Fans in Bulgaria get a kick out of new soccer heroes WORLD CUP 1994


SOFIA, Bulgaria -- Fans here cheered, chanted, prayed and pleaded unstintingly for their "Bulgarian Supermen," their new national heroes, who turned out to be not quite super enough yesterday on the soccer field at Giants Stadium.

Gathered here before a flickering, outdoor television screen at the National Palace of Culture, about 5,000 Bulgarian fans exploded an arsenal of fireworks, waved a forest of flags and sang the national anthem, "Mila Rodino," dear Fatherland, with lusty, out-of-tune reverence.

But they took their team's 2-1 defeat by the Italians with genuine good-natured sportsmanship, soothed no doubt by gallons and gallons of beer and vodka drunk directly from the bottle and passed around like candy on Halloween.

They did curse the French referee with unspeakable and untranslatable Bulgarian words. "He had bad memories of Bulgaria beating France," charged Boyka Zareva, a 20-year-old economics student who looks like a young Gloria Steinem.

About three-quarters of the crowd believed the referee should have given Iordan Letchkov, a Bulgarian forward, a penalty kick when he was tackled during the last four minutes of the game.

"We are disappointed," said Zareva's friend, Galina Raeva, a 19-year-old student of international tourism. "But we are content."

"They fought like real men." Zareva said.

Virtually the whole country watched the game believing their team would beat Italy -- 3-2 was the popular guess -- then go on to win the World Cup.

They were loud, raucous and very friendly. They chanted "Bul-gar-i U-na-zi", which means Bulgarian Supermen, without stopping and loud enough to be heard in Rome, if not in East Rutherford, N.J.

They bounced up and down, yelling, "Anybody who doesn't jump is an Italian."

But when Roberto Baggio scored his second goal, they went into shock. But nobody cursed the Italian striker. He's too good. He earned their grudging admiration.

"He's a very, very sexy man," Zareva said.

"He's good, but he's bad," Raeva said.

Roberto is the Baggio with the little rat's tail hanging from the back of his head. Dino's the other Baggio playing for Italy. He's not quite as pretty.

Midfielder Krasimir Balakov was the pick as the sexiest Bulgarian player.

The consensus among the young women and most of the crowd was that Hristo Stoitchkov was the best player on the Bulgarian team. When he scored on a penalty kick, the crowd in front of the Palace of Culture seemed to levitate about 20 feet. The fireworks resumed. A guy in a black Puma T-shirt passed his bottle around and sang an impromptu song, "A sip for victory."

The crowd resumed chanting midway through the second half, "It's time for a second goal." But it never came.

But it was an inauspicious day, as even the government spokesman, Raitcho Raikov, said: "Bulgaria is 1313 years old, and this is the 13th of July."

Bulgaria dates its founding from its famous victory over Byzantium in the year 681. The victory over Germany last Sunday has become the most famous since then.

"It made us big on the map," Raeva said.

Raikov attributed Bulgaria's successes in the World Cup to the free enterprise system, which more or less replaced communism here in 1989.

"Five years ago our players couldn't leave Bulgaria," he said. "Now they play all over Europe. It's very important for them to play in Europe."

They play in the big leagues, he said. They learn the European game, they earn tons of money. In Bulgarian terms, they're pTC millionaires.

"Free enterprise made this team," Raikov said. "But they aren't playing for money now. They are playing for Bulgaria now, for the pride of the Bulgarian people."

Zareva said nobody would ever forget this team. "Our team was good and defended well the name of Bulgaria," she said. "We will beat Sweden and be No. 3 in the world."

Of course, Sweden had yet to lose to Brazil last night, and nobody here believed the Swedes could win.

Some fans just shrugged off the defeat and left the plaza strewn with shards of broken vodka bottles, singing: "We will win, we will lose, but we will go home drunk."

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