Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bulgaria qualified for World Cup 1970 finals for third time in succession, after reaching the finals in 1962 and 1966. The country reached the finals in 1974 as well and I think this information is good point for observing football in the early 1970s and the changes taking place at the time. Only 16 teams played at the finals then, largely European affair, for half of the finalists came from Europe. Africa, Asia, and Central-North America were still non-entities, having one place each at the finals. South America had three berths. Add the raining world champion and the host country with granted berths. More or less, the structure was fair – best football was played in Europe and parts of South America. Just to make it true world tournament the rest of the globe was allowed to send 3 teams, but nobody expected anything from the outsiders (the surprise performance of North Korea in 1966 did not shake attitudes and opinions – and rightly so: North Korea sunk among the rabble immediately). Europe was central in every respect, but it was still Europe of only 32 countries (with old Communist USSR, Yugoslavia, East Germany and Czechoslovakia and without small fry like Andorra, San Marino, Liechtenstein, Farroe Islands). The big guns were well known – England, Spain, Italy and West Germany. They were the mightiest for variety of reasons – old victories, money, superstars, strong clubs. Not every factor played equal role – Spain routinely underperformed on international level, but had giant success on club level. West Germany was the opposite – with newly established national division, German clubs were not yet regarded powerhouses, but they were financially strong. And Germany was already World Champion from 1954.
Under the mightiest was large group of countries relatively strong, but not undisputed. USSR and Yugoslavia were more or less at the top of the middle group and Holland, for instance, the bottom. None among these countries was unbeatable – in the middle existed relative parity. Given momentary form; some good luck; particularly strong generation of players, and anybody was able to beat the rest. Some countries had successful clubs – Portugal’s Benfica ranked among the top European clubs for example, but others did not have even this – Polish clubs were traditionally weak. Even France, with old professional football regularly employing foreign players, was not remarkable – not a single hot club, rather unimpressive domestic championship, and often lackluster national team.
At the bottom were the punching bags: the Scandinavian countries (except Sweden), Wales, Northern Ireland, Eire, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Malta, Cyprus, Luxembourg. Austria and Switzerland tended to be part of this group too. The divisions were regarded stable and for all practical reasons changes up and down appeared only in the middle group. Temporary changes at that.
Given the European hierarchy, the teams qualifying for the World Cup 1970 were hardly surprising. Of course, in the actual time some results were commented – Spain failed to qualify. Portugal was even bigger disappointment: the exciting team from World Cup 1966 finished dead last in their qualifying group. Yugoslavia, Hungary and France missed the boat, but USSR, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Sweden were happy finalists. From the distance of time there were no surprises whatsoever: Portugal was based on the great Benfica team – but it was aging generation. Eusebio was still bright star, but some of his teammates already retired and there were no strong replacements. Spain was less of a surprise – this country is traditionally shy of international success (two European titles is everything they ever won – and the second title came in 2008). The rest was typical European shuffle among relative equals. The Bulgarian example illustrates the situation: they were in qualifying group with Poland, Holland and Luxembourg. From Bulgarian perspective Poland was the only real difficulty. In terms of European hierarchy, it was to be either Poland or Bulgaria. Nobody expected Holland to win the group – at best, her role would have been arbitrary: sneaking a point or two from one of the real candidates, Holland would have helped the other. Luxembourg did not count. At the end Bulgaria won one point above Poland – winning all home games, losing the away game in Poland and getting a point in Holland. Poland lost their away match from Holland and missed the finals. And the rest of the European groups followed similar scenario – at best, there were two teams with chances to reach the final stage, more or less depending on the results against third weaker team. No newcomers, no team shaking the status quo.
Bulgaria won their home game against Poland 4-1. Here the young and raising star Hristo Bonev – in my opinion, the best ever Bulgarian midfielder – attacks the Polish net. Hubert Kostka desperately tries to prevent the goal…
But it was Bulgaria… Asparukhov kisses the goalscorer Bonev. On the right – in front of the Bulgarian net Simeonov clears confidently. Important win, yet, it was the away game with Holland qualifying Bulgaria.