Stiliyan Petrov will achieve another notable landmark on Saturday if he takes the field in his side's UEFA EURO 2012 Group G qualifier against Switzerland – becoming the first outfield player to win 100 caps for Bulgaria.
For Georgi Vasilev, who brought Petrov from his home-town club PFC Montana 1921 to PFC CSKA Sofia as a teenager, it is no great surprise that the Aston Villa FC midfielder has been such a success. "
It was easy to see 14 years ago he had the skills to become an established international," the veteran coach told UEFA.com. "But he has shown great character and stamina and he deserves this 100th cap."
A century of appearances for Bulgaria is no small feat as only Borislav Mihaylov has achieved it before. The former goalkeeper, now Bulgarian Football Union (BFS) president, played 102 national-team matches and reached the 1994 FIFA World Cup semi-finals as part of the famous side also featuring Hristo Stoichkov, Krassimir Balakov, Emil Kostadinov and Yordan Letchkov.
Petrov, 31, made his debut for Montana in February 1996, after which Vasilev – nicknamed 'The General' in Bulgaria – moved quickly to lure the youngster to the capital. "CSKA did well in 1996/97, eventually winning the double, but at clubs like that you always have to be looking for young talent," explained Vasilev, recently appointed coach of PSFC Chernomorets Burgas.
"Stiliyan played against CSKA twice and we immediately saw his talent," he added. "Though he was very young, he showed great tactical awareness and already read the game very well. He knew what to do on the pitch, where to go. He was a good header of ball and had a powerful shot. His skills were wonderful.
"I had to go to his home town to persuade his club and his parents to let me bring him to Sofia," added the 64-year-old. "He came to CSKA in the winter of 1996 alongside winger Martin Petrov – now at Bolton Wanderers. Martin had come from Botev Vratsa. It was a tough period for them. They were young and also had to do military service, but they showed great character and overcame their difficulties."
Stiliyan Petrov made just five A League appearances in his first senior campaign at CSKA, 1997/98, yet progressed quickly thereafter; he made his Bulgaria debut, aged 19, in a friendly against Morocco in December 1998. By the time he featured in a UEFA EURO 2000 qualifier against England at the Bulgarska Armia Stadium in June 1999 he was an established first-teamer – and his tremendous showing in that game prompted a move to Celtic FC.
Petrov would lift four Scottish Premier League titles and three Scottish Cups in Glasgow between 1999 and 2006, in addition to getting to the UEFA Cup final. During that spell he also played twice at UEFA EURO 2004, Bulgaria's last major tournament, before taking the captain's armband from the retiring Balakov.
A place at UEFA EURO 2012 seems unlikely for a player still central to the fortunes of the Aston Villa team he skippers in England's Premier League. Even so, with Bulgaria trailing group leaders Montenegro by seven points, a win against Switzerland at the Natsionalen Stadion Vasil Levski could nonetheless revive Lothar Matthäus's side.
It's hard to talk about qualification, but the Switzerland game is an important one because we are trying to build a new team and Stiliyan Petrov is the natural leader," said Vasilev, assistant coach of the national team in the late 1980s and – for one match only – caretaker. "He has had his troubles with injuries over the years, but he is a real competitor and a warrior and I am happy for him."
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