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After a decade of unprecedented achievement in the 1990s, Bulgaria have struggled to match those accomplishments; something Dimitar Berbatov is looking to change as he targets a place at UEFA EURO 2012. Wednesday's friendly away to final tournament co-hosts Poland may provide a good indicator of how successful he can be.
Berbatov has been a talisman for Bulgaria over recent years, taking the captaincy in 2007 and surging past Hristo Stoichkov and Hristo Bonev as his country's leading goalscorer. Thus far, though, success in a major international tournament has eluded the Manchester United FC forward, something he puts down to a number of factors.
"Because we are a small country – we are not like England, Italy or Brazil – we don't have as many good players," Berbatov told UEFA.com. "And when some players get injured, it's difficult to replace them, but I think we do have some talented young players." While he concedes Bulgaria "always play tough opponents", Berbatov adds there is an intangible element to the team's unsuccessful qualifying campaigns. "Something is always missing; I cannot say what it is."
The 1990s marked a golden period for Bulgarian football as the national team qualified for three straight tournaments, the highlight a fourth-placed finish at the 1994 FIFA World Cup. "People always try to compare sides, in the past, now, and in the future," the 29-year-old said. "It brings pressure on the players as well. Back then it was different, we did have great players. They did something unthinkable and we still live with that memory."
Berbatov does have major tournament experience, but it was a chastening stay in Portugal as Bulgaria lost all three games at UEFA EURO 2004, conceding nine goals and scoring just one. After missing out on this year's World Cup, the national team's next goal is qualifying for Poland and Ukraine in two years' time with Bulgaria drawn in Group G alongside Switzerland, Wales, Montenegro and – the country where Berbatov plies his club trade – England.
With a mixture of experienced old hands and talented youngsters, Berbatov hopes now could be the time Bulgaria regain some of their former glory. "I am looking forward to qualifying for the European Championship. If we can do that, I'll be happy.
We will keep on fighting and keep on working until we achieve something."
Although the team may not have hit the heights of their predecessors just yet, Berbatov has led from the front and passed many personal milestones along the way. He has scored 48 goals for Bulgaria, a record he cherishes. "I was very proud with that achievement, because it was an ambition of mine, to be the top goalscorer in history," he said. "I received a letter from the guy who was in first place, Hristo Bonev, and he said he was proud of me."
In January he was also voted Bulgarian Player of the Year a record sixth time, overtaking "the great" Stoichkov in the process and is delighted his "name is going to stay in the history of Bulgaria". "In the past we have had Stoichkov, Bonev, Balakov, Letchkov, Kostadinov, Penev – great, great players." While Berbatov will no doubt be discussed in the same breath on his retirement, the current captain's priority now is to match their success with Bulgaria.
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