In Italy, we call “meteora” (meteor) a football player who lives a short period of glory before fading away, back into anonymity. The World Cup is full of such stories, of players who in some way managed to find their edge right during those 30 days, once in four years, when the whole world revolves around a foot ball. They shone on the most important stage, and then quickly turned back into regular journeymen, or even worse disappeared from the calcio che conta (“football that matters”). Like a broken spell. Like a dream from which they suddenly woke up.
Antonio Guarini takes us through a journey among the Top 10 “one-hit-wonders” in the recent history of the World Cup. Some of them helped Italy climb to the top of the world, some others recall painful memories for the Azzurri. But all share the same fascinating meteora status, all found the magic formula to sparkle and shine just when it mattered most.
They may not have been Ballon d’Or winning champions, but we are sure that these names will ring a bell or two to all football lovers.
7) Yordan Letchkov, the Bulgarian Who Made Germany Cry
“Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” Former British footballer Gary Lineker, the author of this famous quote, is almost always right. Almost. Because during World Cup 1994, the incumbent World Champions were eliminated by a Bulgarian. Yes, a Bulgarian.
Yordan Letchkov scored the goal by which the best Bulgarian selection ever sent Germany off, and qualified for the Semi Finals. With the looks of something in between a comedian and a KGB agent, Letchkov instantly became one of the most famous football players in the world. That Bulgaria could feature players such as Krasimir Balakov and Hristo Stoitchkov, yet their most unexpected wonder turned out to be that balding midfielder playing with Hamburger SV – right in the German Bundesliga.
Bulgaria’s run ended in the Semi Finals against Arrigo Sacchi’s Italy. A fantastic brace by Roberto Baggio forced the Bulgarians to bid farewell to their dream. Letchkov and his teammates, probably happy with wait they had achieved already, were eventually thrashed by Sweden in a Third Place Playoff.
Yordan continued to play in Hamburg until 1996, then moved to Marseille. One year later, he landed in Turkey and joined Besiktas. At the end of the season, he stopped playing for three years. He eventually came back to his native Bulgaria, and had some additional stints with CSKA Sofia and Sliven, before ultimately calling it quit in 2004.
The Bulgarian selection seen in 1994 in the U.S.A. earned a place in football fans collective memory. A team rich of talent, they managed to make Bulgarian football popular even across the ocean. Letchkov’s header is likely the highest point ever reached in football by Bulgaria. The bald striker from Sliven showed that, once in a while, the Germans could be beaten in a World Cup.
Even if you are not beautiful. Even if you are not that famous. But yes, you can, as long as you know how to use your head. Just like in that sunny afternoon of July 10, 1994 at the Giants Stadium in New York, when Yordan Letchkov, the bomber with the face of a dull bookkeeper, scored a goal that consigned him to the history of Bulgarian football.
Translated by Matteo Carnevale
Check out the other World Cup Meteors in our countdown:
10) Ahn Jung-Hwan, Italy’s Korean Killer
9) Stéphane Guivarc’h, the Goalless World Champion
8) Asamoah Gyan’s Penalty Nightmare