Bulgaria's bid to reach the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals ended with a 6-0 defeat by the Czech Republic. They had been in contention for second place in Group Three, and a play-off against Belgium, until their final qualifying tie in Prague. That, however, was not enough to keep coach Stoicho Mladenov in a job.
Disappointing World Cup
The former FC CSKA Sofia player and Bulgaria Under-21 trainer had been credited with revitalising the national team after the disappointments of France 98 and the EURO 2000™ qualifiers. It was the former competition which saw the last of the country's 'golden generation' of Hristo Stoichkov, Emil Kostadinov, Trifon Ivanov and Krassimir Balakov.
The heroes of USA 94 - they finished fourth - were bottom of Group Four with only a draw to show from matches against Nigeria, Paraguay and Spain. Indeed, a 6-1 thrashing by the Spaniards precipitated the demise of boss Hristo Bonev.
Dimitar Dimitrov eventually replaced him after a heavy loss to Poland at the start of the following UEFA European Championship campaign - but could fare no better. While Bulgaria held England home and away, they were fourth best behind Sweden, England and Poland by the end of Group Five hostilities.
'No time to mature'
Stoichkov, who had remained in the side as a link with the past, underlined one reason for the inglorious present, saying: "My generation were able to learn their trade and mature both as footballers and men before we moved abroad. But the young players of today are leaving too young - because of the economic situation they take the first deal that comes along, and won't wait for the right moment. In this way we will lose a lot of talented players."
Hint of brighter future
Stoichkov had been an established international long before he moved from CSKA to FC Barcelona. This, allied to the successes of 1994, gave him a unique position of authority in the domestic game. Yet it was the man he turned to early in 2000, in his role as director of all national sides, who gave the first hint of a brighter future.
'Good young players'
Speaking in February of that year, Mladenov said: "I need time, there are some very good young players and I believe in them." Midfielders Stilian Petrov and Marian Hristov, attackers Martin Petrov, Dimiter Berbatov, Georgi Ivanov, Martin Petrov and Svetoslav Todorov...all were either groomed in the Under-21s or promoted to the senior squad by Mladenov.
Threw it away
This was just one sign of the coach's sense of purpose. Another came when he let Stoichkov know that he did not think the two of them could work together. There was momentum, too, as Bulgaria's challenge gathered pace with wins against Northern Ireland, Iceland and Malta and a creditable draw in Denmark. But no sooner had they attained pole position with two games to play (thanks to some surprise results elsewhere), then Mladenov's men threw it away. Denmark came to Sofia and won 2-0, before that crushing defeat in Prague.
Replaced by Markov
For the first time since Kostadinov's late strike secured a 3-2 victory over France and a place at the 1994 FIFA World Cup finals for Dimitar Penev's team, Bulgaria were staring into the football wilderness. It was no surprise, then, when the Bulgarian Football Union responded to calls from Stoichkov to sack Mladenov and replaced him with another former CSKA star, Plamen Markov. The EURO 2004™ qualifiers will tell whether this was the right decision.
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