- Iordan Letchkov’s diving header eliminated holders Germany at USA 1994
- Played 16, won 0 was Bulgaria’s World Cup record prior to '94
- Coach described the win as Bulgarian football’s “greatest day”
This wasn’t in the script.
Germany were the FIFA World Cup™ holders and had played in each of the last three Finals. They had a side packed full of talent, with Jurgen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthaus, Andreas Brehme, Andreas Moller and Matthias Sammer among the world-renowned names in a star-studded line-up.
Bulgaria, on the other hand, arrived at USA 1994 having failed to win any of their 16 previous World Cup matches. Reaching the quarter-finals, after opening their campaign with a 3-0 defeat to Nigeria, that extended their winless run to 17, was a triumph in itself. Everyone, though, expected their adventure to end against the reigning champions in New York’s Giants Stadium.
Everyone, that is, except the Bulgarians themselves. “Before the tournament began, I predicted that we would reach the semi-finals,” Iordan Letchkov, the man captured in this image, told FourFourTwo. “I believed in our ability. The day before the match, we celebrated two birthdays: mine and the coach Dimitar Penev’s. We felt there was no pressure on us, while the Germans were under pressure. We played with freedom and did really well.”
Bulgaria’s run to the semi-finals
Nigeria 3-0 Bulgaria
Bulgaria 4-0 Greece
Argentina 0-2 Bulgaria
Mexico 1-1 (1-3 PSO) Bulgaria
Bulgaria 2-1 Germany
Penev would later say that beating Germany had been “the greatest day in the history of Bulgarian football”. Hristo Stoichkov chose a different description, reflecting on the famous triumph as “a pretty easy win”. “We were the better team right from the off,” the Barcelona star added.
Bulgaria did, though, fall behind shortly after half-time to a Matthaus penalty, and looked to be heading out soon afterwards when Rudi Voller stabbed home from close range. But the linesman’s flag cut short Voller’s celebrations, and the match turned 15 minutes from time when Stoichkov curled home a brilliant free-kick.
Then, just 180 seconds later, came the moment that defined Letchkov’s career. Anticipating a cross from the right before Thomas Hassler, he threw himself at the ball and sent a brilliant diving header into the top-left corner. The Germans were out, and it was a man playing his club football at Hamburg who had sent them packing.
“After the game the Germans behaved like gentlemen,” Letchkov recalled. “They came and congratulated us. Their coach Berti Vogts also shook our hands. That showed their great mentality.”
Bulgaria would go on to lose to Italy by the same scoreline in the semi-finals, and were then beaten to third place by an on-song Sweden side. But immortality was already assured thanks to that historic victory over the holders.
“The win united the nation,” said Letchkov. “The way we were greeted on our return in Sofia was unbelievable. A player can only dream about receiving such love and passion.”
Did know you know?
Among the items in the USA 1994 exhibit at the FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich are $1 and $5 coins with the tournament logo – part of a series that proved popular with collectors.