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Dublin: 17 °C Sunday 9 August, 2020

Flashback: Letchkov heads Bulgaria to the 1994 World Cup semi-finals

One of the biggest shocks in the tournament’s history had an unlikely hero at its core.

Image: Phil O'Brien/EMPICS Sport

IT’S TWENTY YEARS exactly since a balding 27 year-old Eastern European destroyed Germany’s hopes of winning another World Cup.

Bulgaria only qualified for USA ’94 after a last-gasp 1-2 qualifier victory over France in Paris. The game is best-remembered for the way Emil Kostadinov scored the winning goal.

In the last minute and the game tied at 1-1, France were heading to the World Cup. Eric Cantona had volleyed the hosts into a first-half lead but Kostadinov struck an equaliser just five minutes later. However, Gerard Houllier’s side held out until the 90th minute. And as injury-time was about to begin, they were awarded a free-kick deep in Bulgarian territory on the right side. The ball was passed to substitute David Ginola and everyone expected him to hold possession by the corner flag. Instead, he sent in a wildly over-hit cross that Bulgaria picked up. The rest is history.

Source: byoann81/YouTube

It was an unlikely story. Bulgaria had never won a game at a World Cup before and faced into a difficult group that featured perennial-favourites Argentina and dark horses Nigeria. And in their first assignment against the Africans, Dimitar Penev’s side struggled. They were 2-0 down at half-time as Rashid Yekini and Daniel Amokachi scored. The Nigerians added a third shortly after the restart with Emmanuel Amunike grabbing a third. The mercurial Hristo Stoichkov was well-shackled while the eye-catching Iordan Letchkov, then in Germany with Hamburg, was anonymous – his biggest contribution was picking up a yellow-card early in the second half and being replaced soon after.

But, facing the group’s whipping boys Greece in their second game, things improved substantially as Stoichkov scored two penalties, Letchkov added a third and substitute Daniel Borimirov completed a 4-0 rout.

Their final group game was the turning point however. Facing a Maradona-less Argentina, Bulgaria took the lead through Stoichkov after a sublime through-ball from Kostadinov. They ensured the victory with a last-minute header from Nasko Sirakov and they were through to the last sixteen of a World Cup.

A tricky Mexico side stood in their way and despite a wonderful opening goal from Stoichkov, Alberto Garcia-Aspe scored from the penalty-spot to equalise later in the first-half. The game went to a shoot-out and the first three kicks were missed (Garcia-Aspe one of the offenders). Mexico lost their heads and couldn’t score past Boris Mikhailov who saved twice. Despite the best efforts of the colourful Jorge Campos, Bulgaria took the lead and Letchkov eventually stepped up and converted to qualify his side for a quarter-final clash against reigning champions Germany.

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World Cup Soccer 1994 Source: Diether Endlicher/AP/Press Association Images

Berti Vogts’ team had been largely unimpressive, conceding goals and narrowly squeaking past lesser opponents. They were almost caught when they faced Belgium in the previous round but just about held on. Against the Bulgarians, they weren’t so lucky.

Germany did take the lead early in the second-half when Jurgen Klinsmann was brought down in the area by Letchkov and Lothar Matthaus scored from the spot. But, with fifteen minutes left, everything changed. Firstly, Andy Moeller fouled Stoichkov thirty yards from goal. German goalkeeper Bodo Illgner gambled that the resultant strike would be aimed at the far corner and left a huge amount of space at his near post. It was too inviting for the Barcelona man and once he got the shot over the wall, a goal was never in doubt. Illgner didn’t even move.

Source: marto9646/YouTube

Just three minutes later, Bulgaria were awarded a throw-in on the right side.  In a tight area, they managed to engineer some space with some incisive passing and Zlatko Yankov, after a neat turn inside, floated a perfect cross towards the penalty spot. Letchkov was quickest to react and sent a wonderful diving header to the far corner.

The Germans failed to muster much of a response and meekly surrendered their title. The Bulgarians marched on and although they suffered semi-final defeat to Italy, their performances in America ensured both Stoichkov and Krasimir Balakov both made the team of the tournament.

For Letchkov, he’d never reach such dizzying heights again. Post-World Cup, he secured a move to Marseille but lasted only one season in France. He then went to Besiktas in Turkey, then-managed by John Toshack but after a series of contractual disagreements, he was forced into exile and missed the 1998 World Cup as a result.

After retiring, he became involved in politics but in 2010, he was charged with abuses of power. He was restored two months later but in 2013, he was handed a two-year jail sentence for tax evasion.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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