Bulgarians remain in shadow of class of '94
When Bulgaria start their campaign to qualify for Euro 2012 against England at Wembley on Friday, they will do so with the weight of recent history set strongly against them.
After all, this is a country that has not won a game at a major tournament since 1996, not qualified for one since 2004 and finished a distant third behind Italy and the Republic of Ireland in their last World Cup qualifying group as they failed to reach the finals for a third successive time, falling to 43rd in the Fifa rankings in the process.
Despite producing players of the quality of record scorer Dimitar Berbatov, who has now retired from international football, and the Petrovs - Stiliyan and Martin - Bulgaria has been a country in freefall since losing 3-1 to France in their final group game at Euro '96.
"The Bulgarian national team is in a very difficult situation at the moment," Bulgarian great Yordan Letchkov told BBC Sport.
Yet in 1994, Bulgaria had enjoyed its finest moment as Dimitar Penev's band of extravagantly talented footballing wanderers reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in the United States, memorably dumping holders Germany out of the tournament at the quarter-final stage with a stunning 2-1 triumph.
One-nil down to the Germans with 15 minutes left, the Bulgarians conjured up a fairytale New York fightback with the talismanic Hristo Stoichkov bending in a 25-yard free-kick to level and then the badling Letchkov hurtling himself at a cross from the right to head home a famous winner three minutes later.
"To be honest it was an easy win," the usually controversial Stoichkov said years later. "We outclassed them right from the start. It was a great World Cup; to spend a month with those amazing team-mates and achieve what we achieved was fantastic."
Bulgaria, who had never previously been beyond the last 16, saw their run come to an end in the semi-finals as they lost 2-1 to a Roberto Baggio-inspired Italy, but Penev's compellingly watchable team had raised the bar to a level The Lions have not been able to get anywhere near since.
With England expected to comfortably beat Stanimir Stoilov's side, I wondered what had become of the likes of bearded defender Trifon Ivanov, horizontally adept midfielder Letchkov and box office forward Stoichkov. So I picked out their six star players and the manager and found out what they've been up to since they set the World Cup alight and put Bulgarian football on the map...
Borislav Mikhailov (Goalkeeper)
The goalkeeper who had a hair transplant prior to the '94 World Cup was a hero in his homeland after captaining the side to the semis in the United States, but signing for Reading in 1995 proved the start of an unhappy two-year spell in England.
He ended his career in Switzerland and soon became an administrator in his homeland, taking up the role of vice-president of the Bulgarian Football Union in 2001 and being named president in 2005, a position he still occupies. His son Nikolay, also a keeper, joined FC Twente from Liverpool in the summer. Mikhailov's 102 caps remains a Bulgarian record.
Trifon Ivanov (Centre-half)
The defender became a cult hero for his "Bulgarian Wolf" looks and kamikaze 45-yard free-kicks and he had a nomadic career, wandering from country to country and once telling Neuchatel Xamax coach Gilbert Gress "You don't know anything about football" in front of all his team-mates.
Ivanov won the Austrian title and reached the European Cup Winners' Cup final with Rapid Vienna before bowing out of the game after Bulgaria's disappointing performance at the 1998 World Cup, having scored the goal that took his country to the finals. After retiring he became a businessman and owned a chain of petrol stations around his hometown Veliko Tarnovo before selling them three years ago, later opening a restaurant in the same area.
Krassimir Balakov (Midfielder)
After the mercurial Stoichkov, canny operator Balakov was widely considered to be Bulgaria's next best player, his work-rate and eye for a pass marking him out as a major threat. Aready at Sporting Lisbon at the time of the World Cup, he moved to Stuttgart in 1995 aged 29 and went on to enjoy a stellar eight-year spell at Die Roten, helping them to a German Cup win in 1997, the final of the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1998 and a second place finish in the Bundesliga in 2003.
He soon turned to coaching with a two-year period as Stuttgart assistant and he is now alongside his old team-mate Zlatko Yankov once more as manager of Chernomorets Burgas. Balakov was recently voted Stuttgart's best player of all time.
Yordan Letchkov (Midfielder)
The hero of New Jersey, it was "The Magician" Letchkov - the balding midfielder with a little patch of hair on his forehead - who flung himself at Yankov's right-wing cross and directed a stunning diving header into the corner of Bodo Ilgner's net to send Bulgaria into the semis. The talented but unpredictable Letchkov's career took him to Hamburg, Marseille, Besiktas, CSKA Sofia (twice) and then his hometown Sliven, where he hung up his boots in 2004 aged 37.
He entered business and politics and was elected Mayor of Sliven in 2003, enjoying re-election in 2007 but was removed from the post after being charged with misconduct earlier this year. He has held a vice-president post at the Bulgarian Football Union since 2005 and has made a strong contribution to the development of youth sport in his country.
Emil Kostadinov (Forward)
The big-haired, pacey number seven went into the tournament well known after a four-year spell at FC Porto and as the man who scored twice to infamously dump France out of the World Cup in the qualifiers. He went on to help Bayern Munich win the Uefa Cup in 1996 by scoring in the final (becoming the first Bulgarian to net in the final of a European club competition), ended his 70-cap, 26-goal international career after the 1998 World Cup and retired from the game a year later.
His consolation in the 6-1 thumping at the hands of Spain at France '98 remains Bulgaria's last goal at a World Cup finals and he is now the technical director of CSKA Sofia, having previously held the post from 2000-01 and 2006-09.
Hristo Stoichkov (Forward)
The indisputable leader of the Bulgarian pack, Stoichkov is their best player of all time and a playmaking, goalscoring genius who could rival any footballer in the world of his era on his day with that wand of a left foot. Indeed it was "The Dagger's" sublime free-kick that levelled the scores against Germany as Stoichkov, who scored six goals in the tournament to share the Golden Shoe and went on to win the Ballon d'Or in 1994, proved his star quality on the biggest stage of all.
Then plying his trade at Barcelona, Stoichkov was notoriously difficult to work with and upset colleagues and employers alike during a maverick career, but in spells at CSKA Sofia and especially for Barca's "Dream Team" under his idol Johan Cruyff he was irresistible. His partnership in Spain with Brazil striker Romario was as breathtaking as it was volatile, as Manchester United found to their cost when the deadly duo linked up to devastating effect in a 4-0 Champions League rout at the Camp Nou in 1994.
After retiring in 2003 Stoichkov took up coaching, but he endured a miserable stint as Bulgaria boss from 2004-07 and followed that up with short spells at Celta Vigo in Spain and Mamelodi Sundowns in South Africa, the latter ending earlier this year. There are a few to choose from, but Stoichkov's best quote? "There are only two Christs; one plays for Barcelona, the other is in heaven," he said upon collecting his Ballon d'Or.
Dimitar Penev (Manager)
Penev is widely regarded as one of Bulgaria's greatest players having made 90 appearances as a defender in the 1960s and 1970s and he took over as boss in 1991, leading them to qualification at France's expense and becoming a national hero for their run to the semis.
He has received the country's highest state order of merit and was named the most successful Bulgarian manager of the 20th century. Has flitted in and out of management in recent times, taking on the role of CSKA Sofia caretaker on the regular occasions they seem to fire their manager and he had a similar spell back in charge of Bulgaria in 2007. Penev, now 65, is the honorary president of CSKA.
Can you remember Bulgaria's performances from the 1994 World Cup? What are your memories of Stoichkov and co? And what do you expect from their current crop of players at Wembley on Friday?