Date: 27th March 2015 at 10:00am
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Italy squad face Bulgaria on Saturday without any big names, and could see Mirko Valdifiori and Franco Vazquez demonstrate a little of their creative talent and looking to fill an Andrea Pirlo shaped void.

Italy v Bulgaria

It was not always this way however; there was a time when Italy meeting Bulgaria meant two of the great creative players in the world facing off against one another.

It was perhaps fitting that the 1994 World Cup saw the last great hurrah of the fantasista (creative playmaker); in the United States, a country famed for its ability to dream big, the big dreamers of football exerted their influence on the game in a way that has seldom been seen since.

Indeed, a creative forward was the must-have accessory of the tournament. Colombia had Carlos Valderrama, all wild hair and subtle prompting. Romania had Georgi Hagi, the “Maradona of the Carpathians” (then based at Brescia).

Carlos Valderrama

Argentina still had the real deal, giving a final, raging, glimpse of his otherworldly brilliance. Enzo Scifo too was aging, but still well capable of pulling Belgium’s strings. Dennis Bergkamp was a cool head on a clinically inventive body.

Yet, though exalted, that group of creators were the second tier.

At World Cup 1994, two very different men stood alone. In the white shirt of Bulgaria, the angry insistence of Hristo Stoichkov, a man whose willingness to fly off the handle had seen him once banned for life after a brawl.

Stoichkov possessed a bullet of a shot, a sublime range of passing and an imagination that, when it took flight, was irrepressible; he had something of the devil in his play.

Hristo Stoichkov

His opposite number, touched by the angels, was Roberto Baggio. No longer the Baggio of that career-making run against then Czechoslovakia in 1990, a thousand kicks from defenders had taken their toll on his ankles.

The Italian played like an sculptor, his range of passing and shooting carving such precise trajectories that he seemed not just three or four steps in advance, but almost as if he had seen the whole game before, and was just reprising his role in the drama.

Stoichkov had five goals to his name by the time the two met in the semi-final, while Baggio trailed on three. The two were very definitely the stars of their respective sides, though their slightly withdrawn roles precluded the match being a shoot-out.

BAGGIOITALIA-SPAGNA 1-1  28/04/200 AMICHEVOLEPH.GIAMPY//RICHIARDIFOTO

Yet it was almost certainly going to be settled by whether Baggio or Stoichkov supplied the most bullets, whether they pulled the trigger themselves or not.

The game had barely taken shape before Baggio grabbed it by the lapels.

Seizing onto a Donadoni throw-in and turning inside his marker before even he realised he was there, with a quick skip over Petar Houbchev’s challenge he was clear on goal, and stroked a perfect shot just inside Boris Mihalov’s post.

Italy came again, and again, hitting the woodwork before Demetrio Albertini forced a scrambling Mihailov to tip over the bar.

Baggio’s second goal of the game followed almost immediately afterwards — slotting home a simple chance that fell to him at the far post. The ball rolled across the face of goal and nestled in the bottom left corner — even Baggio’s tap-ins could be framed in galleries.

Stoichkov and Bulgaria rallied. Not for nothing had they knocked then-champions Germany out in the quarter final.

Hristo Stoichkov v Italy

Indeed, Stoichkov himself grabbed a sixth and final goal of the tournament as his side raged against the dying of their light.

Crucially, the Azzurri had lost Baggio to injury during the second half.

Shorn of their key man, who returned somewhat hobbled for the final, Italy were unable to claim the prize and the Divine Ponytail passed into World Cup folklore not as the man who guided his side through to a World Cup Final by his bootstraps but the man who lost it — fate can be cruel sometimes.

Roberto Baggio penalty miss

In an Italian squad that features Giorgio Chiellini as its highest scorer, it is hard to imagine anyone asserting as much influence on the match as Baggio 21 years ago. Bulgaria, without the languid brilliance of Dimitar Berbatov, have nobody close to Stoichkov.

However, football has changed since those days. Purely attacking players, dictating matches with their luminescent brilliance no longer flourish. Everyone has to contribute defensively, and it makes for a more structured modern game.

Saturday will see two teams looking to find their feet in a world of function rather than form — and while there is joy to be taken in that, you can forgive a rueful smile at the thought of those masters who met in East Rutherford all those years ago.

 
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