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Nigeria's One Half Better Than Bulgaria's Whole

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, June 20, 1998; Page E1

PARIS — The Nigerians are hot. How hot? On Friday they clinched a place in the round of 16, the third team through the first stage and running on the heels of two big boys, Brazil and France. How exciting are the Nigerians? The other day in Nantes they staged the comeback of the World Cup, at least so far, scoring two late goals to stun Spain, 3-2. But what would they do when they played the barroom bullies of this World Cup and the last Cup, the Bulgarians? The Bulgarians run through brick walls and spit out the mortar.

The answer came late Friday afternoon. When time is running out, when the afternoon shadows lengthen, Bulgaria is at its best. Bulgaria has its own impressive history of late comebacks. Friday it seemed that Bulgaria was playing not only Nigeria but the entire Parc des Princes stadium crowd and most of the entire soccer world. But the Bulgarians being behind 1-0 with the world against them and the sun going does not mean that downtown at L'Opera the fat lady should be singing.

When the Ruth and Gehrig of Bulgarian soccer, the attackers Hristo Stoichkov and Emil Kostadinov, get the ball, they can score from almost anywhere. The last time he was in this park, Kostadinov scored two late goals to beat the French, 2-1, and eliminate them from 1994 World Cup qualifying when all the French needed was a tie to make it to America. The French hate Kostadinov, and whistled him all afternoon. They dislike him maybe even more than Stoichkov — he's the Bulgarian Ruth although he's built like Yogi Berra.

Stoichkov, who looks like he was born with five o'clock shadow and is not interested in becoming a government ambassador, once said, "I love to beat the French. They are nothing."

Stoichkov scored on a free kick at Giants Stadium in 1994 that curved like a fishhook and flew into the net to tie Germany, 1-1. The Germans looked like they knew what was about to happen to them, which several minutes later it did. Stoichkov set them up and Bulgaria eliminated them, 2-1, in the quarterfinals, the shocker of the '94 tournament. So despite popular sentiment Friday for the "Super Eagles," also known as "Bora's Boys," for their gypsy coach, Bora Milutinovic, the game wasn't over until you could hear the singing, if not from downtown, then from the Nigerian rooting sections.

For all their exciting maneuvers, the Nigerians make the earth quake when they go on defense. That phase of the game is not their forte, even with eight men back. Their goalkeeper, Peter Rufai, is not sure-handed even though he's the only player who has to be. But the Nigerians had to stave off two of the nastiest boys in the game, two of the finest finishers any team could hope to have. The referee, the only one who really knew what time it was, kept looking at his watch. Here came Stoichkov. Here came Kostadinov.

Stoichkov ran onto a perfect diagonal pass from Kostadinov and struck the ball toward the net, with Rufai well beaten. Was this the Germany game again for Stoichkov? No. The ball rolled just to the right. The crowd took a breath in unison from its whistling. Stoichkov lay prone on the grass, face down.

Kostadinov wound up from the left flank, striking the ball with his right foot. Rufai, absolutely, positively, had no chance for this one. Was this the France game again for Kostadinov? No. The ball hit the crossbar. The crowd gasped. Anybody who thinks soccer is boring, especially as it's played at this level, may need to catch up with the rest of the world.

With the 1-0 win, the Nigerians — for the time being — are out front in the world of soccer. Beating Bulgaria proved they belong in the forefront, even though they may not be Brazil yet and are not expected to stay until the end of France '98. Being questionable on defense, they do not play the entire "beautiful game," as World Cup visitors refer to soccer. But the Nigerians certainly play a very pretty game.

Jay-Jay Okocha surveyed things from the top of penalty area, passed the ball to the right to forward Daniel Amokachi, who then flicked the ball to striker Victor Ikpeba, lurking in front of the area. Ikpeba made a dizzying turn and placed the ball under the onrushing keeper, and that, in the 26th minute, was all the scoring. But it wouldn't be World Cup soccer if there weren't a story behind every goal. Would you believe it, as closely as they are required to play together, Amokachi and Ikpeba don't get along that well? They've been described as "enemies but brothers."

"We're not the best of friends, we're not the worse of enemies," Amokachi said after the game.

Milutinovic has crammed a lifetime of success into four World Cups, coaching Mexico, Costa Rica, the United States and now Nigeria. A writer, apparently wanting 90 minutes of the "beautiful game" from "Bora's Boys," demanded to know why he called for a defensive shell for most of the second half. A bottom-line guy who wanted victory, Milutinovic replied: "We have got to do the best for our team."

Sunday Oliseh, a midfielder, is one of "Bora's Boys." Oliseh recalled that Nigeria led before losing to Italy in the round of 16 in extra time in 1994, and that Nigeria got behind Argentina in the 1996 Olympic championship game before rallying to win the gold. These things happened because the Nigerians wouldn't play conservatively enough, or as Oliseh suggested, "We say, let's do some show."

Half a show, though, was show enough today for Milutinovic, even if he tried to imply that Nigeria had just put on a whole show. "For the people who like spectacle, we make spectacle," the Yugoslavian-born coach said in English.

If this were midseason baseball, Nigeria and the U.S. could make a trade that would help both teams: American goalkeeper Kasey Keller for any spare Nigerian striker, even up. Since that's out of the question, the Americans will have to go with what they have Sunday against Iran, hoping to position themselves for a second-place finish in Group F and life after the first round. Group F is difficult, but just short of being the "Group of Death." That's Group D — Nigeria, Bulgaria, Spain and Paraguay. Nigeria has left the others to fight for second place and the round of 16.

The Bulgarians find the hour growing late in their World Cup because of their earlier 0-0 tie with Paraguay and Friday's loss. Spain on Wednesday will be their last hope. But who cares about Bulgaria? Certainly not the French. Not the Germans, who remember '94. And Friday, none of the young soccer countries who saw themselves represented by Nigeria. Say what you might of the Bulgarians, however, they certified Nigeria's worth. Think what you will of Stoichkov, who has the temperament of a wolverine, he turned from nasty to nice when the shadows fell Friday.

He sought out and hugged five Nigerian players. Milutinovic sought him out, and shook his hand. Stoichkov walked toward the section of stands where the world's soccer officials hobnob with government leaders. He looked up and shouted an exchange with Michel Platini, France's greatest soccer player and now the president of the tournament's organizing committee. They were friendly words. Then Stoichkov took off his jersey and tossed it up to a Platini pleased by the show. It's a kind gesture to give a soccer jersey, an honor to receive it.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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