What England’s clash with Bulgaria says about the state of the international game
It is both an indication of the invigorating new strength of the England national team and a disconcerting reality that Bulgaria, and nations of a similar ilk, are facing.
While Gareth Southgate deliberates on whether to bring a Premier League star like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain straight back into his team, Krassimir Balokov has no such luxury. The Bulgairan manager has no luxuries at all, or anything even approaching an elite-level player.
Balakov is probably still the most famous figure in the squad, and he wouldn’t have even have had to be one of the stars of their exhilarating USA 94 campaign for that to be the case. There were the size of the clubs he played for, like so many of that squad. Balakov spent the majority of his career at Sporting Lisbon and Stuttgart.
There’s barely anyone close to that in his own squad for this match. Many football fans would struggle to pick out where their clubs are on a map, let alone pick out the actual players themselves.
Of the 14 from this 22-man squad who don’t still play in Bulgaria, the highest level is probably captain Ivelin Popov at Rostov or Nikolay Dimitrov in the Russian Premier League, and then Bozhidar Kraev at Gil Vicente in the Portuguese Primeira Liga. After that you’ve got players at Sturm Graz in Austria, Fehervar in Hungary, Kasimpasa in the Turkish Super Lig, Slovan Bratislava, Qarabag, Ararat-Armenia and Chemnitzer FC in the German third tier.
It similarly says much they have two naturalised Brazilians in 35-year-old Marcelinho from Ludogorets Razgrad, hoping to make his eighth cap, and 31-year-old Wanderson from the same club. He hopes for his first cap.
It is a long way from the Dimitar Berbatov team in the 5-0 hammering to Sweden in Euro 2004, Bulgaria’s sole qualification this millennium, let alone the glories of the 1990s.
It is also why this match at Wembley is almost certain to be another procession in this group for England, with 3-0 a conservative prediction.
All of the various themes that usually come up in advance of such games – like the make-up of Southgate’s midfield, whether certain players will kick on – are almost irrelevant to how this match itself will pan out. They are only relevant in the longer term for England, with Bulgaria – a country responsible for one of the great teams and one of the great players in Hristo Stoichkov – an almost instantly forgettable barrier on a wider journey.
Much of this is a connected contrast to how countries like England – and Spain, Germany and France – have effectively mega-industrialised talent production, to a point no one else can match. It has led to a situation that David Goldblatt describes in his perceptive new book, ‘The Age of Football’, where so much of the game’s ultra wealth is concentrated in a core group of western European countries. It is difficult enough for nations like Argentina to adapt to this. It is almost impossible for eastern European nations like Bulgaria – and Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania – who have a whole other set of historic problems. The destruction of Soviet-legacy infrastructures opened up the clubs and the federations to corruption and this contraction.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill spoke about this perceptively in the Irish Times in October, specifically opening with Bulgaria.
“We’re suffering because of the power of the Premier League, no doubt about that,” O’Neill said. “But, you know, it’s not just an Irish problem.”
“At international level Bulgarian football is awful… Look at Romania, the same, or similar. Poland have bucked the trend a bit, they’ve players at Monaco, Bayern Munich. Do you know who’s the top player from the Czech Republic any more? Actually, it’s [Vladimir] Darida, who plays in the Bundesliga. But it’s another country affected.”
Could you have named the top player in Bulgaria before this piece? Are you all that energised by Saturday?
It is just another international fixture that illustrates the health of English football right now, as well as the problems that exist beyond the western European game. It all means England should have no such problems in this fixture.