Bulgaria could win their first official European tournament tonight when South-East Region AMA represent the home nation in the UEFA Regions' Cup final against Poland's Dolnoslaski AMA in Sliven - a venue which holds great resonance for any fan of Bulgarian football.
A young Yordan Letchkov took his first steps to greatness at OFK Sliven's Hadzhi Dimitar Stadium, many years before his famous headed goal which enabled Bulgaria to defeat Germany in the 1994 FIFA World Cup quarter-finals. The man who turns 40 in a fortnight has remained loyal to his hometown, returning to buy the club and become mayor.
Letchkov told uefa.com: "It's naturally an honour for me as mayor of Sliven and first vice-president of the Bulgarian Football Union that one of the venues for this tournament is Sliven and of course the tournament headquarters are here. And I know the mayors of the other towns with stadiums used in this tournament are also pleased."
The watching Letchkov will no doubt inspire South-East Region tonight, and the former PFC CSKA Sofia, Hamburger SV, Olympique de Marseille and Beşiktaş JK forward is well aware of the effect of the results he and his national team-mates achieved, not least on their direct successors. "I do believe we left a mark," he said. "Every generation that is successful leaves a mark. And what is important always is the current generation and I am very pleased that there are players in the current generation like Dimitar Berbatov, Stilian Petrov, Martin Petrov that are very successful at the moment. They are our future, we have to look to them now."
Several of the amateur players who take part in the UEFA Regions' Cup final will be hoping to earn professional contracts. Of his own career, Letchkov mused: "Of course fate has played a certain part, as did my determination and my ambition to beat the opposition. I strived to turn my hobby into my profession, but definitely it was fate as well."
Naming Diego Maradona as his own footballing hero, Letchkov also paid tribute to the coaches that helped him join the Argentinian on the world stage: "My personal opinion is that each and every coach contributes to the development of a group of players. Each and every coach I worked with contributed to my development, so I would like to use this opportunity to thank them all for their work and for their assistance in the development of my football career." So did any of them teach him to bend the ball with his head as he did against Germany on that July afternoon in New York? "No, I learned how to do it myself!"
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