EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Germany led Bulgaria in the second half of their World Cup quarterfinal last night when German midfielder Martin Wagner took an elbow to the head.
Wagner retired to the Giants Stadium dressing room for treatment. Thirty minutes later he was still clearing the cobwebs when his teammates filed silently through the door, looking every bit as dazed as he was.
Wagner asked what was wrong and was told Bulgaria had just upset the defending World Cup titlists 2-1 Sunday in front of 72,416.
"I said, 'You're kidding me,' " Wagner said later. "I can't believe this. Why did it happen?"
The explanation for one of the biggest upsets in soccer history depended on your point of view. The Germans, proud to the bitter end, said they lost because they had made too many mistakes and failed to cash in on scoring chances, and perhaps because they looked past the Bulgarians toward a semifinal showdown with Italy. Germany had not lost a World Cup match since the 1986 final, an undefeated string of 17.
"We lost a game that we couldn't lose," said forward Thomas Haessler.
Bulgarian striker Hristo Stoichkov, who scored the tying goal, offered another explanation. "The Bulgarian players today were a very good team," he said. "But God is Bulgarian."
It must be a recent development. Bulgaria had not won a single match in the World Cup finals until it slaughtered Greece in Soldier Field two weeks ago. Until then it had been 0-11-6 in the World Cup finals. Germany, meanwhile, was bearing down on an unprecedented fourth World Cup.
They had to be cheering the result in cities such as Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna and all over Bulgaria, a Balkan nation of 9 million that is struggling to adapt to the post-Cold War world.
"For a small country like ours to have a success like this . . . we were the outsider and we like being the outsider," said Iordan Letchkov, who scored the winner. "This is Bulgaria's greatest success."
Bulgaria and Italy square off here Wednesday. But a semifinal between titans Italy and Germany, with six titles between them, seemed certain when the Germans leaped ahead 1-0 in the 49th minute on a penalty kick by Lothar Matthaeus, playing in a record-tying 21st World Cup finals match. It came on a debatable call by Colombian referee Jose Torres Cadena, who ruled Letchkov tripped Juergen Klinsmann.
Germany had the match in control, but it slipped away in five stunning minutes.
In the 74th minute, German midfielder Andreas Moeller ripped a shot off the left post. Rudi Voeller knocked the rebound into the net, but he was ruled offside.
Instead of trailing by two goals, Bulgaria quickly took advantage of its reprieve. Stoichkov lured Moeller into committing a foul on the edge of the penalty area in the 76th minute. Stoichkov, the temperamental superstar, lifted the free kick directly over Germany's defensive wall. Goalkeeper Bodo Illgner didn't move until the ball ripped the cords behind him.
German coach Berti Vogts called it a defensive error, but it was in fact a stroke of genius, a shot requiring surgical precision. Stoichkov said he had psyched himself up by remembering that yesterday was the sixth birthday of his daughter, Mihaela.