That Emil Kostadinov winner and Bulgaria's 1994 FIFA World Cup journey via France!

That Emil Kostadinov winner and Bulgaria's 1994 FIFA World Cup journey via France!

A last-gasp Kostadinov goal against France helped Bulgaria book a ticket to the USA for the World Cup

  • Bulgaria secured a famous 2-1 win over France and then produced an impressive run at the 1994 FIFA World Cup

  • Emil Kostadinov scored both goals for Bulgaria with the winner coming from a Luboslav Penev setup

  • Years later, Zlatko Yankov claimed that Kostadinov and Penev entered France without necessary visas

Jayanta Oinam

Inspired by Hristo Stoichkov, Bulgaria enthralled the world with a memorable FIFA World Cup run in 1994. After losing their group opener against Nigeria 3-0, Bulgaria thumped Greece 4-0 before beating a Deigo Maradona-less Argentina to enter the knock-outs. In the round of 16, they beat Mexico on penalties, then knocked out defending champions Germany, who were competing at the FIFA World Cup for the first time as a unified country, to set up a meeting with Italy. But, despite a Stoichkov penalty goal, Bulgaria lost to the Azurri, thanks to a brace from Roberto Baggio. A 4-0 thrashing against Sweden, with all four goals scoring inside the first 40 minutes, meant Bulgaria returned home as the fourth-placed team. It indeed was a heart-breaking end to an otherwise unforgettable journey for the Lions, as the Bulgarian national team is known colloquially. That was Bulgaria's first FIFA World Cup expedition in eight years, having reached the round of 16 in their previous outing in 1986. Since the 1994 FIFA World Cup, they have competed only once in the world's greatest tournament, at France 1998, where they failed to get out of the group stage, managing only a goalless draw against Paraguay. But, ‘France’ will forever remain etched in the minds of Bulgarians fans: For, that's where, at the grand setting of Parc des Princes, the Lions produced one of their greatest wins to book a ticket to the United States of America for the FIFA World Cup. And, on that November 2013 night in Paris, everything happened as if pre-ordained.

With one of the two spots from Group 6 of the European qualifier already taken by Sweden following their 1-1 draw with Austria a week earlier, Bulgaria headed to France for a must-win final fixture. As things stood, France were second after nine games with 13 points, despite suffering a shock 3-2 defeat courtesy of a last-minute goal in their last match against Israel, who had arrived in Paris without a win in their eight previous qualifiers. But, France, or Les Blues, were still in a prime position to qualify and were on the cusp of ending their own World Cup sabbatical of eight years. All they needed was a draw - a single point. Bulgaria, on the other hand, with only 11 points, couldn't even entertain the thought of settling for a draw against their far superior rivals. Then, it took only 31 minutes to concede, with French superstar Eric Cantona producing a sumptuous volley in front of a boisterous crowd of some 50,000. Bulgaria, who had previously defeated Gerard Houllier's men 2-0 in the first leg in September of the previous year, were staring at elimination. However, in Emil Kostadinov, who had scored a brace in Bulgaria's 3-0 win against Finland in the opener in May 1992, the Lions found an unlikely hero. The Porto winger equalised six minutes later with a bullet header from a Krassimir Balakov corner. Still, it was not enough for Dimitar Penev's men as France held onto a 1-1 draw for the remainder of the match - well, almost! Then with seconds remaining, Bulgaria found the winner in the most dramatic fashion. David Ginola, who replaced Jean-Pierre Papin in the 69th minute, won a free-kick for France deep inside the Bulgarian half, and all that the Paris Saint-Germain starlet needed to do was kill the time following Vincent Guerin's resumption from the set-piece. Ginola instead tried to find Cantona. As it turned out, he overcooked the attempt, and ended up feeding Emil Kremenliev on the left flank. Luboslav Penev took over after a quick one-two in the midfield, releasing the ball for Kostadinov to complete the job.

First, Kostadinov beat a sliding Laurent Blanc, then goalkeeper Bernard Lama with a screaming right-footer with his third touch, all on the run. That's when legendary Bulgarian journalist and broadcaster Nikolay Kolev, shouted: “God is Bulgarian” as crestfallen France started their mourning, which would only end after Blanc helped Les Bleus to their maiden FIFA World Cup title not so far from Parc des Princes, at Stade de France in 1998. Scottish referee Leslie Mottram didn't take long to blow the final whistle after the restart, and it sounded the proverbial death knell for the French dream. And this time, unlike the 1986 qualifiers, Bulgaria finished a place above France in the qualifiers. In 1985, both the teams qualified for the Mexico World Cup with 11 points each, with France the group winners thanks to a superior goal difference, 11 to 8. That, however, was not the end of the drama. In the post-match press conference, a fuming Houllier blamed 26-year-old Ginola for the debacle, leaving their relationship soured. "The adventure is over all too soon. With only 30 seconds remaining, we were there but we got stabbed in the back and at the worst possible time. The referee still had his whistle to his mouth when Ginola won that free-kick near the corner flag, but then he goes and sends in a huge 60-metre cross instead of hanging on to the ball. That allowed Bulgaria to go and hit us on the counter,” he said.

There was also a small matter of alleged illegal border crossing into France by Kostadinov and Penev, the duo who set up that improbable win. Years later, midfielder Zlatko Yankov, who started that match against France, claimed that his two team-mates entered the country without the necessary visas. "This story sounds like a legend now but it's true," Yankov, told local media. "They (Kostadinov and Penev) had visa problems and they needed help from our keeper Borislav Mihaylov and former Bulgaria midfielder Georgi Georgiev, who were playing for the French club Mulhouse at that time, to join us in Paris... Kostadinov and Penev sneaked across the border between Germany and France in a car driven by Georgiev as the two Mulhouse players deliberately chose a border-post with low security." Then, it was widely reported that the Bulgarian Football Union had forgotten to apply for visas for Kostadinov and Penev. But, they still turned up to save the team, and confirmed the ticket to the United States.