finding solace

SOFIA - Bulgarian soccer fans cast aside their cares to bask in the memory of the day that Hristo Stoichkov and his team mates upset the odds to beat champions Germany and reach the 1994 World Cup semifinals .

The team's run in the US Fifa World Cup still stands as Bulgaria's biggest international soccer success. But the game has fallen into decline and officials, including Borislav Mihaylov, who was the 1994 goalkeeper, want the state to step in and rescue it.

"Football is a social phenomenon and I believe that the state should take care of it," Mihaylov, now the Bulgarian Football Union president, told reporters.

"The most important thing was that we managed to unite the whole nation," Ivaylo Yordanov, who played in five matches during the 1994 finals, said at the 15th anniversary match a fortnight ago. "We did something that many politicians have failed to do so far."

On July 10, 1994, Bulgaria came from a goal down to beat Germany 2-1 at Giants Stadium, New York, and reach the last four.

Captain Lothar Matthaeus had put Germany in front with a penalty soon after the interval but Bulgaria battled back.

Stoichkov, who was recently appointed Mamelodi Sundowns coach, levelled the score by curling a rasping free kick in in the 75th minute and midfielder Yordan Lechkov thundered home a perfect diving header three minutes later.

"It's difficult to explain how we managed to achieve that," said midfield maestro Krasimir Balakov. "Let's just say that God was Bulgarian that summer."

Stoichkov, who was the tournament's joint top scorer with six goals, was on the mind of the Italians before the ensuing semifinal.

"How will you stop Stoichkov?" a journalist asked Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi before the game.

"I don't know, maybe with a pistol," replied Sacchi.

Bulgaria came close to another upset but lost 2-1 to Italy, complaining that French referee Joel Quiniou had not awarded a penalty for a "clear handball" in the penalty area.

"God was still on our side but the referee was French," said the straight-talking Stoichkov after the final whistle.

Bulgaria's tournament had begun badly as they went down 0-3 to African champions Nigeria.

The painful defeat, Bulgaria's 17th game without a win in six World Cup finals, was hard to swallow and that several players had to help it down in the bars of Dallas.

However, an emphatic 4-0 win over Greece was followed by a cool 2-0 win against Argentina and a knife-edged penalty shoot-out against Mexico.

Friday's 15th anniversary of the win over Germany was commemorated with an exhibition match in which the 1994 team beat a side of former internationals 5-3 in Sliven.

Now to rekindle the glory days, Mihaylov said they will ask the authorities to grant funds for improving infrastructure and to build new sports facilities in the hope of recreating the glory days of 15 years ago. - Reuter