There are some football matches that will never be forgotten, memorable clashes that awaken feelings of joy or pain in the hearts of players and spectators alike whenever they come up in conversation. And one encounter that most definitely belongs in this category is France's fateful FIFA World Cup™ qualifier against Bulgaria on 17 November 1993.
With a packed Parc des Princes cheering them on, LesBleus were confident of clinching their place at the biggest football show on earth for the first time since 1986. But on a chilly winter evening in the French capital, the visiting Bulgarians proved they had not come to Paris for the sightseeing. Now FIFA.com takes you back in time to relive a dramatic evening.
17 November 1993, Parc des Princes, Paris
France 1-2 Bulgaria
Scorers:Cantona 32 (France); Kostadinov 37, 90 (Bulgaria)
France: Lama, Desailly, Roche, Blanc, Petit, Le Guen, Deschamps, Sauzee (Guerin 81), Pedros, Papin (Ginola 69), Cantona.
Bulgaria: Mikhailov, Kremenliev, Ivanov, Khubtchev, Tzvetanov (Aleksandrov 82), Yankov, Letchkov (Borimirov 82), Balakov, Kostadinov, Luboslav Penev, Stoitchkov.
Two months prior to the decisive clash, France looked odds-on certainties to qualify for USA 1994. Out in front in Group 6 with 13 points to their name, Gerard Houllier's side only had to secure a point from their final two games, both at home, to secure their place in the finals.
Lying third, two points behind Sweden and three adrift of the French, the Bulgarians knew they had no margin for error as they went into their last two fixtures, the first of them coming on 13 October, when Dimitar Penev's men easily disposed of Austria 4-1.
That same evening, section leaders France were hosting lowly Israel, whom they had comfortably beaten 4-0 away in the first meeting between the two. Two-one ahead with ten minutes remaining, Les Bleus were firmly on course to achieve their objective. Late goals from Eyal Berkovic and Reuven Atar, the latter striking in the third minute of injury time, gave the Israelis a shock win, however, leaving France with the task of taking something from their final match. Reprieved by the Israelis, Bulgaria knew that a win in Paris would take them through.
On a perfect evening for football the fans flocked to the Parc des Princes to roar their heroes on. Despite that slip-up against Israel, qualification still looked a certainty. And while the strains of L'Amérique by Joe Dassin did not echo over the stadium's tannoys as they had done in October, there was a general air of optimism as the blue hordes gathered.
Intent on conducting a commando-style operation, their opponents were confident they had the necessary talent to pull off a surprise win. As expected, however, the hosts made a strong start, dominating the opening exchanges. Even so, for all their possession, Houllier's charges were aware of the dangers the eastern Europeans posed and were anxious for a goal to settle their nerves.
It arrived half an hour in. Stationed on the right side of midfield Didier Deschamps swung in a cross to Jean-Pierre Papin, who nodded the ball into the path of the onrushing Eric Cantona. Caught unawares by the speed of the French move, the Bulgarian defence were powerless to prevent Cantona from volleying past the exposed Borislav Mikhailov to put Houllier's side in front.
However, it was then that France's fears began to betray them. Within five minutes Emil Kostadinov had headed Krasimir Balakov's corner kick past the stranded Bernard Lama to tie the match up at 1-1. As the tension mounted so the French became increasingly panicky, even though they remained masters of their own destiny.
Twenty-one minutes remained when David Ginola came on for the
cramp-stricken Papin and with just 20 seconds to go the substitute
won a free kick deep in the Bulgarian half, down by the corner
flag. Vincent Guerin slid a short pass to the winger but rather
than shield the ball and run the clock down the PSG man decided to
swing a deep cross into the Bulgarian box.
With no French shirts in sight, the visitors regained possession and surged forward. While the blue shirts desperately backtracked, Luboslav Penev dinked a delicious pass through to Kostadinov, who surged into the box. Although the ball was bouncing awkwardly, that didn't stop the speedy forward from lashing a drive past Lama and into the roof of the net. With just two seconds of normal time remaining, France were out.
Thanks in no small part to his match-winning brace, Kostadinov became a legend in his homeland. The main architect of his side's stunning victory, the right-winger was a vital component of coach Penev's 3-4-3 system, partnering centre-forward Penev and the left-sided Hristo Stoitchkov to great effect, never more impressively than in those pulsating 90 minutes against the French. It proved to be one of the performances of his fine career and at no point did the men in blue manage to keep the elusive Kostadinov under control.
"The adventure is over all too soon. With only 30 seconds remaining we were there but we got stabbed in the back and at the worst possible time. The referee still had his whistle to his mouth when Ginola won that free kick near the corner flag, but then he goes and sends in a huge 60-metre cross instead of hanging on to the ball. That allowed Bulgaria to go and hit us on the counter." Gerard Houllier, France coach.
"We've made real asses of ourselves." Didier Deschamps, France midfielder.
"And to think that a month ago we thought we were out. 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 the win. They didn't deserve to qualify and we hit them where it hurt the most." Hristo Stoitchkov, Bulgaria forward.
What happened next?
After reaching USA 94, Bulgaria enjoyed the most successful FIFA World Cup finals of their history. Against all expectations, Stoitchkov and Co stunned Argentina 2-0 in the final group game to earn a place in the Round of 16. While lucky to squeeze past Mexico 3-1 on penalties, Penev's men shone in a 2-1 quarter-final defeat of Germany before bowing out 2-1 in the semis against Italy. The eastern Europeans ended the tournament fourth after slipping to a 4-0 reverse to Sweden in the match for third place. Even so, Bulgarian football never enjoyed such heady times either before or since.
As for the French, Houllier was quickly replaced by his No2 Aime Jacquet, the prelude to the most glorious period in the country's footballing history. After exiting UEFA EURO 1996 following a semi-final penalty shootout against the Czechs, Les Bleus crowned themselves world champions at France 1998 and then added the European title two years later. Despite those riches, however, the merest mention of that disastrous November night is enough to make any France fan come out in a cold sweat.