The Sun Shines Over Thrace…

Before moving on to our opponents in Friday night’s game, there are a couple of England stories to mention: Peter Crouch is out of the squad with a back injury and League 2 side Shrewsbury Town will receive a £500,000 windfall ‘if’ Joe Hart plays in goal tomorrow night: not bad at all for a team that had an average attendance last season of about 5500 – that’s about £90 per punter at the Greenhous Meadow Stadium.

So onto Bulgaria. They’ve not qualified for a major tournament since Euro 2004 but having said that, they’ve actually done as well as we have in the World Cup over the last quarter of a century, finishing fourth in the ’94 World Cup in the USA.

Before that, their most successful international era was when they qualified for four straight World Cups (1962-1974) and they’ve had their fair share of decent international players; striker Georgi Asparuhov was the nearest thing they had to George Best in the 60s and at one point Benfica wanted to buy him but the Communist government wouldn’t let him leave Bulgaria. Like George Best, he died far too early: in June 1971 he was killed in a car crash aged 28.

Other Bulgarian players to have achieved international recognition are Hristo Bonev, the shy and retiring Hristo Stoichkov and most recently Dimitar Berbatov, who has now retired from international football so he can spend his weekends disinterestedly wandering around opposition penalty areas for Manchester United. Oh and the bloke who looks like a werewolf and that goalie who was bald when he was in the World Cup but had ‘hair’ when he joined Reading. And if Spartacus was alive now and was any good at football, he’d probably be playing for Bulgaria.

Like a lot of the teams from Eastern Europe that we’ve played recently, the most capped player and leading goalscorer for the Lions is a name that will be familiar – Martin Petrov of Bolton Wanderers and captain Stiliyan Petrov will be well known to Celtic and Aston Villa fans. It also shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that only one of the current squad plays his club football at home (Veselin Minev of Lokomotiv Sofia); most of the rest are spread around the world – Berbatov’s natural replacement and former Manchester City striker Valeri Bojinov now plays in Serie A for Parma.

Whilst researching this piece I was a bit surprised to find out that we’ve only actually played them four times at home since 1968: they’ve never beaten us (either home or away) and have only scored once in their games at Wembley – not surprisingly, the scorer was Asparuhov and it wasn’t a bad goal either:

Not sure who the defender he beat was; Geoff Hurst equalised four minutes later and the game finished 1-1.

I know I’m tempting fate, but I think we stand a pretty good chance of getting our qualifying campaign off to a winning start – thirteen games unbeaten at Wembley with only one draw isn’t to be dismissed lightly – but Bulgaria won’t be pushovers despite having only won once in their last ten away games (a win in Malta last November) and will be looking to nick a point if possible.
As it’s a home game ITV will be showing it (the inane waffle featuring Andy Townsend referring to ‘the goals’ when he means ‘the goal’ starts at 7:30pm, kick off at 8.00pm), which means that if you can find a noisy pub that has a telly with the sound turned off you won’t be able to hear whoever is talking about the new kit.

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