Thursday 24 August 2017, 08:10

Stalwart Hubchev rebuilding Bulgaria

  • Bulgaria rise 20 places in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking

  • Eye-catching win over the Netherlands

  • Qualifying for the FIFA World Cup will be difficult

There is one particular moment in history known to every Bulgarian football fan.

With 12 minutes left on the clock in the 1994 FIFA World Cup™ quarter-finals, Iordan Letchkov throws himself in front of Germany midfielder Thomas Hassler to meet a cross from the right, burying a diving header past goalkeeper Bodo Illgner into the top left corner. His goal put the eastern European side 2-1 up and ultimately knocked defending world champions Germany out of the tournament.

In reaching the semi-finals for the first and only time, Bulgaria, who boasted the world-class gifts of Hristo Stoichkov as well as several other talented players, climbed to previously unknown heights in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking by peaking at eighth in 1995.

The current team may be a long way from that, but over the last two years they have taken huge strides forward. Bulgaria won four of their eight games in 2016, with a 1-0 friendly win away to eventual European champions Portugal in March 2016 causing something of a sensation.

However, Bulgaria did not get off to an ideal start in 2018 World Cup qualifying. They were handed an admittedly tricky draw in Group A and left to jostle with Sweden, France, the Netherlands, Belarus and Luxembourg for an automatic qualifying place or a potential play-off spot as group runners-up.

After Ivaylo Petev left his role as national team head coach to take over at Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb, the president of the Bulgarian FA, Borislav Mikhailov - captain of that legendary 1994 side - called on the man who was the pillar of that team's backline as sweeper: Petar Hubchev. He has held the reins since October 2016, having previously been assistant national team coach over a decade ago.

It is perhaps no coincidence that in Mikhailov and Hubchev, two men from that golden era who were unafraid of big reputations are now in charge. And so it came that Bulgaria caused a huge upset by beating the Netherlands 2-0 in a World Cup qualifying match in Sofia in March.

That achievement has been rewarded in the latest edition of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. While Bulgaria were 72nd at the start of the year they now sit in 52nd place, their highest berth for approximately three years.

Bulgaria no longer have the big names they did in the past, and nobody in the squad plays for Barcelona or in the Bundesliga, as Hubchev once did at Hamburg and Eintracht Frankfurt. Yet he has nevertheless managed to get his team performing with discipline and compactness, able to make life difficult for more illustrious opponents.

By the same token, Bulgaria still lack the ability to dominate and control games themselves, as underlined by their most recent defeat, a 2-1 reverse to Belarus in June. That loss left Bulgaria on nine points, four adrift of the leading duo Sweden and France, while the Netherlands have even managed to slip ahead of them on ten points. Catching up will now be very difficult - unless Bulgaria can pull off another couple of surprises. Yet that is something Hubchev and Mikhailov are already very familiar with.