Talk to any football fan and you'll hear plenty of explanations for this phenomenon: "Five fans, 10 opinions," as the Bulgarian saying goes.
Some claim that the stars are, in fact, not really stars at all; others admit that stars exist, but argue that they fall prey to their own prima donna-ism. Theories of insufficient motivation, insufficient patriotism and insufficient pay are also often bandied about.
Bulgarian footballers offer their own explanations for their lack of success. At press conferences players can often be heard to complain that they would have preferred to play on the right side, or on the left, or that they would have liked to have been captain, or that they don't like the current coach, or that they didn't like the previous coach, or...
Yet there is one opinion that they all share almost without exception: the true culprits behind these defeats are the referees. The coaches also appear to be part of the problem. Stoytchkov was a disaster at the job - in the end the Bulgarian Football Association was forced to replace him with Dimitar Penev, the very coach who led to the team to victory in the semi-finals in the United States.
Perhaps we can chalk it up to a generation gap. It may really be true that players such as Hristo Stoytchkov, Emil Kostadinov, Trifon Ivanov, Bobi Mihaylov and Nasko Sirakov only come along once in a century.
But the real explanation is most likely political. When Stoytchkov and his teammates achieved their victories in the United States, Bulgaria had only recently shaken off the heavy yoke of Communism. Bulgaria - along with the other countries from the Soviet bloc - was taking its first baby steps into the arena of international politics. The idea that they were representing a new democracy to the world inspired Bulgarian footballers, who considered themselves ambassadors of the new political movement.
Today, whatever its faults may be, Bulgaria is no longer in need of such diplomacy. Money has replaced politics as the footballers' main motivation; thus, while they still hold Bulgarian passports, they now consider themselves citizens of the world. And in this era of globalisation, a fat salary is one of the best measures of success.
The difference between these two trains of thought was particularly striking at a fund-raising match between "the old national team" and "the new national team" at the Bulgarian Army Stadium in 1999. Despite their thickening waistlines and receding hairlines, the heroes of 1994 managed to soundly trounce the "new guard" five-two.
This explanation, if true, is quite depressing. The Bulgarian national team seems unlikely to see the equivalent of Ryan Giggs anytime soon. For 17 years, this legendary player has been the superstar of Manchester United, raking in millions. But because he was born in Cardiff and has refused to give up his Welsh citizenship, Giggs has never sported the English national jersey on the playing field. Instead, he is a member of the Welsh national team, a team that he will never lead to any international victories.
Yet the team's utter lack of any prospects for glory has not caused Giggs to shirk his duties. Until his very last game for the national team, he gave his all on the field, without any squabbling over money, the captaincy or which position he would play. Giggs is not the only such example; other players who return to help their humble home teams include Ivan Zamorano of Chile, Hugo Sanchez of Mexico, Mark Viduka of Australia and Roger Milla of Cameroon.
It seems that Bulgarian footballers have yet to learn the first rule of democratic sport: a player's performance in competition should not depend on the amount of money he receives for it. In the alchemy of athletics, this is the only way to become "golden".
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers