‘Back from the brink’ is probably the most fitting way of describing the recent history of the Bulgarian national side. After failing to qualify for the last two UEFA European Championships, the Lions have been slipping ominously down the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in the last few months.
While the Bulgarians sank to their all-time lowest ranking of 96th in April this year, just six months later they appear to have turned the corner, emerging as the biggest climbers in the October FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™ fourth-placed finishers jumped 34 places to 55th in the standings.
The rebuilding phase for a team that lost its best forward in Dimitar Berbatov is starting to bear fruit. The appointment of former striker Lyuboslav Penev, who took over as coach in November 2011 with the task of restoring Bulgaria to past glories, is proving to be a masterstroke. It has been far from easy, but the foundations have been laid for the future by blending young unproven players in alongside the experienced veterans.
Penev’s record at the helm stands up to close scrutiny, with three wins, two draws and just one defeat, 2-0 against Turkey, from his opening six games. A 2-1 friendly triumph over 2010 FIFA World Cup runners-up Netherlands in Amsterdam was particularly impressive.
Furthermore, Penev’s charges have shone in 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying, taking four points from their first two matches, which included a 2-2 draw at home to UEFA EURO 2012 finalists Italy. The dream of reaching a first FIFA World Cup since 1998 is still very much alive. Despite Bulgaria’s long association with the showpiece tournament, recent teams have not come close to emulating the successes of their mid-1990s predecessors.
Back in 1994, the Bulgarian team that included legends such as Hristo Stoichkov, Iordan Letchkov and Krassimir Balakov finished fourth at USA 1994 in what was the pinnacle of the east European country’s footballing history.
In the quarter-finals they beat none other than defending champions Germany, captained by Lothar Matthaus, who went on to become Bulgaria’s head coach 16 years later. “1994 is a long time ago, those times are over,” Matthaus told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview last year.
“Football isn’t held in the same esteem as it was back then, and the mood of the nation has changed. People are struggling to keep their heads above water, and funds are much more urgently required elsewhere. Football obviously suffers as a result, and that affects our international competitiveness.”
Germany’s most capped player with 150 appearances, and the 1990 FIFA World Cup-winning captain, only won two of nine matches in his year in charge - from September 2010 to September 2011 - and missed out on qualification for EURO 2012 in Poland and Ukraine.
“You can’t make the comparison with Germany. The options in Bulgaria are limited, and that’s true from the first level of youth development all the way up to the professional ranks. That's why I think it’s vital for these players to move abroad as quickly as possible and gain experience there. I’m absolutely sure all my internationals would add value to Bundesliga teams,” Matthaus said.
Yet aside from striker Ilian Micanski, who plays for second division side Kaiserslautern, none of his former charges have made the step into the German game.
Be that as it may, in striker Ivelin Popov (Kuban Krasnodar), midfielder Ivan Ivanov (FK Partizan) and full-back Spas Delev (without a club), Bulgaria have several highly promising and ambitious young players in their squad.
As early as next week the side have the chance to show that their terrific start was no accident. With games against Denmark and Czech Republic coming up on Matchdays 3 and 4, the Lions face two tricky fixtures against teams who are far higher up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
But if they can continue to pick up points in those ties, then the dream of an eighth FIFA World Cup participation will edge ever closer to reality.