While some strong European nations like France and England had been unable to qualify, all eyes were on the Germans, who came in as heavy favourites. In the first round the Germans played well without being overwhelming: they defeated Bolivia 1-0 in the opening match and tied Spain in their second match. In the last match they were three goals up against South Corea, but almost threw the victory away in a match that they won 3-2. Of Germany’s five goals, four had been scored by Klinsmann who was changing club from AS Monaco to Tottenham (and he was very successful in every club where he played), so he was looking awesome as Germany faced Belgium in the last-16 and won another close 3-2 victory on two goals by Olympique Marseille’s strong veteran striker Rudi Völler (appearing in his third World Cup) and one by Klinsmann.
The Germans were feeling confident as it became clear that they were to face Bulgaria in the quarter-final.
Bulgaria was participating in their sixth world cup, and their qualification had been sensational: in their last qualifying match they had to defeat France in Paris, and after being 1-0 down, two goals by FC Porto’s Emil Kostadinov gave them a very unexpected victory, and qualification at the expense of France.
However, Bulgaria entered the tournament with the statistic that they had never won a world cup match, and it seemed a difficult thing to change as they got into a difficult group with Argentina, Nigeria and Greece. They started poorly by losing 3-0 to Nigeria, but the second match against Greece gave them a resounding 4-0 victory. An Argentinean crisis, where Maradona had been banned from playing after testing positive for illegal drugs, gave Bulgaria the upper hand in their last match, and they won 2-0 to qualify for the last-16, where they faced Mexico, and won 3-1 on penalty kicks after a very boring match.
Still, it meant nothing, as Bulgaria had already achieved their best World Cup ever. It was nevertheless not a coincidence: Bulgaria’s team was probably the most talented generation of Bulgarian footballers ever: besides Emil Kostadinov, the team also had an extraordinary goalkeeper in Boris Mihaylov, Hamburg SV’s Iordan Letchkov, Sporting Lisbon’s Krassimir Balakiv, and the star above them all, the extraordinary and temperamental Barcelona striker Hristo Stoitchkov.
The Bulgarians had already shown that it would be unwise to underestimate them, and they were ready to give the Germans a good fight.
First half was disappointing as both teams played carefully, apparently afraid to make mistakes, but the Germans having a slight overweight in possession. However, only two minutes into the second half Jurgen Klinsmann was clumsily brought down inside the Bulgarian area by Iordan Letchkov. Captain Lothar Matthäus made no mistake in scoring his first goal of the tournament.
Germany’s lead had come on a cheap background, but things seemed to be going their way. Although the Bulgarians started putting more pressure and had more possession, the German routine and organisation was not letting them through. It had to be a moment of Stoitchkov’s genius that changed this. Fifteen minutes before time, Stoitchkov himself was brought down thirty meters from the German goal. He took the free kick himself; a perfectly placed kick above the wall and into the goal, without a chance for the goalkeeper Bodo Illgner from FC Cologne.
Sensationally, Bulgaria had levelled the match which, as a tactical tightrope, seemed to be heading towards extra time. But only two minutes after the equalizer Bulgaria combined in the German half. The ball ended with the Levski Sofia midfielder Zlatko Yankov on the right side, who centered into the German area, where only Thomas Hässler was defending against Iordan Letchkov. The Bulgarian jumped forward in front of Hässler and scored on a quite spectacular header that stunned Bodo Illgner.
Bulgaria was suddenly ahead, and the Germans seemed stunned. The German veterans were unable to put pressure under the hot New Jersey sun, while the Bulgarians suddenly had extra energy, and were able to defend their lead.
All eyes were on the sensational Bulgarian dream team that had eliminated the world champions. In the semifinal they played Italy, who defeated them 2-1, and they also lost the game for bronze against Sweden, but none of this could take away that Bulgaria had taken the world with storm in 1994. Hristo Stoitchkov’s extraordinary free kick contributed to him winning the Golden Boot of the tournament (together with Oleg Salenko), as well as him on that year being awarded the title as European footballer of the year.
- 10th July 1994, Giants Stadium, New Jersey
- Attendance: 72,000
- Referee: José Torres Cárdena (Colombia)
Goals: 0-1 Matthäus (47) (pen), 1-1 Stoitchkov (75), 2-1 Letchkov (78)
Bulgaria: Mihailov; Ivanov, Tzvetanov, Houbchev, Iankov, Kostadinov (Guenchev), Stoitchkov (Iordanov), Letchkov, Sirakov, Kiriakov, Balakov
Germany: Illgner; Kohler, Helmer, Buchwald, Berthold, Wagner (Strunz), Möller, Hässler, (Brehme), Matthäus, Völler, Klinsmann