Petrov: Bulgarians are fiery people with a huge passion for football

  • Yasen Petrov hails upcoming opponents Italy

  • He insists his Bulgaria side can still reach Qatar 2022

  • “Football is a social phenomenon,” Petrov says

Almost 30 years have passed since Bulgaria last caused a real stir on the world stage, as stars including Yordan Letchkov, Hristo Stoichkov and Krasimir Balakov fired them to the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™ semi-finals. Defending champions Germany were among the sides dispatched by the Lions on their way to a thrilling last-four loss to eventual winners Italy. Bulgaria have not come close to emulating this success in the intervening years. They qualified for just one more World Cup in 1998, and two UEFA EUROs in 1996 and 2004, exiting all three tournaments after the group stage.

"Back then Bulgaria had world-famous players who played for the biggest clubs on the planet, but the situation is completely different now," current coach Yasen Petrov told FIFA.com. "It has been 23 years since Bulgaria last played at a World Cup, and we all know that qualification is long overdue. "Right now we have one player in the Italian top flight and a couple more in Serie B. Otherwise we have nobody in the top leagues in England, Spain, Germany or France. “The team is mainly made up of players from the regional league. One glimmer of hope is the fact that some of our young lads have found good clubs abroad after a few decent matches in recent months, and I have no doubt that they can reach the top leagues if their development continues, which in turn will make the national team stronger."

It is the Squadra Azzurra of all teams who now await Bulgaria in qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. “We are talking about a team that have not been beaten in their last 34 matches!” said Petrov. “They were crowned European champions a couple of months after we lost 2-0 to them in Sofia, and what really impressed me was the fantastic team spirit Italy showed that day. That, combined with the unbelievable individual quality of all their players, makes Italy a top side, if not the best team in the world right now. "We need to watch the Italians and learn from them. Our main focus is on forming a good team and not relying on individual players, which means counting on our notorious Bulgarian spirit instead. “Everyone should expect a highly motivated side with nothing to lose against the European champions. Teams like ours can only benefit from the experience and confidence that come with games like these."

Bulgaria face Lithuania at home just three days after their encounter with Italy. Victory will be vital if they are to have any say in the race for qualification from Group C. The Lions are still without a win from their first three games, with just one point to their name, while their other upcoming opponents are Northern Ireland and Switzerland. "We go into every single match aiming to win,” said Petrov. “Our team still have five matches to play, so anything can happen. I know it sounds tough, but it all depends on how we play." Bulgaria have steadily slipped down the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in recent years, and currently sit in 75th place – their worst position since 2013. "The only thing that needs to happen is for the team to start winning," said Petrov, who only replaced Georgi Dermendzhiev as coach a few months ago. "We know that this transition period will be a long and difficult process, but I’m confident that we’re on the right track and we just need to get a couple of results to get the ball rolling." The team continues to receive seemingly limitless support from their fans at home. "Football is a social phenomenon,” said Petrov. “Here in Bulgaria, everybody has their own opinion on football, just as they do about politics. Bulgarians are fiery people with a huge passion for sport and football in particular, which is why we need to do our best to make them happy again after such a long time."