Stars, stripes and Stetsons, stellar stadiums soaked in sunshine and soccer played in searing heat. Welcome to the USA and the 1994 World Cup.
It was the tournament of Diego Maradona’s wild eyed jubilation and Diego Maradona’s drugs ban humiliation. It was the tournament of Brazilian swinging cradle goal celebrations, of Roberto Baggio’s divine ponytail, and of the tragedy of Andrés Escobar. It was also a tournament marked by those absent as much as those taking part. England, so unfortunate to lose their semi-final in 1990, had failed to qualify. Wales missed a penalty to miss out. Although the Republic qualified, Northern Ireland did not, and Scotland ended a long run of appearances by failing too. Denmark, the champions of Europe, and previous World Cup Winners Uruguay both fell short, and France, set to host the ’98 World Cup, were denied a place at the expense of the unheralded Bulgaria.
Bulgaria, veterans of 16 World Cup Finals matches and 16 defeats, were rewarded with a place in group D, alongside Greece, African Cup of Nations winners, Nigeria, and 1986 winners, 1990 runners up, Argentina.
Their first game didn’t bring sweat to the brow of a single bookmaker, as Nigeria yawned to a 3 – 0 victory. But, in their second game, Greece were wafted aside on a scalding afternoon in Chicago’s Soldier Field. At long last, the goal shy Bulgars broke their World Cup duck and hammered four past the Greeks, with the pick of the bunch coming from a midfielder with a medieval monk’s haircut and an island of follicles clinging on for dear life above his forehead. His name was Yordan Letchkov.
The Bulgarians had arrived at the 1994 World Cup as rank outsiders with a single golden nugget in their dirt pile. Hristo Stoichkov was dark haired, handsome and brooding, like a Black Sea James Bond. A glittering star among the glittering stars of Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona. At the Nou Camp, Stoichkov was El Pistolero – the gunslinger – romanticised and deadly. If he was the quick draw marksman then Letchkov was the steam boat card sharp, a flawless technician of the now you see it, now you don’t.
The defeat of Greece was seismic news back in the homeland, but the rest of the world reacted with patronising indifference. Jolly well done you, but it’s Argentina next and an early flight to Sofia, I’m afraid. But Bulgaria weren’t listening and instead recorded their second ever win by defeating the Diego deprived Argentinians.
Into the knockout stages for the very first time, Letchkov and the boys had exceeded all expectations, perhaps even their own. Next up, the Mexicans were sent home via a penalty shootout, with Letchkov wheeling away after tucking the decisive kick high to the keepers left. Suddenly, characters like Letchkov, Borislav Mikhailov, the wig wearing goalkeeper, and the sadly departed “wolfman” Trifon Ivanov, were becoming world famous names.
The quarter finals paired Bulgaria with a unified Germany. Although this was their first World Cup as a single nation, the West Germans had reached four of the last five finals, winning two of them, including 1990. A little statistic that made them reigning world champions. Völler, Matthäus, Klinsmann and Brehme versus Letchkov, Stoichkov, Ivanov, the minnows didn’t have a prayer. And so it seemed as under the peerless blue midday skies of the Giants Stadium, Lothar Matthäus crashed home a penalty kick, conceded by Letchkov, just minutes into the second half.
But half an hour later Hristo Stoichkov stood hands on hips, his chest heaving rhythmically beneath his fire engine red shirt, eyes on the German defensive wall, ears alert for a whistle from the referee. When it came he curled a 25 yard freekick with his left foot, up and over the Germans and into their net. Amid a loud surge of renewed belief, it was just 180 seconds later that the gods of football bestowed immortality on the shining head of Yordan Letchkov.
Enthusiastic Bulgarian drums beat in the crowd, a dark shadow was beginning to creep onto the edge of the sunbaked playing surface. A cross was swung in from the right and with an immaculately timed run, Letchkov stole in front of wee Thomas Hässler to power a brilliant, unstoppable diving header, high into the top corner. Germanic dreams lay slaughtered at the feet of a man who plied his trade in the Bundesliga.
The semi finals were a step too far for the world’s newly adopted second team, banging into a stubborn Italian defence and finished off by a sublime virtuoso performance from Roberto Baggio. But Sofia was coiled, ready to erupt in a cheering, flag waving, horn honking homecoming like no other.
It was an experience none of the players could ever forget, but there comes a time when silence reclaims the city streets, cats slink between paper cups and confetti, and tired streamers occasionally try to dance once more, encouraged by a breeze in a lonely doorway. And so it came to pass that at opposite ends of a continent, Hristo Stoichkov breathed on his new Balon d’Or and gave it a polish with a tanned forearm, and way to the north Yordan Letchkov continued to battle through hard-nosed winters with SV Hamburg.
Given the talents of the man they called the Magician, the question is why? Where were the European elite in the pursuit of the bald Bulgarian?
After the 1994 World Cup, Inter Milan did come calling, but, as Letchkov and his agent were negotiating with I Nerazzurri, a waiter brought the wrong starter to their table and Letchkov responded angrily by pelting the man with breadsticks. The Italian giants were horrified and that is a perfect demonstration as to why he remained in mid table Bundesliga nothingness, because Yordan Letchkov was not an easy man to deal with.
It was 1996 before he was finally able to call time on what was, in retrospect, the most stable period of his club career. Bulgaria had qualified for the finals of the European Championships for the first time, and before the squad travelled to England, Letchkov put pen to paper with Olympique Marseille.
Completely shorn of any element of surprise, Bulgaria survived for 3 matches at Euro 96 before France exacted their revenge and kicked them out of Angleterre. It may have been brief, but once again, when wearing the colours of his country, Letchkov’s quick feet mesmerised the world; his performance against France alone caused many a Marseille fan to salivate. But it was an entirely different Yordan Letchkov who arrived at the Stade Vélodrome later that summer. Scoring just 2 goals in 28 appearances, he was packing his bags again in ’97, this time for Istanbul and footballing oblivion.
Beşiktaş were led by the famously no-nonsense John Toshack, so why he thought Letchkov would be a good fit for his style, or why the Magician thought he could work with the Welshman is something of a mystery. Of course, they immediately began to squabble until just six-months into their love-hate affair, Letchkov returned late from a sanctioned break in Bulgaria. The club fined the player and so the player stamped his foot, folded his arms and refused to play for the club. In fact, Letchkov threw his huff all the way back to Bulgaria, where he declared his retirement from the game.
And he had, right through that time he trained with a professional side, and he stayed retired when he turned out for Bulgaria in a friendly with Argentina. ‘Gotcha’ screamed half of Istanbul. Aha! said Letchkov, but it was just a friendly. Actually, said FIFA, you’re nicked, and ruled that the Bulgarian couldn’t play for anyone without a kiss and make up with Beşiktaş. As Toshack refused to ever lay eyes on Letchkov again, it was an effective ban that put him out of the 1998 World Cup.
That may have been the end of our little tale if it were about any less a figure than Yordan Letchkov. After a final (and legitimate) fling with CSKA Sofia and then as player-manager with his home town club, he embarked upon a career as a luxury hotel owning businessman before deciding that his prickly personality was perfect for politics. In 2003 he was elected Mayor of Sliven, that old home town of his, and successfully reelected in 2007.
In Sliven, Letchkov was the local boy done good. A demi-god, a hero held in such lofty esteem that it was only those with a real talent for implosion who could possibly fail, and so, in April 2010 he was stripped of the mayorship and charged with official misconduct, reinstated in June and finally stuffed out of sight in the elections of 2011.
Yordan Letchkov had successfully turned undiluted love and affection into spit in the street derision. As well as fiddling his taxes, Letchkov managed to get himself wanted by his own police force when he was pulled over for a traffic violation. Choosing the ‘don’t you know who I am?’ defence, he chucked his documents in the officer’s face and sped off. But the act that finally had his townsfolk voting against him in their droves, was one of pure corruption.
The good people of Sliven had to live with broken, dug up boulevards, pockmarked with huge, suspension busting pot-holes, for nearly two whole years. The reason was a lawsuit shrouded in complexity and controversy, between the water supply company and Letchkov’s city council. So what? you’re thinking, these things happen. But what if the mayor owns luxury hotels in the same town, with expansive, blemish free roads leading to each, complete with lush gardens, wide pavements and street lamps. It was that kind of blatant misconduct that ultimately saw the ex-mayor served with a three year suspended prison sentence.
Despite his very best efforts to destroy any sort of legacy, today Yordan Letchkov is still revered in Bulgaria as the scorer of “the historic goal,” and as recently as 2019 he was wrapping himself in warm, familiar controversy, when, as vice president of the Bulgarian Football Union, he happily plunged straight into the argument about racist chanting during a Euro qualifier with England. The man is a magnet for a good dispute, but with a shrug of his thin face, controversy seems to slip from his shiny, bald head, as if he just couldn’t care. After all, it’s the same shiny, bald head that once destroyed the German nation.