Monday, March 25, 2013

Group 5 was unpredictable, fairly equal, and, therefore, tough. Bulgaria, France, and Ireland. Republic of Ireland was not really expected to qualify, but who knows – there was no overwhelming favourite and no weak donor of points. Everything was possible. The Bulgarians reacted to the draw with there traditional lunacy: a combination of fear, caution, and optimism , based on weird assumptions. Tough group, but qualification was more than possible. France? In the past, Bulgaria eliminated France. Doable. Careful with the Irish, that's the really tough part. More or less, Ireland was seen as the more dangerous opponent, contrary to the obvious fact that France was vastly improving, had Platini and a whole bunch of St. Etienne players at their peak. And despite the fact that Bulgaria was in decline, having no great new generation able to replace the aging players from 1974. Bulgaria had no stable team at all – after 1974 there were constant changes, ranging from total replacement of the old stars to re-introduction of the veterans. There was no clear concept at all and nothing good came out of it. Bulgaria lapsed again and again into 'character': if the team mobilized and showed 'spirit', opposition would be overcome. Since 'spirit' was the substitute for real tactics, less talented generation was hardly able to go far. Bulgaria lost a point in their opening match at home – a 2-2 tie, benefiting France. Luckily, France lost to Ireland in Dublin. Then Bulgaria clinched unconvincing victory against same Ireland – 2-1 in Sofia, a match mostly remembered by me for the fight on the pitch, provoked by the Bulgarian team for no reason at all. The fight Bulgarian lost – so much for winning by 'spirit' alone – but the chaotic brawl confused the referee and an innocent player was expelled. Which at the end was seen as a convenient Bulgarian excuse: the referee was blamed instead of purely Bulgarian lack of playing concept. Bulgaria extracted a goalless tie in Dublin, and thus the last group match was decisive – both France and Bulgaria had a chance. The direct clash in Paris was to decide who was going to the finals. Given the importance of the match and the attacking qualities of France, Bulgaria fielded inadequate team – leading by a point, Bulgaria needed a tie, and as many times before, the concept was entirely defensive. Not any tie, but 0-0! Prevent France from scoring – the team on the pitch suggested nothing else:

Back from left: Kiril Ivkov, Roumen Goranov, Angel Stankov, Tzonyo Vassilev, Angel Kolev.

Front row: Hristo Bonev, Boris Angelov, Vanyo Kostov, Atanas Aleksandrov, Nikolay Arabov, Georgy Bonev.

Five defenders, two of them sweepers (Ivkov and Arabov). Two players were able to play either defensive midfield or stoppers – Angelov and Kostov. Bonev was to control the game in midfield, although it is not clear what more than just killing time: weird strikers here. Undefined Stankov – who never had clear position, operating in midfield and attack, but neither midfielder, nor striker. Same with Angel Kolev, so the idea seemingly was to saturate midfield with players, largely preventing French attacks. In front – the right winger Aleksandrov. Hardly the most useful position, if using only one striker. On top of it Ivkov, Bonev, and Goranov were already dismissed a few times from the national team – the first two for getting old, Goranov – for his disastrous performance at the 1974 World Cup. All was part of the plan for 'rejuvenating' the squad, which never worked, and formerly dismissed 'for good' players were called back, then dismissed again, then called back, and so on. Misshaped team, clearing aiming at 0-0 and incapable for anything else – this squad has no capability of attacking, so if the French managed to score, Bulgaria was not in position to score back. A limited, dangerous concept, depending only on desperate defense and counting on luck. Of course, the 'concept' failed, for this was not France of the 1960s or the very early 1970s – the French teams which were overcome by Bulgaria once upon a time, but curiously taken by Bulgarian specialists for current France – and France won easily 3-1. Bulgaria was eliminated and you can guess who were blamed for missing the World Cup. Some players were 'dismissed for good' and 'rejuvenating' started anew.

France qualified for the finals – the first major tournament the country qualified for since 1966.
France in the friendly against West Germany in 1977: standing from left: Rey, Janvion, Bathenay, Rio, Bossis, Trésor, Synaeghel.

First row: Rocheteau, Platini, Pécout, Sarramagna.

May be not the best French squad of the time, but very close approximation, not to mention the amusement value – the masked Rocheteau, in the days when face masks were very rare (and really not masks, but bandages). Since Michel Hidalgo replaced Stefan Kovacs in 1976, France was steadily rising. To a point, Hidalgo was using players already introduced by Kovacs, but he made a meaningful team of them, benefiting from the great St. Etienne squad, coming to its peak, and vastly talented Platini, getting stronger every next year and already among the biggest European stars. To think, as the Bulgarians did, hat this well rounded and explosively attacking team can be neutralized by mere defensive play was suicidal. True, France was unfinished yet, still the striking line was convincing, but it was dangerous enough, very inventive, and promising. The peak was still years away, but France was steadily rising.