Among the national soccer teams of the world, the elite group of “top” teams has gradually bubbled up – Brazil, Argentina, England, Italy, Spain, Holland, Germany, France, Portugal, and so on. These teams invariably make up the finals of European and World Cups and trade shots on goal, victories and titles. Every subsequent tournament tends to be a reshuffling of these teams in the “best-of” listing.
But sometimes there are surprises at these tournaments. For example, South Korea reached the semi-finals in 2002 and Greece won the European title as a host in 2006. And yet, the biggest surprise in a world soccer tournament in the last twenty years took place at the World Cup finals in the USA in 1994.
On the rainy evening of November 17, 1993, on France’s national stadium Parc du Prince in Paris the Bulgarian team is battling all game for a qualifying spot in the World Cup. The French squad is two points ahead in the ranking and only a victory in this last qualifying game would give the Bulgarians a ticket to the US. Two enormous red ones are glowing on the scoreboard, and below, the last seconds of the game are trickling down.
But suddenly, almost in jest, ten seconds before the end of regulation time Bulgaria’s Number 7 Emil Kostadinov gets a pass along the right flank, sprints forward and fires over goalie Bernard Lama’s plunge. The ball bounces off the crossbar and into the French net. Bulgaria leads 2:1. The game clock is showing 90:02 when Bulgarian commentator Nikolai Kolev famously exclaims “God is Bulgarian,” breaking the stunned silence in the stadium. In the final minute of its last qualifying game, the Bulgarian team eliminates the favourite France and qualifies for the World Cup.
In the US, Bulgaria begins the tournament with a 3:0 loss to the more resilient Nigerian team, but records its first victory at a World Cup tournament against Greece (4:0). Its fate once again depends on a face-off with a world power – the silver medalist from the previous World Cup Argentina, led by the legendary Diego Maradona. On June 30, 1994, with goals by Hristo Stoichkov and Nasko Sirakov Bulgaria wins the game and qualifies for the final sixteen.
In the most divisive decade of Bulgaria’s modern history, a decade of poverty, overinflation and corruption, Bulgaria stood united in joy around its soccer heroes. The “golden boys” of 1994 would later become regular Joes with ordinary professions – co-owners of the Levski Sofia soccer team, presidents of the Bulgarian Football Union, mayors of Lovech or controversial head coaches of the national team. The miracle of ’94 would not be repeated, but for everyone who waited with bated breath for the final whistle against Germany to flood the streets with tricolour flags, that summer would forever remain sunny, joyful and untarnished – the Golden Summer of the bronze medals.