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The country

If Europe were a shopping centre – with Italy as a high-end fashion chain, France the gourmet food specialist, England the rapidly failing independent business and Scotland as the gents toilets – then Bulgaria would be Poundland, a place of extreme thrift, glum locals and demoralised workers that promises very little and yet somehow still has the power to leave you disappointed. Despite this (or perhaps, in these austere times, because of this) the Bulgarian tourism industry is booming. Sofia is officially Europe’s cheapest capital city, home to the famous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (a building that evidently forgot to say “when” with regards to the onion-domes. See picture below) as well as numerous tacky casinos, seedy strip clubs and more beggars than you can shake a big stick at, which, incidentally, is a highly effective way to get them to leave you alone. Off the beaten track, Bulgaria presents further possibilities for mischief including knocking back some of the country’s many cheaply produced yet startlingly robust red wines – some of which have even been certified as safe to drink – or hitting the slopes at any one of the poorly maintained budget ski resorts for a holiday that won’t break the bank, which is more than can be said for your legs, skull and spinal column.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral; why bother with demolition when you can just build new churches directly on top of the old ones? 

The Bulgarian people are a South Slavic group who, centuries ago, mixed in with migrating Bulgars (hence the name), a Turkic tribe from Central Asia. Ironically, their modern descendants now seem all too keen to migrate OUT of the area, with Bulgaria suffering from a palpable population decline of around 60,000 (mostly young) people annually since 1990, leaving dozens of towns completely abandoned, hundreds more on the brink, and an ageing population increasingly bitter about the mass exodus of their nation’s youth, if only because they didn’t think of it first.

Politically, Bulgaria has developed a bit of a gambling problem and all the poor judgement that invariably goes with it, as the following extracts from the country’s Twitter archives illustrates.

1914 – Lot of talk about a major European conflict, if so can’t look beyond Germany, been in cracking form since mullering the French in 1871.   Might slap a fiver on them, oh and throw our full military strength behind them while we’re at it. No way it’ll go on long enough for us to regret it. Lol.

1939 – Looking a bit ropey for Europe again, Germans surely due a big win soon, really liking that Hitler fella, good young leader and got Italy onside so, you know, pretty much invincible. Anyway, Britain can’t defend in the air, Russians home form not up to scratch and even an unprovoked sneak attack couldn’t get America involved.

1945 – Lesson learnt, backing Germans not a good idea. Anyway, this whole capitalism vs communism thing; really can’t see people liking money all that much and Soviets very much Europe’s form side, surely a safe bet in the long run. Even if the whole communism thing doesn’t work out at least we won’t be stuck with it for 45 years. 🙂

2003 – Just met that nice Mr Bush, wanted us to sign up to something called the “Coalition of the Willing” whatever that is, something to do with liberating Iraq from a naughty chap called Saddam who might possibly, maybe, conceivably have some weapons that Mr Bush’s dad gave him in the 1980s (it’s complicated.) Needless to say we signed straight up, I mean it’s not as if Americans have a history in getting bogged down in a brutal, costly Vietnam style quagmire of a conflict.

Given this not so lucky streak it should come as all the more worrying that, amidst escalating tensions between the west and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Bulgaria has seen fit to ditch their old ally in Moscow in favour of chucking everything into EU and NATO membership. Frankly, we might as well all assimilate now by taking up football hooliganism, obliterating our livers with vodka and fighting shirtless in the streets. Kudos to Stoke-on-Trent for being well ahead of the curve.

Bulgaria’s national football team were a 1990s one hit wonder, a bit like Deep Blue Something but with (arguably) worse haircuts.                                The golden generation that stormed to the semi-finals of USA 94, beating Argentina, Mexico and reigning champions Germany along the way, was stacked with talent led of course by mercurial striker Hristo Stoichkov – the tournament’s joint top scorer with six goals – ably assisted by the likes of Yordan Letchkov, Emil Kostadinov and Trifon Ivanov, a trio who wouldn’t look out of place opposite Arnie in a cheesy 80s action flick, not perhaps as the main villains, more someone he might dispatch with a corny one-liner shortly before blazing a corpse-strewn path towards the main baddie.


Left to right; Kostadinov, Letchkov and Ivanov, all practically begging for Mr Schwarzenegger to put a bullet through their faces.

Sadly, outside of that wondrous American summer, Bulgaria’s World Cup record is fairly rotten with not a single victory recorded in five prior tournaments, or in the one since at France 98 where the golden generation were unceremoniously packed off into retirement after being crushed 6-1 by Spain. Nor have the European Championships proved a particularly happy hunting ground and the Bulgarians have just two tournaments under their belt. Debuting at Euro 96 in England and installed as dark horses for a lot of pundits, only Stoichkov really seemed in the mood, scoring all three of his country’s goals including a brilliant winner against fierce rivals Romania and a splendid free-kick in the 3-1 defeat to France that ultimately saw them eliminated at the group stage. Their most recent qualification for any competition – Euro 2004 in Portugal -came rather out of the blue, and despite the best efforts of youngsters Dimitar Berbatov and Stiliyan Petrov they proved to be out of their depth, posting the worst record at the tournament with three straight defeats and a minus eight goal difference.

The shirt

This design may not be the most interesting (in fact it’s downright dull) but it does represent the only affordable garment from those heady days of the mid 90s, especially as the USA 94 version typically goes for silly money even when it’s clearly a knockoff. Bulgaria donned this shirt during Euro 96 and retained it for the World Cup 1998 qualifiers, although they swapped the F.A. logo for the national coat of arms at this point. Really not sure why. Even Hristo himself seems confused by the whole thing.


It’s fair to say Puma weren’t exactly adventurous with their designs at this juncture. Indeed, this Bulgarian offering is, colour aside, essentially the same as the Czech shirt from the same tournament, which in turn is practically identical to my Armenia shirt that I posted up several weeks ago.


Really fucking creative, Puma.