Bulgarian footballers abroad earn outrageous salaries and are the stars of their teams, yet when they play for the national team they fail to score
Issue 15-16, December 2007 – January 2008
by Nikolay Veselinov; photography by BTA
"Whatever happened to the 'Golden Guys'?" This was the question we were all asking ourselves when the Bulgarian national team was knocked out in the qualifying rounds of the 2004 European Championship in Portugal. The memory of the Golden Guys' fourth place finish in the World Cup in the United States a decade earlier was still fresh in everyone's minds. There were also new headlines reporting the record breaking transfer fees and salaries paid out by clubs like Bayer Leverkusen and Tottenham Hotspur to those very same footballers who had dropped the ball in Portugal.
Indeed, these new Bulgarian footballers are talented - as long as they play for a foreign club. But once they don the national jersey, the chances of them scoring a goal become slimmer than the chances of finding a free seat on the Tube during rush hour.
26-year-old Dimitar Berbatov's pair of lushly lashed blue eyes has made him a sex symbol; his weekly salary of ?30,000 from Tottenham has made him a rich man. He is a remarkable striker, and when he's on form, he is a wonder to behold. For that reason, his former team pocketed a cool 16 million euros for him - a record amount for a Bulgarian footballer. Not even the legendary Stoytchkov himself came with such a hefty price tag. But despite this, "Beautiful" Mitko cannot compare with the old master. As captain of the national team, Berbatov was not able to score a single goal in the Euro 2008 qualifiers against Albania or Holland. Nor has he led his club to victory in any championships, offering a weak performance at the Euro 2004.
Berbatov is not the only Bulgarian footballer to have surpassed Stoytchkov's transfer fee. Left winger Martin Petrov - Bulgaria's MVP for 2006 - was transferred to Manchester City from Atletico Madrid for ?4,700,000. In 2005 forward Valeri Bozhinov left Lecce for Fiorentina to the tune of 13 million euros. He is now with Manchester City, but due to injuries and his tumultuous love affair with the folksinger Alicia (the two are now married and have a son) his performance has not been particularly impressive.
Any list of successful Bulgarian footballers abroad should also include Svetoslav Todorov, who played for Portsmouth a few years ago, and last but not least, Radostin Kishishev. At 33, he is already rapidly approaching the sport's usual retirement age, but he is nevertheless still valued for his dedication and gusto on the field. His by-no-meansshabby biography includes games for Charlton, Leeds and Leicester.
Bulgarian footballers playing for German clubs are few and far between, but well-respected, if only because of the Golden Guys, who eliminated the German national team from the 1994 World Cup.
When Krasimir Balakov (himself a Golden Guy) officially bid farewell to football, Stuttgart fans packed the Gottlieb Daimler Stadium to wish him well. He continues to live on in their memories as one of the most intelligent and hard-working foreign midfielders ever to play in Germany. The name of Mariyan Hristov may be fading from the Bulgarian memory, yet he remains the only Bulgarian Bundesleague champion, a title he earned in 1998 along with his Kaiserslautern teammates.
Bulgarian footballers also play in France and Spain, and especially Turkey, where they frequently join the ranks of second-string teams such as Kayserispor, Samsunspor and Gaziantep.
For a small country of seven million or so, Bulgaria hasn't done so badly on the international football scene. Why is it, then, that when Bulgarian footballers play for the national team, these stars can't even manage to beat Albania in the Euro 2008 qualifiers? Why do they seem haunted by a strange internal compulsion to be shut out by Sweden, losing match after embarrassing match by anything from three to five goals? How can we possibly account for their six-nil defeat by the Czech Republic in 2001, a humiliation surpassed only by the Bulgarian national youth team, which succumbed eight-nil to the same rival?
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