Why Bulgaria are Placing their Faith in Youth to get back into Footballing Relevance
Bulgarian Football has fallen a long way since the peak of the national team that finished fourth in the 1994 World Cup powered by the goals of the outstanding Hristo Stoichkov, who finished the tournament as the golden boot winner with six strikes. The current iteration of the Bulgarian national side are in a bitter battle to remain in the hunt for Euro 2024 after the opening two rounds of qualifying. The top bookmakers have offers available to back Bulgaria to turn their form around to make a surge to qualify for the tournament, but there is a huge challenge for Mladen Krstajic to turn the performances of his team around. As it stands, the odds are truly against Bulgaria returning to a major competition, never mind a push for the latter stages as they did almost 30 years ago.
Bulgaria have produced talented players since, but the results on the field for the national side have nosedived. Even with players such as Dimitar Berbatov, they have managed just two appearances at major tournaments since finishing fourth in the 1994 World Cup, failing to progress from the group stage at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2004. The problem has been finding a team that can blend together to produce consistent results on the pitch. Krstajic appears to have turned towards a youth movement to rectify their problems. It is a gamble placing a lot of young players in the same side at international level, but at this stage, Bulgaria do not have a lot to lose. It may result in further disappointment in the short term, but in the next round of qualifying matches for the 2026 World Cup or Euro 2028, it might allow them to turn their fortunes around.
Building From The Back
Bulgaria’s latest squad for their Euro 2024 qualifiers did not include a single player that had played over 50 caps. The highest total was Spas Delev, who led the way with 40, while captain Kiril Despodov was next on the list with 37. Krstajic was not afraid to field a fledgling outfit, although it did result in defeats at the hands of Montenegro and Hungary.
The defence was extremely youthful, but the fact that the players are being exposed to a high level of competition should stand them in good stead. Hristiyan Petrov, Valentin Antov, Petko Hristov and Yoni Stoyanov are all young defenders that need time to grow into their careers at the highest level. Antov and Hristov have both experienced a high standard of football in Italy with Monza and Venezia respectively, while Petrov is a regular start for CSKA Sofia. Dimo Krastev could be the best defender out of the bunch, and his presence was sorely missed in a 3-0 defeat to Hungary. Krastev is on the books at Fiorentina, and at the age of 20 is already catching the eye, but will need time on the field in Serie A to develop.
Source: Edoardo Busti on Unsplash
Bulgaria could have continued their journey with 34-year-old keeper Nikolay Mihaylov, but was he was not selected for the qualifiers as Krstajic placed his faith in Daniel Naumov. He is a regular at CSKA 1948, but he needs time to work his team-mates and learn the nuances of a tough position. There is decent competition for Naumov with Svetoslav Vutsov and Ivan Dyulgerov also in contention for the gloves. Vutsov is one to watch for the future.
One area that is looking fairly encouraging for Bulgaria is the development of top-tier midfielders that are playing a high standard of football. Ilia Gruev has come through the ranks at Werder Bremen and played a key role in their promotion back to the Bundesliga from Bundesliga 2. The 22-year-old has the power and physical edge to lock down the middle of the park and has a few nice touches in possession, but he needs to add a final product to his game.
Alternatively, Bulgaria need to put players around him to ease the burden. Marin Petkov could offer the creative outlet required in the midfield to provide the chances in the final third. The 19-year-old has secured a starting berth for Levski Sofia and has goals to his game, scoring four times each in the last two seasons. Petkov is growing into his role, but he does need to refine his skills at the highest level.
Dominik Yankov too is a player to watch and has excelled for Ludogorets Razgrad for a number of seasons. The 22-year-old was once on the books at Sunderland as a teenager before moving to Bulgaria. The Canadian-born midfielder has a lot of talent, but he needs to bring raise the level of his game from club level to the international arena. Iliyan Stefanov proved that he had an eye for goal in the Nations League scoring against Georgia and Gibraltar, but the midfielder needs to keep himself fit and firing before he can prove his worth against tougher opponents. There are the foundations of a decent midfield for Krstajic to utilise, although the components are raw to say the least.
The Best Prospect
Nikola Iliev might be the most exciting prospect in Bulgarian football after he was named the youth footballer of the year in 2022. The 18-year-old is on the books at Inter Milan and has performed well for the Inter youth team in European football as well as domestically. However, he has yet to be given an opportunity for the Nerazzurri at first-team level. Iliev has all the talent to become a sensation for Bulgaria in the final third.
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Iliev might have the instincts of a striker, although his best position might be behind the front man in the number 10 role. He needs to start playing regular first-team football, although Inter seem reluctant to allow him to leave on loan at least for now. Iliev needs to make his case because he is the best prospect to emerge out of Bulgaria since Berbatov. The forward is the player that the nation are crying out for to get Bulgaria back into major tournaments. The 2023/24 season could be a vital one for his development because his country could do with a spark amid their recent struggles in qualifying.
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