‘A genuine giant-killing at Giants Stadium’ was how, on 11 July 1994, English newspaper The Independent chose to describe the magnitude of the upset that had occurred the previous day in New Jersey.
Far from being a sensationalist headline, it was an apt portrayal of events as defending champions Germany were surprisingly knocked out of the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™ in the last eight, failing to reach the Final for the first time since 1978.
What made the story even more astonishing was that Germany were not eliminated by a fellow footballing heavyweight such as Brazil, Italy or Argentina, but rather by rank outsiders Bulgaria. USA 1994 may have been the sixth time the southern Europeans had taken part at a World Cup, but it was also the first tournament at which they had managed to record a victory. By the time the Bulgarians packed their bags for home, they had picked up four wins at the competition.
Germany initially struggled to click at USA 1994 but despite labouring to a 1-0 win over Bolivia, a 1-1 draw with Spain and a 3-2 triumph over Korea Republic, they still finished top of their group. However, that was followed up by a scintillating display to overcome Belgium 3-2 in the Round of 16.
By contrast, Bulgaria lost their opening fixture 3-0 to Nigeria but soon bounced back to defeat Greece 4-0 and Argentina 3-0, before reaching the quarter-finals with a penalty shoot-out victory (1-1, 3:1 pso) against Mexico. Even by that stage the Lions had surpassed all expectations and had written a new chapter in the country’s sporting history.
When Bulgaria faced Germany at the Giants Stadium in New Jersey, the first half offered the 72,000 fans crammed into the stands little distraction from the searing heat. Germany dominated up to the break but lacked the cutting edge to break down a tough Bulgarian backline. That soon changed shortly after the interval when Jurgen Klinsmann went to ground following a soft challenge in the penalty area, allowing Lothar Matthaus to put the reigning champions in front from the ensuing spot-kick. The crowd sensed that Germany’s reputation as a seemingly unbeatable tournament side was about to be vindicated once more.
The match appeared to be over a little while later when Rudi Voller tapped in from close range after Andreas Moller had hit the post, but the goal was disallowed for offside, leaving the game on a knife edge. The encounter was to take an unexpected turn when Bulgaria’s star striker Hristo Stoichkov levelled the scores with a direct free-kick in the 75th minute. Just 180 seconds later Germany were left stunned as Iordan Letchkov, who played for Hamburg at the time, headed in the winning goal for Bulgaria.
Germany had started the game with nine of their World Cup winning side from 1990 on the field and a tenth, Andreas Brehme, would later appear as a substitute. While on paper the squad appeared to be overflowing with world-class talent, in reality many of them seemed to be past their best.
The opposite was true of Bulgaria, whose golden generation of Stoichkov, Krassimir Balakov and Emil Kostadinov had propelled the side to a maiden victory at a World Cup, as well as igniting a new-found sense of euphoria throughout their homeland.
“Stoichkov and Letchkov will forever be the heroes of a nation that had not won a single World Cup match until two weeks ago,” ran the headline in French newspaper France Soir at the time. Stoichkov capped a fine tournament for Bulgaria by winning the adidas Golden Boot as the competition’s top scorer, an honour he shared with Russia’s Oleg Salenko, who also hit the target six times.
What they said
"There was a lot of conflict within the team and the atmosphere was bad, nothing like it had been at the 1990 World Cup. Everything had been perfect there. We got too caught up with small details in 1994 and the players made increasingly exacting demands, while coach Berti Vogts was too narrow-minded sometimes. We were very ambitious and had a strong team but we lost 2-1 to Bulgaria and were knocked out in the quarter-finals. Our aim had been to make the semi-finals at the very least.”
Former Germany midfielder Andreas Moller
“After the opening goal Bulgaria were out of it but we failed to get a second. They had two chances and ended up scoring two decisive goals.”
Former Germany captain Lothar Matthaus
“It was actually a pretty easy win as we were the better team right from the off. I was lucky enough to score a direct free kick on my eldest daughter’s birthday. Overall I had a wonderful month with my fantastic team-mates in the national side. It was thanks to them that I won the Golden Boot and I dedicated it to them at the time.”
Former Bulgaria striker Hristo Stoichkov
“It was the greatest day in the history of Bulgarian football.”
Former Bulgaria coach Dimitar Penev
What happened next
Bulgaria’s winning streak came to an end three days after their coup against Germany with a 2-1 defeat to Italy in the same stadium. The team failed to finish on the podium after losing 4-0 to Sweden in the match for third place.
Elimination from the tournament also ushered in a new era for three-time World Cup winners Germany, with five players - Voller, Brehme, Guido Buchwald, Stefan Effenberg and Bodo Illgner - all announcing their retirement from international football, with the latter doing so in the changing rooms at the Giants Stadium.
Vogts returned home to a barrage of criticism, accused primarily of sticking with the triumphant 1990 team for too long and not giving younger players a chance to shine. Yet Vogts, known as der Terrier, refused to step down and was rewarded two years later when he led Germany to European Championship glory in England.