Parc De Princes 17 November 1993: After looking like absolute certainties to qualify for the following year’s World Cup in the USA, France’s hopes hang in the balance. A shock defeat to Israel has left the French with a winner-takes-all clash against Bulgaria in their final group game. In the dying minutes, the match is tied at 1-1, Eric Cantona’s first-half goal for the home side being quickly cancelled out by Emil Kostadinov.
The French look like they’ve done enough when David Ginola receives the ball in the Bulgarian half from a short free-kick taken by Vincent Guerin. All he has to do is head for the corner-flag with the ball and run down the clock.
Unfortunately for Ginola, he decides on another course of action – his cross into the opposing box is wildly overhit and allows Bulgaria to break. A ball over the top finds Emil Kostadinov and as he heads in on goal from the inside-right channel, he slams it home from a difficult angle.
That was it for the French. There was no way back after such a hammer blow, so late in the contest. Instead it was Bulgaria who went to USA 94’ and acquitted themselves in some style – the side containing Stoichkov, Letchov and that man Kostadinov made it all the way to the semi-finals, before falling to a Roberto Baggio inspired Italy.
Immediately after the defeat, much of the attention focused on Ginola, and his inexplicable decision to voluntarily concede possession so late in the game. The winger claimed that manager Gerard Houllier called him “the murderer of the French team”. Houllier not surprisingly, has a different version of events. He has admitted that he was indeed unhappy with Ginola, but states this was down to the player telling the French media that he should be selected ahead of Jean-Pierre Papin. Cantona was also rumoured to have clashed with Ginola over the same issue.
However, regardless of any in-fighting, the fact remains that France missed out on the World Cup for the second successive finals, despite the fact they should already have booked their place long before Bulgaria came calling.
In hindsight, this result was the best thing that could have happened to French football. Reaching the USA may have merely papered over the cracks, defeat however left them exposed for the world to see. Houllier left his post and was replaced by Aime Jacquet, while Ginola, Cantona and Papin amongst others, reached the end of their international careers. This allowed for the introduction of a new generation of players including Christophe Dugarry, Lillian Thuram, and of course, Zinedine Zidane. The rest is history: a semi-final place at Euro 96 was followed by World Cup victory as hosts in 1998 and glory at Euro 2000 when arguably, Les Blues were at the peak of their powers.
Few French fans will have fond memories of that infamous night in Paris more than 17 years ago. However, given the resulting upturn in the fortunes of their national side, perhaps Emil Kostadinov is due a thank you, or a merci.