The 52-game, 24-team World Cup has come down to its final stages. Four teams have earned the right to play today for a berth in the final on Sunday at the Rose Bowl.
As it has proved time and again in this tournament, Bulgaria is a lot more than simply Hristo Stoitchkov, the star and supporting cast or 21. Sunday's victory over defending champion Germany underlined that fact.
The Germans managed to frustrate Stoitchkov for virtually the entire game but still lost. Why? Because the Bulgarians never were in awe of their opponents. They played a calm disciplined game, never hurrying or appearing hurried.
The defense is particularly cool under pressure, with Zlatko Iankov, Trifon Ivanov and Tsanko Tzvetanov especially impressive. In the midfield, Krasimir Balakov orchestrates the action, either distributing the ball in an intelligent fashion or making forays into the opposing penalty area.
If Stoitchkov is marked out of the game, as he was against Germany, the job of scoring falls to Emil Kostadinov or Nasko Sirakov. But as the Bulgarians proved Sunday, any of them can find the back of the net.
Yordan Letchkov is a thoughtful midfielder who typifies the Bulgarians' habit of involving all players in both the offense and defense. He gave away a penalty at one end of the field and later scored the winning goal at the other.
As for style, Bulgaria is a counterattacking team that relies on the fast break and on set plays, such as free kicks and corners, to break down the opposition.
Goalkeeper Borislav Mihaylov, who plays for a second-division team in France, has done well enough in this tournament to earn himself a heftier contract with a more fashionable club. Of course, with the exception of Stoitchkov, already at Barcelona, the same it true for all of the Bulgarina "supporting cast."
World Cup '90
Bulgaria did not qualify for the finals because it was 1-4-1 in Group 1 eliminations. Bulgaria had not won a World Cup match in 16 tries before this year.
A. Bulgaria vs. Italy
Site: East Rutherford, J.J., at 1 p.m.
Bulgaria Coach: Dimitar Penev
Born: July 12, 1945
World Cup Experience: Played nine games as a central defender for Bulgaria in the tournaments of 1966 in England, 1970 in Mexico and 1974 in West Germany.
World Cup Record: 3-1-1.
ROAD TO THE SEMIFINALS
DATE: JUNE 21
RESULT: Lost to Nigeria, 3-0
HIGHLIGHT: Super Eagles too swift
DATE: JUNE 26
RESULT: Defeated Greece, 4-0
HIGHLIGHT: Stitchkov scores twice
DATE: JUNE 30
RESULT: Defeated Argentina, 2-0
HIGHLIGHT: Mihaylov faces 20 shots
DATE: JULY 5
SITE: East Rutherford, N.J.
RESULT: Tied Mexico, 1-1**
HIGHLIGHT: Mexico dissolves during penalty kicks.
DATE: JULY 10
SITE: East Rutherford, N.J.
RESULT: Defeated Germany, 2-2
HIGHLIGHT: Letchkov's header wins it
**Advanced on penalty kicks, 3-1
1 Borislav Mihaylov: Gk
12 Plamen Nikolov: GK
2 Emil Kremenliev: D
3 Trifon Ivanov: D
4 Tsanko Tzvetanov: D
5 Petar Houbtchev: D
15 Nikolai Iliev: D
16 Ilian Kiriakov: D
6 Zlatko Iankov: MF
9 Yordan Letchkov: MF
11 Daniel Borimirov: MF
19 Georgi Gueorguiev: MF
20 Krasimir Balakov: MF
7 Emil Kostadinov: F
8 Hristo Stoitchkov: F
13 Ivailo Andronov: F
14 Boncho Guentchev: F
10 Nasko Sirakov: F
17 Petar Mijtarski: F
18 Petar Alexandrov: F
21 Velko Iotov: F
22 Ivailo Iordanov: F
Talent can carry a team far in a World Cup, but there is an intangible quality that is needed to win the tournament.
Italy has shown only flashes of promise, only a hint of its true talent. It has been on the ropes and mere seconds away from elimination. But it has survived.
Now, it is in the semifinals, and it is all due to that elusive quality that some call luck, others call fate and few can really pinpoint.
Italy has been bedeviled by injuries, losing its most experienced defender, Franco Baresi, for the entire tournament. Italy has been the victim of red cards, losing its starting goalkeeper, Gianluca Pagliuca, and one of its strikers, Gianfranco Zola, in separate games. In addition, defender Mauro Tassotti received an eight-game suspension for an elbow that broke Spanish forward Luis Enrique's nose late in Saturday's quarterfinal.
Roberto Baggio has received most of the praise because he has scored the goals that have kept his country alive. But Baggio has played far better in the past.
Coach Arrigo Sacchi, who has tinkered incessantly with his starting lineup, has imposed a rigid tactical discipline that has brought success and caused problems. The player's need for self-expression and inventiveness and spur-of-the moment creativity has been stifled.
Italy in 1994 has not been an attractive team to watch, and Italian fans have suffered all sorts of agonies as their team has struggled to overcome the restraints placed on it by the coach.
World Cup '90