EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The winners? Strictly Cinderella, even if one of their heroes has more hair on his legs than on his head.
The losers? The picture of Dorian Gray is appropriate, because the defending world champions fell apart, this time for good.
The references are fiction, but this is the reality of the biggest World Cup upset in decades: Bulgaria, which two weeks earlier still was seeking its first victory in the competition, delivered two picturesque goals within a four-minute span late in the second half for a 2-1 quarterfinal victory that stunned Germany and 72,468 fans at Giants Stadium yesterday.
Fifteen minutes from the end, Germany was an official's interpretation away from a 2-0 lead that most likely would have cemented its 10th semifinal appearance in 13 tries.
Instead, Italy's opponent here Wednesday will be a team that came to the United States with an 0-10-6 record in five previous World Cups and began this one losing by three goals to Nigeria.
Germany is going home and Bulgaria to its first semifinal, thanks to goals by international superstar Hristo Stoitchkov and lesser-known Iordan Letchkov, whose prematurely balding pate altered the course of the World Cup.
"Every team in the World Cup, such as Germany, Argentina and Brazil, started their tradition somewhere," Bulgarian coach Dimitar Penev said. "Maybe this is a new beginning for Bulgaria."
Surely there will be a different look for Germany, which stuck with many of the players who carried it to the championship in Italy four years ago. For the third time in this World Cup, the experienced Germans wilted late, but whereas they withstood comebacks by South Korea and Belgium, they couldn't hold off Bulgaria.
The script followed a familiar scenario for the first 75 minutes. Bulgaria, which sends its best players to Spain, England, France and, yes, Germany, had two excellent chances in the 12th minute. Germany weathered both and a slow first half, and went ahead in the 49th minute on a penalty kick by Lothar Matthaeus, the 33-year-old captain.
Matthaeus' appearance in a record 22nd World Cup match looked secure in the 74th minute, when Rudi Voeller knocked home the rebound of Andreas Moeller's cannon shot off the left post. Colombian referee Jose Torres disallowed the goal, however, recognizing an offside violation he apparently had ignored on Moeller's shot.
Instead of being ahead 2-0, Germany found itself tied 1-1 moments later.
A German foul to the right of its penalty area led to a direct kick by Stoitchkov, the temperamental leader of FC Barcelona, who curved a left-footed, 25-yard shot over a six-man wall of Germans attempting to protect the near post. It was a present to daughter Mihela, on her sixth birthday, but the surprise was on goalkeeper Bodo Illgner, who didn't move until the net rippled in the 76th minute.
"We controlled the game, but we were caught cold on the free kick," Illgner said. "When I saw the kick, it was pretty much in the goal."
Less than three minutes later, Bulgaria struck again, with the main figure being Letchkov, who himself had a birthday the day before, when he turned 27. His nearly bald head makes him look a decade older.
From the right side, Zlatko Iankov centered to Letchkov, the same midfielder who had been called for the questionable foul on Juergen Klinsmann that gave the Germans their penalty kick. Never changing stride, Letchkov, 5 feet 10, beat Thomas Haessler, 5 feet 5, to the cross and headed it inside the left post.
What club owns Letchkov's services? Hamburg, Germany.
This was a monumental upset for an Eastern European team that was regarded as something of a fluke because it beat Argentina immediately after Diego Maradona's suspension and eliminated Mexico in a penalty kick tiebreaker.
"I think the world will realize we have some classy players now," Stoitchkov said.
WORLD CUP SEMIFINALS
* Italy vs. Bulgaria at East Rutherford, N.J., 4:05 p.m., ESPN
* Brazil vs. Sweden at Pasadena, Calif., 7:35 p.m., ESPN
* Semifinal losers at Pasadena, Calif., 3:35 p.m., ESPN
* Semifinal winners at Pasadena, Calif., 3:35 p.m., Ch. 13