Bulgarian success revives golden memories
SOFIA - Bulgaria's Olympic volleyball team have triumphed in adversity to spark feverish celebrations in the Balkan country and revive memories of a golden moment from their sporting past.
Bulgaria outclassed Germany 3-0 in the men's quarter-finals at Earls Court on Wednesday, prompting wild celebrations among fans at home.
Their success was not anticipated after the Bulgarian camp was plunged into turmoil in the lead up to the London Games when the coach and two leading players quit less than two months before the start of the competition.
"Fantastic! I can't find words to describe how I feel. If we continue to play like this, we'll win the gold," said delighted fan Ivo Dimitrov, who was already turning his attention to Bulgaria's next game - a clash with three-times Olympic champions Russia.
In reaching the semis, coach Nayden Naydenov's team have rekindled memories of the 1994 soccer World Cup in the United States when Bulgaria reached the last four.
"I'm so happy," another fan Milena Mincheva said. "It reminds me of the emotions of that memorable summer in 1994. I'm feeling a sense of deja vu as we did it against the Germans in the quarter-finals once again."
Rank outsiders Bulgaria knocked Germany out of World Cup in 1994 when they sensationally pulled back two late goals in three minutes to beat the reigning champions 2-1.
Reaching the last four of the Olympic volleyball tournament alongside established teams like Brazil, Italy and Russia is the eastern European country's biggest team success in years.
Volleyball cannot match the financial rewards on offer in soccer, or even basketball, but the national team's recent success has generated huge interest among Bulgarians craving any sporting victory to boost national pride.
Bulgaria's volleyball team now attracts bigger crowds than top division soccer clubs with fans creating a carnival atmosphere at the 12,300-capacity Armeets Arena in Sofia.
Bulgaria won the silver medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but their preparations for these Games were thrown into disarray.
Coach Radostin Stoychev and best spiker Matey Kaziyski quit the day after they qualified for the Games, citing interference from the national federation.
A few days later, experienced setter Andrey Zhekov joined the duo of absentees by announcing he would not compete in London.
The situation, however, seems to have inspired rather than discouraged the team.
"I don't think chaos helps anyone but it's part of our national characteristic, in a moment of difficulty we show our best," captain Vladimir Nikolov told reporters in London after their 3-1 win over Poland.
Russia beat Bulgaria 3-1 in last year's European championship quarter-finals, but the Bulgarians are brimful of optimism, having enjoyed some convincing wins in London so far.
"Nobody can stop us," said Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev, who supported his compatriots from the stands in the game against Germany.
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