us who boarded the 11pm train heading for the Black Sea coast. The end carriage contained some German holidaymakers heading morosely back to the seaside following their defeat. Fighting broke out between them and celebrating Bulgarians. The train was halted and remained  stationary, in complete darkness, for two hours while extra police arrived. Euphoria quickly evaporated in the packed, dank corridors. Spirits rose, however, when police reinforcements turned up and marched the Germans off the train to a waiting fleet of taxis. They were then driven back to the coast for a ‘mandatory’ fare of 100 DM each.

People whiled away the hours in the darkened train by discussing the implications of the match. Most felt that Bulgaria’s second victory over Germany in as many matches heralded the start of something really big. Likely opponents in the final at Wembley were mooted. Some people were of the opinion that with Georgia also in the group and playing well Germany might not even qualify. Oh, sweet, futile dreams of long ago.

From WSC 124 June 1997. What was happening this month