Bulgaria have come a long way since Plamen Markov took over as coach in December 2001.
Their FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign had just ended with a 6-0 defeat by the Czech Republic, but two years later Markov's team are through to UEFA EURO 2004™ after dominating Group 8. Ironically, as Markov prepares for Wednesday's friendly at home to Russia and a finals group containing Italy, Denmark and Sweden, the coach admitted that he was already thinking even further ahead.
Best to come
"We do not expect to see the best of the current side for another two years," he told euro2004.com. "The backbone of the squad consists of young players. In two to three years they will be much more mature. I do not say that they will be better players in terms of skill. They will much more mature and confident."
Taking friendlies seriously
With words that should come as a warning to Russia, Markov revealed he has taken friendlies seriously ever since assuming the helm. "When I took over the team, my priority was to restore confidence. That was why I wanted my first friendly games to be against top sides. I was delighted that we drew against Croatia and Germany in 2002."
However, he still likes to use such occasions to experiment, and in the 2-0 defeat in Greece last month tried out Georgi Peev in a new central midfield position. Markov explained: "He has played in that position for his club [FC] Dynamo Kyiv, but EURO 2004™ is a completely different tournament. It is not like the qualifiers - at the finals I will not be able to call up new players."
But Peev is likely to settle in another position. "Georgi Peev is versatile and has played as a right-back for club and country. There was a chance that a foreigner would take Bulgarian citizenship and play at right-back. I will not mention any particular names.
We are not Italy or England with thousands of quality players."
Some talent is coming through, not least US Lecce's 18-year-old striker Valeri Bojinov, who scored his first Serie A goal aged 17 and has opted for Bulgaria rather than Italy. Markov said: "I am very happy about Bojinov. He is a real gem. The national team is always open for everyone. Young talents like Stilian Petrov, Dimitar Berbatov and Martin Petrov had their breakthrough as teenagers. The same is valid for Bojinov as well. Everyone has a chance to win a place in the squad."
Italy and the other Group C rivals certainly have no shortage of talent. Still, expectations are growing at home, something Markov seems keen to douse. "I am rather surprised that there have been great expectations in Bulgaria. Italy are very strong with world-class players. Sweden are a well-organised team with a lot of tremendous players and Bulgaria have not won against Sweden for more than 30 years. And in the last World Cup qualifiers Bulgaria were in the same group as Denmark and we know what happened."
Playing for pride
He added: "It is easy to say that we will go to Portugal and do something great. If I say that, maybe I will look like a hero. But my feet are firmly on the ground.
We will go to Portugal and we will give our best. But football is a strange game - sometimes you play well and lose, sometimes you play badly and win. Our aim in Portugal is to be proud of our displays."
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