MATT EVANS looks at a shock result at USA 1994 that proved to be the end of an era for the Germans
The greatest game of USA ’94 almost never happened. With 90 minutes gone at the Parc des Princes and France heading to the World Cup, David Ginola looped a hopeful ball towards the box whilst teammates urged him to run the clock down. The ball, however, fell to Bulgarian right back Emil Kremenliev who launched a counterattack that would become the trademark of this side. A leisurely sweep of Luboslav Penev’s left foot dropped the ball into the stride of Emil Kostadinov, who rocketed an angled 20-yard shot past Bernard Lama and put Bulgaria through at their host’s expense.
Despite widespread ignorance of the tournament across the country, it opened with the typical razzamatazz and fanfare that had come to be expected from an American sporting event. Diana Ross displayed a shot so powerful it caused the goal to explode, despite the ball going wide of the target. Germany had qualified as holders and Berti Vogt’s men topped their group comfortably, despite being fairly unimpressive.
Bulgaria took until the second game to get into their stride. A 3-0 defeat to Nigeria in the group opener was put behind them with two impressive victories over Greece and Argentina, 4-0 and 2-0 respectively. Three goals from their temperamental superstar Hristo Stoichkov gave The Lions their first wins in their sixth World Cup, progressing from the group stage for the first time in their history. It needed a penalty shootout to despatch of Mexico in the last 16 where an improved German side eliminated Belgium to set up an intriguing quarter-final tie in New Jersey.
Germany, led by captain Lothar Matthaus and the goal threat of Jurgen Klinsmann, had competition pedigree and vast experience. Nine players returned from the 1990 World Cup final, the starting XI averaged 57 caps per man. Bulgaria, on the other hand, had exceeded all expectations, the rag-tag bunch included Trifon Wolf Man Ivanov and the follicly challenged Yordan Letchkov, and was captained by goalkeeper Boris Mikhailov who had solved his own hair growth problems with an unrealistic wig.
The Bulgarians were relaxed. An FBI detail shadowed the squad at their hotel and were amazed to find them laughing, drinking and smoking before the biggest game in the country’s history. All of the pressure was on Germany and Vogts, a quarter-final appearance the least that was expected of them back home but this was a team yet to fire on all cylinders.
A game involving two European nations in the searing New Jersey heat didn’t lend to an attacking game yet this was forgotten as Colombian referee Jose Torres Cadena got the game underway. Bulgaria’s movement and pace caused Germany problems in the early exchanges, Letchkov releasing Nasko Siriakov who stung the palms of Bodo Illgner. The Hamburg man then played in Stoichkov from a short free kick, his cut back left the German defence behind before he rolled the ball into Krassimir Balakov’s path, his drive striking the post.
At the other end, Jurgen Klinsmann had the best of the Nationalmannschaft’s chances, with a free header straight at Mikhailov and a shot blazed wide as both sides went into the break goalless. Despite trading chances, the game was evenly balanced. Three minutes after the restart, however, the deadlock was broken. Perhaps feeling today wasn’t going to be his day in front of goal, Klinsmann spurned the chance to test Mikhailov and dramatically hit the ground after minimal contact from Letchkov’s outstretched leg. Matthaus coolly dispatched the resulting spot kick.
Sensing blood the Germans almost put the game out of reach, Andreas Moller rocketed a shot against the upright, Rudi Voller’s follow up denied by the linesman’s flag. The let-off sparked Bulgaria into life. Stoichkov was bundled to the ground by Moller on 75 minutes, 25-yards from Illgner’s goal. The Barcelona striker dusted himself off and whipped an unstoppable free-kick over the wall and into the net, Illgner merely a bystander.
Before the Germans could regroup Zlatko Yanko noticed a mismatch in the penalty area where the diminutive Thomas Hassler was left to mark the towering Letchkov. The cross was perfect, Letchkov rose to meet the ball with his balding pate and sent it past the outstretched Illgner. Within three minutes Bulgaria had stunned the reigning champions, and Germany had lost their first World Cup game since the final of Mexico ’86. It was a true giant-killing at Giants Stadium.
The full-time whistle ended an era of German football. Five players retired following the exit, although the stubborn Vogts ignored calls for his resignation; a stubbornness rewarded two years later with victory at Euro 96. Bulgaria’s run in the tournament ended three days later at the hands of the Azzurri, and a further defeat to Sweden in the third-place playoff did nothing to dampen the welcome the squad received back home; a squad still revered almost 25 years later.