Bulgarian ghost haunts France

Several years ago, working on a book with the French footballer David Ginola, there was an awkward moment as the time came when the elephant in the room could no longer be ignored. We had to talk about a footballing calamity, and a moment which was for him personally the darkest in his career.

In 1993, France were on a steady course to qualify for the World Cup in the USA. They had a couple of home games that everybody expected them to hurdle easily against Israel and Bulgaria. The crash, as they blew it in spectacularly alarming style – was unforseen, unbelievable and – for some – unforgivable.

A couple of years after the event, Ginola appeared to still pick at the scars as he reflected upon what happened. “Bulgaria…” he said broodingly. “The very word makes me shudder.”

France needed to avoid defeat to Bulgaria in the final qualification game. They were drawing 1-1 with a minute to go. “What followed on the field was a nightmare; what followed off the field was insanity,” Ginola recalled. “I lost possession, and seconds later Kostadinov scored with the last kick of the game and France were eliminated. The French like to see heads roll when there is a crisis, and our failure against Bulgaria was a national crisis. As is well documented in history, we like cutting off head in France… They had to find a head to roll and mine was the one they chose.”

His was certainly the one the French manager at the time, Gerard Houllier, chose. Ginola received a phone call from a friend of his the following morning telling him to turn on the television. There was Houllier pointing the finger of blame entirely at the player who had given the ball to Bulgaria in an overhit attempt to pass the ball to his teammate Eric Cantona in the attacking third. The fact there were nine other France players who might have intervened as Bulgaria broke to finish the French off.

Ginola was astonished by what Houllier said in his TV interview: “I saw him claim, ‘David Ginola is a criminal. I repeat, he is a criminal. He said it twice. Make no mistake. It’s him! He wanted me ostracized. He wanted me shattered.”

Passing the buck did not save Houllier, who was soon replaced as France coach. Ginola was picked a few times by Houllier’s replacement, but never made great strides and soon fell out of international favor. The episode tends to bubble up in times of crisis as a useful example of just how bad things can get.

Some 20 years on from Bulgaria, France have a home match against Ukraine with World Cup qualification on the line. The tension is razor sharp. This time, expectations are far more humble after a chastening first leg of the play-off in Kiev last Friday night. France lost 2-0, played abysmally, and had defender Laurent Koscielny sent off late on. A poll run by Le Parisien prompted almost 90 percent of the vote to confess that they didn’t think France would make it to Brazil 2014. L’Equipe pondered whether the away game was the worst anyone could remember.

A necessary seige mentality has set in. The coach Didier Deschamps is talking up the chance for the team to redeem themselves in the home leg, and stresses how they must be calculating and not reckless. Olivier Giroud has spoken of how the team are “ready to die on the field to get there.” Everybody knows how intense the stakes are, to try to prevent another period of soul searching about the national team.

As a footnote, Les Bleus might have suffered from missing out on the 1994 World Cup, but they relaunched themselves brilliantly to win the next one, so meaningfully, in 1998 on home soil. The Bulgaria fiasco was in some way a catalyst for so much change for the better. Not that anyone wants another dose of gloom if it can possibly be avoided. Deschamps and his players are in mission miracle mode.