Ghost of Kostadinov looms over France
With France's prospects of automatically qualifying for Euro 2012 in the balance -- it faces Albania on Friday, which you can watch on ESPN3 at 3 p.m. ET -- the personal experience of its coach during his playing career has been brought back into focus.
Head coach Laurent Blanc has a delicate time ahead. His side leads Group D by a single point with just two games remaining and needs to beat Albania to guarantee it stays ahead of second-placed Bosnia ahead of their showdown on Oct. 11. All the while, the ghost of Kostadinov has been evoked by the scaremongers in the buildup to the matches.
It was Nov. 17, 1993, a bitterly cold winter's night at the Parc des Princes in Paris that proved unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. Eric Cantona called it "the worst in my life." Didier Deschamps felt France had made "real asses of ourselves." A couple of days shy of his 28th birthday, Blanc -- along with Jean-Pierre Papin and Franck Sauzee -- would announce his retirement from international football with immediate effect in the aftermath of the debacle.
In the final 23 seconds of France's final World Cup qualifier, the unthinkable had happened. France was in control of its own destiny. It had a free kick near Bulgaria's right-hand corner flag. The score was 1-1, and if Gerard Houllier's players had only run the clock down, their place at the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. would have been assured.
Euro 2012 on ESPN3
ESPN3 will be broadcasting a slew of Euro 2012 qualifying matches, including Russia vs. Slovakia, Moldova vs. Netherlands, Italy vs. Serbia, Croatia vs. Greece, Spain vs. Czech Republic, England vs. Montenegro, Albania vs. France and Ireland vs. Andorra. The first match, Finland vs. Sweden, kicks off at 12:15 ET on Friday, Oct. 6. You can see the full listing for matches and watch them by going to Watch ESPN.
Instead, Paris Saint-Germain's David Ginola, a 69th-minute substitute for the cramped-up Papin playing in front of his adoring home crowd, received the ball and hit what can only be described as a wild cross that curled in and out of the box. It didn't fall to the intended target, Cantona, but rather Emil Kremenliev, the Bulgarian right back.
Three passes later, another Emil, this time the bushy-haired Kostadinov, chased on to a chipped through ball from Lyuboslav Penev in the inside right channel. He brought it down with his knee, settled it with his left shin, then struck a right-footed shot that kissed the crossbar of French goalkeeper Bernard Lama and nestled in the back of the net.
The crowd at the Parc fell silent in a state of traumatized disbelief. As Kostadinov sprinted away in celebration, pursued by his teammates, the cameras panned to the touchline. They caught the image of a bespectacled Houllier sauntering disconsolately toward the bench, Aime Jacquet holding his head in his hands and Michel Platini standing with his arms folded before turning away as though slapped in the face.
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Bulgaria had done it. It had booked its ticket for the World Cup at the very last minute -- and at France's expense. "To think that a month ago we thought we were out," Hristo Stoitchkov said, smiling. "The French were so scared they played with their buttocks clenched. We knew that's how they would be and our tactics were based on that. They played for a draw and never went looking for a win. They didn't deserve to qualify and we hit them where it hurt most."
Two months earlier, France had sat atop of Group 6 with 13 points. It was in a position of strength. One monthly magazine had even prematurely claimed: "America, here we come!" No one expected anything else even amid the uncertainty caused by l'affaire VA-OM, the match-fixing scandal that would see Champions League winner Marseille stripped of its 1992-93 Ligue 1 title and then suffer an enforced relegation.
Unexpected defeats first to Israel and then to Bulgaria changed all that. Kostadinov had cost France its flight to America. Yet Houllier laid the blame with Ginola. "He sent an Exocet missile through the heart of French football. He committed a crime against the team, I repeat: a crime against the team," the coach raged before leaving his post.
Out of the wreckage of that campaign emerged the World Cup-winning side of 1998 led by Jacquet. He persuaded Blanc, his former pupil at Montpellier, to return to the international setup six months after the Bulgaria debacle, and what they would go on to achieve afterward eclipsed it. Even so, le syndrome 1993 still has a powerful hold on French football's collective consciousness -- at least in the media.
Which makes the upcoming two Euro matches all the more intriguing. The matches against Albania and Bosnia won't be as easy as they look on paper. The scale of France's injury crisis has greatly complicated matters for Blanc. His first-choice striker and match winner, Karim Benzema, has been ruled out with an adductor muscle complaint. So, too, has Kevin Gameiro (knee) Franck Ribery (calf), Blaise Matuidi (thigh) and Bacary Sagna (broken leg). Eric Abidal is also a doubt, prompting Barcelona to express its preference that he at least sits out the Albania match.
With Philippe Mexes, Yoann Gourcuff and Abou Diaby still on the sidelines, preparation has hardly been ideal -- especially in attack -- and a change of system from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 has been mooted. Naturally, there is a degree of concern among the press. Yes, France is unbeaten in 13 games, a run that included impressive wins over England and Brazil in friendlies, but the team's play was criticized in September and the performances of certain players, in particular Samir Nasri, who dropped to the bench against Romania, came under scrutiny.
Nevertheless, France should get the job done in the next seven days. The team's mentality and approach is what has to be right. "It's the home stretch and there's nothing easy about it," said the defender Adil Rami. "I think that we're all motivated. We all want to go to Euro 2012. Unfortunately, important players are injured but we have a big enough squad to be competitive. Everyone must feel that these two matches are two finals."
A repeat of 1993 is surely out of the question, not least because third-placed Romania is five points adrift; one of 2009, not so much. That, of course, was when France dropped into the playoffs and needed a scandalous handball from Thierry Henry to knock out the Republic of Ireland and reach a World Cup, which in hindsight the team would have been better off missing.
"Sure, there's still a relative chance of us finishing first if we beat Luxembourg," claimed Bosnia coach Safet Susic, once recognized by France Football as Paris Saint-Germain's greatest ever player. "But the French are playing at home, in front of their fans, and they will probably only need a point."
Could Susic have been invoking the spirit of Bulgaria and Kostadinov? We'll have to wait and see.