Boncho Genchev, one of Bulgaria’s 1994 World Cup heroes, on the most important penalty of his career
When we first arrived in the US ahead of the 1994 World Cup, our main goal was to register Bulgaria’s first ever win at a World Cup. Not only did we manage to achieve that, we also advanced to the knockout stages. And then all the pressure was suddenly gone – we had exceeded all expectations! Then came the last-16 clash with Mexico.
When we entered the matchday pitch and looked around, we saw thousands of Mexican fans in the stands. There were also some Germans! As for the Bulgarian fans, they were a minority. At first, the Mexicans thought they were holding the upper hand, but then it turned out it was completely the opposite – so much was expected of them that their burden became heavier and heavier, while we had nothing to lose…
The day before we had been practicing penalty kicks at the end of our training session. Curiously, some of the guys who were shooting the most from the spot didn’t get the chance to take a penalty in the actual match. My case was the opposite – I had never imagined I would take a penalty kick in a World Cup round of 16 clash!
Once the extra time ended in a draw, our coach Dimitar Penev didn’t really ask me if I would be up for it. He came to me and said: ‘Boncho, you’ll be taking a penalty, won’t you?’. He didn’t ask ‘Will you be able to take one?’. I couldn’t say ‘No’, I had no other choice, but to shoot…
What’s the pressure like in a moment as important as this one? Unbearable! You start walking from the centre of the pitch and by the time you approach the penalty area you look at the goal and it seems like it’s so, so small that there’s no way you can score. And all kind of negative stuff is passing through your head: ‘God, I have to make sure I don’t slip up!’, or ‘I’m going to miss it and I’ll let my team and my country down!’, or ‘The goalkeeper is going to save it!’.
Before it was my turn, three other players had already missed their penalties – two Mexicans and Krassimir Balakov [current head coach of Bulgaria]. And I said to myself: ‘Even if I miss it, we still have everything to play for! Come on!’. Then the psychological battle between me and Jorge Campos, the Mexico goalkeeper, began… I looked to my left, then to my right, he did the same, trying to predict where I was going to put the ball. I thought: ‘Come on man, you have to focus – the first and most important thing is to hit the target and then – try not to hit Campos himself!’. Two days after that game I was going to celebrate my 30th birthday. I was afraid that I could slip up, miss and ruin my anniversary!
I started running and… I scored! It was the most important penalty of my career. Actually, that was the most important footballing moment of my life! After the match we celebrated properly and some of my team-mates were convinced we would make it to the final. Even now, 25 years later, it’s been discussed a lot that, back then, FIFA would never allow a team like Bulgaria to reach the final. I was certain that they would come up with something that would prevent us from playing in the final, maybe even accuse us of having done something wrong or illegal. You know what, it doesn’t matter! We managed to finish fourth. At a World Cup!