SOFIA, - Bulgarian fans cast aside their cares at the weekend to bask in the memory of the day that Hristo Stoichkov and his team mates upset the odds to beat champions Germany and reach the World Cup semi-finals. The team's run in 1994, remembered in local parlance as "the unforgettable American summer," still stands as Bulgaria's biggest international success in football but it is something that many doubt they will see again.
The national game has fallen into decline and officials, including Borislav Mihaylov who was the 1994 goalkeeper, want the state to step in and rescue it.
"Football is a social phenomenon and I believe that the state should take care of it," Mihaylov, now the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) president, told reporters. "We're trying hard to keep a decent level but it's not enough."
The first generation of players who were allowed to compete abroad after the 1989 fall of Communist rule united the nation and even reduced crime with their scintillating run at the 1994 World Cup.
Reaching the quarter-finals was far more than had been expected from the 50-1 underdogs and as a wave of euphoria swept through Bulgaria, police reported that the crime rate had dropped significantly.
"The most important thing was that we managed to unite the whole nation," Ivaylo Yordanov, who played in five matches during the 1994 finals, told Reuters at the anniversary match on Friday. "We did something that many politicians have failed to do so far."
On July 10, 1994, Bulgaria came from a goal down to beat Germany 2-1 at Giants Stadium, New York, and reach the last four.
Captain Lothar Matthaeus had put Germany in front with a penalty soon after the interval but Bulgaria battled back.
Stoichkov levelled the score by curling a rasping free kick that gave keeper Bodo Ilgner no chance in the 75th minute and midfielder Yordan Lechkov thundered home a perfect diving header three minutes later.
"It's difficult to explain how we managed to achieve that," midfield maestro Krasimir Balakov told Reuters. "Let's just say that God was Bulgarian that summer."
Stoichkov, who was the tournament's joint top scorer with six goals, was on the mind of the Italians before the ensuing semi-final.
"How will you stop Stoichkov?" a journalist asked Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi before the game.
"I don't know, maybe with a pistol," replied Sacchi.
Bulgaria came close to another upset but lost 2-1 to Italy, complaining that French referee Joel Quiniou had not awarded a penalty for a "clear hand ball" in the penalty area.
"God was still on our side but the referee was French," said the straight-talking Stoichkov after the final whistle.
Bulgaria's journey to the finals had begun with speedy winger Emil Kostadinov earning them a sensational victory over France in Paris with a goal from virtually the last kick of their final qualifying match in 1993.
They looked likely to live up to their underdog label when they were beaten 3-0 by African champions Nigeria at the start of the tournament.
The painful defeat, Bulgaria's 17th game without a win in six World Cup finals, was hard to swallow and several players drowned their sorrows in the bars of Dallas into the early hours of the following day.
However, an emphatic 4-0 win over southern neighbours Greece proved to be the turning point and was followed by a cool 2-0 win against Argentina and a knife-edged penalty shoot-out against Mexico in the second round.
Friday's 15th anniversary of the win over Germany was commemorated with an exhibition match in which the 1994 team beat a side of former internationals, including Germany's Fredi Bobic, 5-3 in Sliven, where Lechkov, now BFU vice president, is the mayor and president of the local first-division side.
Stoichkov, having been appointed coach of South Africa's Mamelodi Sundowns two weeks ago, was missing but sent a letter to the fans and his former team mates.
"Our life had not been easy since the fall of communism," said 37-year-old driver and fan Dimitar Hinkov in Sliven. "But I was lucky enough to be part of the amazing street fiesta; it was one of the most memorable things in my life. Despite the hard times everyone was kissing and dancing."
"Those were the best times of my life, that's for sure," said IT expert Krasimir Nikolov, 46. "I'm an English football fan and I remember Wimbledon FC being called the "Crazy Gang" in the 1980s but I think the 1994 Bulgarian team were much more crazy and much more attractive."
The intervening years have been disappointing after the success of 1994, when Bulgaria finished the tournament in fourth place.
The momentum lasted a little longer and Bulgaria reached the Euro 96 finals in England and the 1998 World Cup finals in France but decline soon set in.
Since then, the only major tournament the team have qualified for was the 2004 European finals in Portugal where they could not collect a single point.
Stoichkov spent three years in charge of the side but failed to get them into the 2006 World Cup.
Most of the 1994 World Cup heroes are still involved in football and some local fans say they missed a golden opportunity to move Bulgaria up the football hierarchy.
Now, Mihaylov hopes to get state help, announcing on Friday that BFU officials would meet representatives of the new government, which is expected to be formed by the end of the month, to discuss the issue.
The BFU will ask the authorities to grant funds for improving infrastructure and to build new sports facilities in the hope of recreating the glory days of 15 years ago.comments