17 June 2004, Thursday
As Bulgaria go hunting for glory at EURO 2004, the example of Ivaylo Yordanov provides Plamen Markov's team with a useful precedent.
One of the heroes of Bulgaria's magnificent run to the 1994 FIFA World Cup semi-finals, Yordanov was also a major success in Lisbon with Sporting Club de Portugal, and was recently named as one of the club's 50 greatest players of all time.
Bulgaria will have a strong team if the backbone of the side consists of foreign-based players
And having triumphed in Portugal himself, Yordanov believes his countrymen have the ability to recover from their 5-0 defeat by Sweden in their opening game and pull off a shock in their remaining Group C fixtures.
"We have a promising young side," he told euro2004.com. "The team finished top of their qualifying group and obviously the quality is there. I think all 16 teams at the finals have their chance to win the tournament. If they don't believe that, there is absolutely no point being here.
"There have been a lot of surprises at major tournaments," continued Yordanov, whose career took major blows when he was involved in a serious car crash in June 1995 before being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in September 1997. "I am confident that Bulgaria have a good chance. If the players believe in themselves, I am sure they will do well."
Having been forced to hang up his boots, Yordanov is now a youth coach at Sporting, and his experience of playing football in Portugal has left him with a good impression of the hosts' national team.
"My other favourites are Portugal," he said. "The hosts have an excellent coach in Luiz Felipe Scolari, who won the World Cup with Brazil two years ago. Portugal have a very strong and balanced side. They also have some fantastic players."
Of course, in the mercurial Hristo Stoitchkov, Bulgaria's squad of 1994 had at least one fantastic player of their own. Many have suggested that current captain Stilian Petrov can assume the same inspirational role that Stoitchkov did in the United States, but Iordanov dismisses comparisons between the two teams.
"I don't think there is need to make such comparisons," he said. "These are two completely different generations. Maybe we were a little bit raw and wild, now the team is much more polished. But the aim remains the same. Football is about winning and playing with pride."
Perhaps Markov's side's extra polish comes from a more cosmopolitan footballing education. While many of Yordanov's contemporaries ended up playing in Western Europe, he believes that the tendency for players to go west at a younger age has helped Bulgaria.
"Bulgaria's most important players are playing abroad at very good clubs," said Yordanov. "Everyone knows that the Bulgarian league is not as good as the major leagues. Playing abroad improves our footballers and the Bulgarian national team can only benefit from that.
"I am sure Bulgaria will have a strong team if the backbone of the side consists of foreign-based players," he added. "That's the reality. We cannot hide it. The conditions for youth football development in Bulgaria are still not the best.
"That's why I am very happy that youngsters like Valeri Bozhinov are
playing in countries like Italy. I knew Valeri when he was a little boy
as I played alongside his stepfather Sasho Anegelov at [PFC] Lokomotiv
Gorna Oryahovista. The kid just loves playing football. That's the way
to move forward."
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