Bulgaria qualified for their 4th in a row World Cup, and the first reaction at home was cautious: more or less, just happy to be at the finals. The 1970 fiasco was well remembered – back then it was proclaimed that the country had her best ever team and 1/8 finals were sure thing. Collapse followed… so in 1974 there was no undue optimism, which went almost to pesimism when the draw placed the team into 3rd Group. But after the initial scare, optimism emerged – repeating the attitude of 1970. Four years ago it was calculations: the match against West Germany was written off in advance and the rest were beatable teams. Now the match against Holland was written off. The other two teams in the group were considered beatable, if Lady Luck is on ‘our side’. Curiously, Sweden was thought the easier opponent – an illusion, which still persists in the Bulgarian mind. It is based on some ancient win in the 1960s, which is the last time Bulgaria won against the Scandinavians. If Sweden was underestimated, Uruguay was overestimated – it was considered more difficult opponent. Based on what else than ignorance is hard to tell – since Bulgarians tend to see themselves of practitioners of technical football, Uruguay was imagined stronger because of South American technical superiority. After building some kind of optimism, the Bulgarian team went into preparations. There was already no doubt that the team was in trouble: this generation, unlike the one of 1970, was not golden. The pool of players was smaller; a bunch of notable players were getting too old, and there was much more to fret about. The coach Christo Mladenov was good and experienced – he was already assistant coach of the national team during 1966 World Cup. More recently he built the strong Beroe (Stara Zagora) team – perhaps the best ever squad of this provincial club. But it was a smaller club and no matter how good they were, they were good only for third place in the league. None of its players managed to secure a place in the national team coached by their former coach! Meantime CSKA had dangerously aging squad, some members of which were no longer good enough for international football. Levski-Spartak was another problem: the team had fantastic Autumn in 1973, ending with 14 wins and 1 tie at midseason. The spring they fell out of form… thanks to 7 points lead from the fall, the club finished first, but it was clear that the blue boys would not be great hope for the national team. The national selection itself was far from good shape – their best football was in 1972 and was based largely on the lethal duo Christo Bonev – Georgy Denev. By 1974 the magic was gone.
The greatest problem was the attack: with very limited choice of players, it was settled originally on playmaker Bonev and left winger Denev. When it worked, it was stong combination, yet, predictable for intelligent opponents. The rest of the attacking line played little more role than just making the required eleven… But the biggest problem was the qualities of the players: eventually the trio of Denev- Atanas Mikhailov-Voin Voinov was chosen as the most stable variation. Only the right winger Voinov was typical attacker – the other too were attacking midfielders, naturally tending to stay back and attack from deeper zones of the field. Denev and Mikhailov were selfish players, both rarely passing the ball to anybody else and preffering endless solo runs. As a result, Bulgarian attack was slow – at the time a soloist eliminates a player after player, the opposition had great opportunity to people their half of the pitch. Voinov contributed to slowness too – his manner of finting was circular, so he always wasted time spinning around himself. Lame attack plus other deeply imbedded habits: almost instinctive dependence on defensive game – the team routinely used 5 defensemen even against weak opposition. Lack of speed – many a player was simply slow. Lazy lines – midfield and especially strikers tended to just watch the efforts of the defenders, rarely coming back to help. Fear of introducing younger players on time and radical sacking of old horses after a major fiasco. Undiscipline – the team often played rough game, lapsing into just stupid collecting of yellow and red cards and suspencions. And finally – the meddling of Communist Party officials with the team. By 1974, it was long established tradition – Party oficials travelling for no good reason with the national team to World Cup finals never failed to overrule the coach and order who was to play. The result was always negative, but the interfearences usually surfaced years later: at the actual time the coach was blamed and sacked. Then the players followed him in fantastic inconsistancy – suddenly someone was expelled ‘for good’ only to be called again a year later. Such mess left little for proper tactics and as rule Bulgarian squads were urged to win games fueld by ‘patriotic spirit’ rather than following some tactical scheme.
No wonder Bulgaria was placed among the outsiders at the draw for the finals – the outside world judged better Bulgarian football than Bulgarians. The reason why the team was considered having some chance was not because of strenght, but because both Sweden and Uruguay were estimated having weaknesses. At home the mood was not very optimistic, although officially the propaganda machine presented cheery picture. Everything would be fine, if the boys behave as proper patriots on the pitch.
Coach: Hristo Mladenov
No. Pos. Player DoB/Age Caps Club
1 GK Rumen Goranov 17 March 1950 (aged 24) Lokomotiv Sofia
2 DF Ivan Zafirov 30 December 1947 (aged 26) CSKA Sofia
3 DF Dobromir Zhechev 12 November 1942 (aged 31) Levski Sofia
4 DF Stefan Velichkov 15 February 1949 (aged 25) Etar Veliko Tarnovo
5 MF Bozhil Kolev 20 May 1949 (aged 25) CSKA Sofia
6 DF Dimitar Penev 12 July 1945 (aged 28) CSKA Sofia
7 DF Voyn Voynov 7 September 1952 (aged 21) Levski Sofia
8 MF Hristo Bonev 3 February 1947 (aged 27) Lokomotiv Plovdiv
9 FW Atanas Mihailov 4 July 1949 (aged 24) Lokomotiv Sofia
10 MF Ivan Stoyanov 20 January 1949 (aged 25) Levski Sofia
11 MF Georgi Denev 18 April 1950 (aged 24) CSKA Sofia
12 DF Stefan Aladzhov 18 October 1947 (aged 26) Levski Sofia
13 FW Mladen Vasilev 29 July 1947 (aged 26) Akademik Sofia
14 FW Kiril Milanov 17 October 1948 (aged 25) Levski Sofia
15 FW Pavel Panov 14 September 1950 (aged 23) Levski Sofia
16 FW Bozhidar Grigorov 27 July 1945 (aged 28) Slavia Sofia
17 MF Asparuh Nikodimov 21 August 1945 (aged 28) CSKA Sofia
18 DF Tsonyo Vasilev 7 January 1952 (aged 22) CSKA Sofia
19 DF Kiril Ivkov 21 June 1946 (aged 27) Levski Sofia
20 FW Krasimir Borisov 8 April 1950 (aged 24) Levski Sofia
21 GK Stefan Staykov 3 October 1949 (aged 24) Levski Sofia
22 GK Simeon Simeonov 26 April 1946 (aged 28) Slavia Sofia
Getting ready for the World Cup:
Top, left to right: G. Dimitrov-assistant coach, St. Staykov, Iv. Zafirov, B. Kolev, K. Ivkov, D. Zhechev, St. Aladzhov, Iv. Stoyanov, Tz. Vasilev, R. Goranov, Chr. Mladenov-coach.
Bottom: P. Petkov, V. Voynov, P. Panov, Chr. Bonev, G. Denev, D. Dimitrov, K. Milanov.
The strikers Petko Petkov and Dimitar Dimitrov, both from Beroe (Stara Zagora) were left out of the final selection, which was based – as ever – on CSKA and Levski players. Some trivia – Dobromir Zhechev was to appear at his 4th World Cup finals and Dimitar Penevq who (kind of) coached Bulgaria to 4th palce at 1994 World Cup, was going to his 3rd World Cup. Quite a few were approaching their 2nd World Cup as well, but trivia aside, there was a fundamental problem with the squad – there were weak players for some positions and at the same time there were redundant players at others. Unbalanaced team, making clear that performance will be based on defensive ‘heroics’, hoping on Christo Bonev, the only player with European reputation, to score from ocasional free kick. Personally, I was glad that Simeon Simeonov was included in the squad – true, as a third goalie, but he played only half a season since the 1970 World Cup, in the spring of 1974. And how he played! But, personal preferences apart, Bulgaria was going to the finals not that much to awe the world, but… hoping a miracle to happen, thanks to display of ‘the morality of the Socialist men’, whatever that meant.