Wednesday 27 March 2024, 13:00

Bulgaria set sights on a revival

  • Bulgaria have gone 20 years without reaching a major tournament

  • FIFA Inside speaks to FIFA Legend Hristo Stoichkov, national team captain Kiril Despodov and BFU General Secretary Borislav Popov about next steps

  • Participation in the FIFA Series 2024 Azerbaijan™ a big step in country’s development

Think of Bulgaria and the mind invariably goes back to the 1990s and the golden generation that reached the semi-finals at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, qualified for UEFA EURO 1996 and reached the World Cup again in France two years later. The nation’s footballing fortunes have plummeted since then, however.

Bulgaria have been in the international wilderness for a long, long time, with their last appearance at a major tournament coming as far back as EURO 2004 in Portugal. The current crop of national team players and coaches are determined to put that right, however, as are the Bulgarian Football Association and the legends of the 90s, raising hopes that better days are just around the corner.

“Bulgaria have been suffering for many years now,” said Hristo Stoichkov, perhaps the most iconic member of that fabled generation.

Kiril Despodov, the current national team captain, is determined to end that suffering: “Failing to qualify for a big tournament for the last 20 years is obviously hard for us as Bulgarians, but we’ll fight, train and give our all to take the team back to where it belongs.”

Inside FIFA spoke to several leading figures from Bulgarian football about its development and the importance of taking part in the FIFA Series 2024 Azerbaijan™, where they ended their participation on Monday after beating Tanzania 1-0 and drawing 1-1 against hosts Azerbaijan.

“I always tell today’s national team players not to try and copy us,” said Stoichkov, discussing the current generation. “They have to find their own way, and that involves hard work and thinking about what they need to do to improve. If they try to copy us, it’s only going to put pressure on them, and when that happens things don’t usually work out.”

The FIFA Legend, who scored 37 goals in 83 appearances for Bulgaria, said he likes to feel close to the players.

“I try to give them advice, but only if they ask me,” said the former CSKA Sofia and Barcelona star. “They like being with me and I show them the love they need and which is so important for them. We’re close.”

“We have a lot of work to do, but we’re not short of good players with talent,” added Despodov, giving the players’ point of view. “Together we can take the team back to the big time.”

Balakov, left, of Bulgaria runs to congratulate teammate Hristo Stoitchkov who celebrates after scoring the equalizer against Germany during the 1994 World Cup Quarterfinals at the Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey

The chance to take part in the FIFA Series in Azerbaijan is a significant step forward in Bulgaria’s development and growth.

“They’re international matches and you have to make the most of them,” commented Stoichkov. “The fact is that it’s got harder to arrange international fixtures, but that’s what the FIFA Series gives you. It’s got tougher and tougher to find big teams to play, and these tournaments help younger players by giving them a chance to compete and to learn.

“The FIFA Series is very important and FIFA should be applauded for their willingness to make it happen. It’s really going to help all the teams taking part and I know FIFA have put a lot of work into this. Congratulations from me.”

Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) General Secretary Borislav Popov echoed those words: “Taking part in the FIFA Series is very important for the Bulgarian national team and its players. It offers a unique series of advantages.

"Not only does it give the team valuable international experience, pitting them against teams from other continents with different styles of play and tactics, but it also gives the coaches a chance to assess the progress they’re making, identify their strengths and detect areas where they can improve in a competitive environment they’re perhaps not familiar with.”

Kiril Despodov attends at the official interviews before the FIFA Series 2024 in Azerbaijan

The BFU is also aware that it is responsible in large part for the development of Bulgarian football and future generations of players. Crucial to it achieving that goal is the FIFA Forward Programme.

“The FIFA Forward Programme has a huge role to play in transforming the development of the game in Bulgaria,” added Popov. “A large part of the funding goes towards basic infrastructure projects.

"The strategic direction we’re taking is crucial to the growth of football in the country, as it responds to a critical need for high-quality facilities that everyone can use, from grassroots through to women’s and youth football.”

Popov has a message of hope for the future: “Thanks to the support of the FIFA Forward Programme, Bulgaria is taking some big steps forward in terms of football development. Infrastructure and elite youth development are the foundations of a promising future for Bulgarian football.”

Stoichkov is equally positive: “I’m optimistic and I can see Bulgaria returning to a major competition one day. I want to go to a stadium with 40,000 or 50,000 people and listen to my country’s national anthem before kick-off and feel that emotion. I hope it happens soon, but we have to do a lot of work at grassroots level.”

Football Development