Saturday, May 15, 2010

Group 6. Theoretically, Portugal had the edge, but Bulgarians were quite confident that they had very good chances too. Portugal was aging and clearly not the great team of 1966, was the argument, which proved to be the correct one. Cyprus were the obvious outsiders – proven by the following photo:
Pampoulis, Stylianou (top, left to right), Charalambous, Kavazis, and Stefanos – any recognizable name?
Yet, from Bulgarian perspective the matches with Northern Ireland were important and they approached them with caution: the Northern Irish were not real challengers, but they were capable of spoiling somebody else’s fun. They had George Best…
Since 1971 Best was spending most of his time in disciplinary hearings and
on the Mallorca beach. Hardly the best anymore, George is perhaps the greatest player never to play at World Cup finals.
Leaving nothing to chance, the Bulgarians provoked Best at the first leg in Sofia and George was red-carded. According to the most popular legend, Bonev, the captain and the star of Bulgaria inserted his finger into the Irish anus to get the result. I don’t remember details – on TV it looked like just a constant verbal abuse until Best lost his cool. Bulgaria won 3-0.
Bonev scores from penalty. Jennings dives, trying to catch the ball. Far right – George Best, still on the pitch.
Pat Jennings, the other big Irish name, on his knees – Bulgarians score again.
With Best out of the picture, the battle focused on the two remaining stars:
Eusebio and Bonev – who deserved to go to the finals?
At the end, Bulgaria managed to win 2-1 in Sofia and clinched a 2-2 tie in Lisbon.
Mladen Vasilev and Georgy Denev celebrate a goal against Portugal.
The decline of Portugal showed clearly against Northern Ireland – two 1-1 ties. Bulgaria played defensively the second leg with the Irish and extracted a point from 0-0 tie.
1. Bulgaria 4 2 0 13-3 10
2. Portugal 2 3 1 10-6 7
3. Northern Ireland 1 3 2 5-6 5
4. Cyprus 1 0 5 1-14 2
Bulgaria reached their 4th consecutive World Cup, but how good was the team? Well, the 1970 squad was considered the best Bulgaria ever had, which proved to be fluff. The new team was not that great, played tough, but outdated football, and depended on defense. The concept was to win at home and avoid losing away. However, a great duo carried on the campaign – Hristo Bonev and Georgy Denev.
Bonev (in the middle, playing for Lokomotiv Plovdiv against Lokomotiv Sofia, tackled by Christakiev) was in his prime and perhaps played his best season in 1972-73. Great playmaker and goal scorer, perhaps the best ever Bulgarian midfielder.
Denev of CSKA (right, playing one of his pretty much always lost battles against fellow teammate in the national team Ivan Stoynov during the Levski – CSKA derby of the season) was still young, but already severely criticized for his egoistic manner of playing. Usually he played midfield, but was moved as left-winger in the national team and he and Bonev combined into a deadly pair, inspiring each other. Because of their sparkling performances, little attention was paid to the real deficiencies, particularly in attack, where the right wing and the centre forward were more or less out of the game. Bulgaria depended on her left wing, becoming dangerously predictable – and thus easy to neutralize. Portugal, herself in trouble, was unable to use the shortcomings, but better teams surely would have been able to capitalize on them. The defense was sluggish and the list of available talent was short. Yet, there was euphoric mood in Bulgaria again – after eliminating Portugal, the team was good!
In reality, the group stage was normal European ‘tough’ group of equals – equal in their decay. One can’t be sorry for the Irish – they did not play great either, managing to give Cyprus a rare win. This group perhaps presented best the great divide occurring in football – teams still playing football from the 1960s and increasingly lagging behind those who embraced total football. But also this was the arch-typical European group – two fairly equal teams, no certain favourite. Much depended on a third, weaker, team – a single point denied to either candidate was crucial at the end.