For old times’ sake

It is said that there is no substitute for experience at international level, but Bulgaria maybe about to disprove the adage, as Mark McQuinn explains

Remember Bryan Robson’s last days as a player for Middlesbrough? The crunching tackles replaced by crude, late hacks, the muscular leaps to win headers against taller players replaced by crafty nudges in the back before jumping. Well multiply that by five, and you’ve got the backbone of the team that Bulgaria are likely to field during the World Cup finals.

Bulgaria might not be a pretty sight in France. The current joke doing the rounds is that, as at USA ’94, the team will come fourth in the World Cup finals – fourth in their group. The heroes of USA ’94 – Stoichkov, Letchkov, Kostadinov and Ivanov all seem to have come to the conclusion that growing old gracefully is for squares. While here in Britain old hell- raisers like Tony Adams and Paul Merson have shown new levels of maturity as they have moved into their thirties, Bulgarian stars of the same age bracket are reaching for the hair dye, covering up bald patches and trying to break world records for petulance.

The big names have all, with the exception of Krassimir Balakov, given up the fleshpots of the West and returned to their roots. For most of them this has meant signing or re-signing for CSKA Sofia. Stran-gely, the club has since been plunged into chaos, adversely affecting the national team’s build-up to the World Cup finals. Big Trifon Ivanov – still very much the wild eyed loner at the gates of oblivion – and Emil Kostadinov were recently suspended indefinitely by CSKA over pay demands. They carried this dispute over to the arena of the national team and have been thrown out by manager Christo Bonev. The press and the public are with Bonev, who has given televised press conferences stating that the team will not be held to ransom and that he is more than happy to go to France without the dissenters. As the pair do not really need money, it is an interesting stand-off.

Unlike his predecessor, Dimitar Penev, Bonev has also proved much more willing to venture out of Sofia and into the regions to look at potential new recruits for the national team. Unfortunately, the new crop do not appear to be of the quality of the USA ’94 vintage. Bulgaria’s dire economic situation is having a negative effect on football in the country with previously obscure teams creeping into the first division after receiving huge cash boosts from mysterious source; rumours of bribery and corruption abound.

Two factors give cause for a more optimistic analysis. Inevitably, one is the brooding King Hristo. Following a last quarrel with Louis Van Gaal, Stoichkov left Barcelona and joined the midlife crisis support society that CSKA have become. He started well, but a bizarre interlude has damaged his credibility. With the biggest game in the domestic calendar, CSKA v Levski, looming, Stoichkov went AWOL for ten days, missing the match. It transpired that he had arranged to play on loan for Al Nasr of Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup Winners Cup Final. For this he received $100,000. Having scored the winner Stoichkov was given a limousine, his temporary employers presumably thinking that $100,000 would not run to the purchase of a decent motor. His reception back in Sofia was less than rapturous, though since his form since has been good and the feeling is that he owes the nation one in France.

The other main plus for the national team in France is the impressive form of Balakov. Playing on the left side of midfield for Stuttgart, he has the highest strike rate in the Bundesliga from direct free kicks and his work rate approaches that of Carol Vorderman. Balakov has also spent a lot of time building up an art collection of considerable reputation, housed in his own gallery, which seems to have had a more positive effect on his form than the hobbies chosen by the other senior members of the national squad – slating all and sundry, quarrelling about money and sulking. Lubo Penev, Bulgaria’s likely centre-forward in France, is a good example in this regard. He recently gave a press conference that was masterful in terms of directness and brevity. It consisted in its entirety of one sentence: “To those who don’t like me, fuck off.”

However, it has not been lost on the press or the public that Bulgaria went into the ’94 Finals in an equally disorganised and demoralised state. Most people think that Ivanov and Kostadinov will be on the plane to France and that Stoichkov, Balakov and Letchkov (who hasn’t played for months having walked out on his club, Besiktas) have all still got it in them to do something special.

Interest has already reached hysterical levels. World Cup lotteries are everywhere and advertisers seem to be competing to see who can come up with the most tenuous link to the tournament. Amongst the several crimes against music that have been released as “World Cup songs” one in particular sums up the way most Bulgarians see the finals. It is called “E na sveta na puk, nie pak sme tuk” – “Although the world doesn’t give a damn, we are here again.”

From WSC 136 June 1998. What was happening this month