Tuesday 12 September 2017, 10:38

Enfant terrible Popov comes of age for Bulgaria

  • Ivelin Popov is Bulgaria’s playmaker and a key player

  • He was suspended by the Bulgarian FA three times earlier in his career

  • The Spartak Moscow midfielder is determined to make Russia 2018

The average age of the squad announced by Bulgaria coach Petar Hubschev for their two most recent 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifiers, against Sweden and the Netherlands, was 26, while the average number of caps won by its members was 12. Young and inexperienced, the Lions are striving to return to the world finals for the first time in 20 years, but have been blowing hot and cold in Group A. Victorious against the Netherlands and Sweden, they lost to Belarus and survived an almighty scare at home to Luxembourg.

Having turned 30 and won 70 caps, playmaker Ivelin Popov is one of Bulgaria’s more experienced campaigners. Factor in his consistently excellent performances and he becomes an even more prominent member of the squad, not least because he is the captain and the only player to have featured in all eight of their Russia 2018 qualifiers to date. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s your 100th cap or your first – you always have to play with a sense of duty when you pull on your country’s jersey,” he told FIFA.com. “It’s true that the expectations are perhaps a bit higher when you have more experience, but the responsibilities are the same. And if for the good of the team I have to pass my experience on to others who have less of it, then I’ll do it gladly. It’s the national team that counts.”

In brief *Name: Ivelin Popov Date of birth: 26 October 1987 Place of birth: Sofia, Bulgaria. Clubs: Litex Lovech (BUL), Gaziantepspor (TUR), Kuban Krasnodar (RUS), Spartak Moscow (RUS) Position:* Attacking midfielder

As you might expect of someone in Popov’s position, there is wisdom in his words. That is not to say, however, that he too has not experienced his ups and downs with the national team. Something of an enfant terrible in his younger years, he was suspended on three occasions by the Bulgarian Football Association between 2008 and 2014, one of them for life.

As it turned out, his country has been unable to turn its back on him, a feeling that is reciprocated by Popov. “When I was a little boy I dreamed of playing for the national team, and I’ve worked hard to make that dream a reality,” he explained. “Wearing the jersey is a huge honour for me. It fills me with pride and gives me responsibility too.”

Popov has mellowed lately, and has not been out of the Bulgaria side for the last couple of years, during which time he has performed superbly for club and country, winning back-to-back Bulgarian Footballer of the Year awards. “I’ve matured. I’ve learned lessons both in football and in life, which has helped me,” he said. “I also feel that your career reflects your personal life. Away from football I have a wonderful family, and they give me a lot of happiness and responsibilities too.”

Reliving an American dream One of the challenges facing Popov and his team-mates is reviving Bulgaria’s glorious past, the high point of which was the fourth place they achieved at USA 1994. “They’re my best childhood memories. That golden generation had a huge impact on me and made me want to be a footballer. Bulgaria’s win over Germany in the quarter-finals was unforgettable. Everyone was out in the street to celebrate with flags in hand: children, parents, boys and girls. There was so much euphoria. I was young. I was only six, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.”

Popov is doing everything he can to help bring those scenes back. If he and his Bulgaria team-mates are to do so, however, they must win their final two qualifying matches and  then hope for the best, given that the Lions currently lie fourth in the section.

“One thing is for sure: we’ll be giving it all we’ve got,” said the Spartak Moscow player. “On a personal level, the next World Cup is all the more important for me because it’s in Russia, where I’ve spent the last five seasons. Russia is my second home and it would be fantastic to have the opportunity to play there with the Bulgaria jersey on my back.”