WORLD CUP USA '94 / QUARTERFINALS : Germans Historic Losers in This Battle of the Bulg : Soccer: Bulgaria's two quick goals turn things around to knock out defending champion, 2-1.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some ran in wild circles. Others danced toward the stands. Still others fell to their knees.

But before departing hushed Giants Stadium on Sunday afternoon, members of the Bulgarian soccer team returned to each other.

On the spot where Yordan Letchkov etched himself into a nation's memory with one twitch of the head, they draped their weary bodies together for a most unusual team photograph.

Some were shirtless. Several were bruised or blood-stained. All were screaming.

OK, everybody. Smile , and say history.

What could not happen in our lifetime had just occurred in a span of four minutes. That was all Bulgaria needed to overcome a 1-0 deficit and defeat defending champion Germany, 2-1, in a World Cup quarterfinal before 72,416 at Giants Stadium.

Yeah, and the Rhine just dried up, Mercedes-Benz have stopped selling, and somebody rebuilt the Wall.

"A catastrophe," German midfielder Matthias Sammer said.

"There is no explanation," teammate Guido Buchwald said.

There is one if you believe Bulgarian star Hristo Stoitchkov, who tied the game with an amazing free kick goal in the 76th minute.

Three minutes later, Letchkov took advantage of a five-inch height advantage over 5-foot-5 defender Thomas Haessler with a game-winning header that found the back of the net from 14 feet.

"Now I am sure that God is a Bulgarian," Stoitchkov said.

Either that, or He has a good sense of the dramatic.

Before this tournament, Bulgaria had never won a World Cup game. Germany had won three World Cup championships and 42 games.

Bulgaria needed an upset of two-time champion Argentina to advance past the first round. It needed penalty kicks to defeat Mexico in the second round.

Germany, in cruising through four tournament games without a loss, seemingly needed only to show up.

While the Germans prepared for this game by working in the midwest humidity of Chicago, the Bulgarians spent most of the previous two days in their New Jersey hotel swimming pool.

"We needed to get relaxed, you know?" midfielder Zlatko Iankov said.

Those who still do not believe what happened can sympathize with Martin Wagner, the German defender who left Sunday's game with a head injury in the 59th minute.

At the time, Germany led, 1-0. Wagner was led to the locker room, where he lay on a trainer's table, dizzy, for nearly a half hour.

"Then a teammate walked in and said we had just lost," Wagner said. "I jumped up and said, 'You're kidding me! I can't believe this! What happened? Why did this happen?' "

What happened was that Stoitchkov and Letchkov scored their brilliant goals within six minutes of an apparent game-clinching German goal by Rudi Voeller that was nullified because he was ruled offside.

Why it happened is something that will be debated in Munich for years, although it was obvious the Germans' uninspired style wilted under a constant charge from the overmatched but relentless Bulgarians.

What happens now is, Bulgaria advances to the semifinals here Wednesday against Italy, another three time champion.

"Can we beat Italy? Who knows?" Iankov said, giggling. "Why not?"

Such is the attitude of the Bulgarians, whose eccentricities provided a marked difference from their victims Sunday.

Even in defeat, the Germans could find no emotion. They walked calmly from the field, then sat in the locker room staring at each other.

"Nothing was said; there was no anger, no crying," defender Thomas Strunz said. "We thought advancing would be no problem. Maybe we had too much self-confidence."

The Bulgarians, meanwhile, celebrated not by drinking champagne, but whiskey.

Their coach, Dimitar Penev, is a stocky, good-natured man whose untucked shirt and dirty socks remind one of an auto mechanic.

Their chief of security carries not a gun, but a toy stuffed lion. Svetla Gosteva-Ivanova walks around the field before each game and touches the field with the lion for good luck.

She said she was hired not because she understands security, but because she speaks English.

"This team really doesn't have security problems," she admitted.

And Sunday's Bulgarian hero? He fits right in.

While other teams can boast players whose hair is styled into everything from dreadlocks to Goldilocks, Letchkov is the tourney's only player who is bald on top.

"I have cold curls," he said, laughing.

He appeared just cold when he tripped German star Juergen Klinsmann in the penalty area in the 48th minute. Lothar Matthaeus converted the penalty kick to give Germany a 1-0 lead and loads of confidence.

Their swagger increased in the 73rd minute when Andreas Moeller hit the post with a shot that bounced in front to Voeller, who kicked it into the net.

The German celebration lasted about two seconds, as referee Jose Torres Cadena of Colombia ruled that both Voeller and Klinsmann were offside when Moeller had taken his shot.

If Moeller had scored, that goal would have counted because Voeller and Klinsmann did not gain advantage from the infraction. But when the ball hit the post, the offside infraction was ruled in effect.

It is a complicated ruling, but the Germans understood it, and did not complain.

Besides, "We thought we were in control," forward Stefan Kuntz said. "We thought nothing could stop us."

Then Stoitchkov, after being fouled by Moeller, took his free kick from 25 yards, deftly putting the ball over the German wall and into the right corner of the net.

"So then, we thought we would go into overtime," Kuntz said.

They thought wrong. Streaking down the middle of the field, Letchkov took a pass from Zlatko Iankov and headed it past stunned German goalkeeper Bodo Illgner.

"This is too much excitement, too much happiness," defender Tsanko Tzvetanov said breathlessly.

And too much for the once larger-than-life Germans to believe.

"Everything for Germany now is this big," Kuntz said softly.

He was holding out his thumb and index finger. They were inches apart.

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