WORLD CUP USA '94 / QUARTERFINALS : Bulgarians Make Case That Image Isn't Everything : Soccer: First-time semifinalists no longer considered the little guys who can't.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bulgaria, as this World Cup opened, was a categorizer's spectacle. Location: Nowhere. Soccer: No name. World Cup prospects: No How.

Not fair, of course, or even accurate as it turns out, but soccer writers cultivate a certain sardonic edge, and Eastern Europe has limited fame in this arena.

Then on Sunday, in a historic display of Balkan bravura, Bulgaria vaulted into the semifinals of the world's favorite sporting event.

That came to everybody's astonishment. Bulgaria is a longshot, representing a poor country and a long way from home. Its American odyssey is an adventure in improbability.

"The Germans were very good. But still, God is Bulgarian," joked Hristo Stoitchkov, who scored Bulgaria's first goal.

With a lifetime World Cup record of 0-10-6 in five appearances, Bulgaria qualified against the odds for this year's tournament. It took come-from-behind finishes to squeak past Israel and France.

Once qualified, the players rebelled, demanding bonuses unimaginable for an agricultural nation of 8.7 million wrestling with the aftermath of failed communism.

Peace was made with the players, 13 of whom play in rich western Europe leagues, but then the American Embassy in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia put out the unwelcome mat.

"The embassy rejected about 90% of visa requests from Bulgarian journalists. They saw everybody as a potential illegal immigrant," said Vasell Kolev of the sports newspaper Meridian Match. "Only after newspapers protested did they relent."

Bulgaria opened badly against Nigeria, losing, 3-0, but shut out hapless Greece and a Maradona-less Argentina to qualify for the second round. Still, Bulgaria appeared to escape to the quarterfinals less on its own merit than because of Mexico's collapse in second-round penalty kicks.

About 30 Bulgarian print reporters in the Meadowlands press box Sunday--dutifully possessing visas and anachronistically without computers--seemed more awed by Bulgaria's very presence in a quarterfinal than at its prospects against defending champion Germany.

Merely advancing to the quarterfinals triggered bigger street celebrations in Bulgaria than the collapse of communism. But everybody in Sofia understood that West Germany and its united successor had played 17 consecutive World Cup games without a loss.

When Germany took a 1-0 lead minutes after halftime, it seemed as if Bulgaria had gone as far as it would go: Germany was 9-1 in quarterfinal games and hadn't lost one since 1962.

"We are not Italy. We are Bulgaria, a small country, not a giant. We never expected to reach this far," apologized Kolev, a student of Bulgarian philology at the University of Sofia.

But the Bulgarian coolly hammered home one second-half goal, then another, silencing a pro-German stadium and striking Kolev and his friends first speechless, then teary.

"We made two serious mistakes and they punished us for them. They deserved to win," German Coach Berti Vogts said.

Said Bulgarian Coach Dimitar Penev: "The pressure is great when playing a great team like Germany, but most of our players were not scared. As we go to the semifinal, perhaps people will look at us in a different way."

No one had confidence enough to have ordered champagne, but euphoria flowed as freely as disbelief among the victorious players.

"The facts are clear. This is Bulgaria's finest victory, its finest moment," said Yordan Letchkov, who scored the winning goal.

Amid dressing room jubilation, phones rang. The president of Bulgaria called to say he's flying in for Wednesday's semifinal against Italy. The prime minister called. Letchkov's agent called to report a postgame overture from a team in the Italian League.

"This is the greatest success of my career and the greatest moment of my life, right up there with the birth of my two children," goalkeeper Borislav Mihaylov said.

Bulgaria will go into the game with Italy as the pronounced underdog, but in a real sense the underdogs are already winners in this World Cup.

"Perhaps the world will realize that we have classy soccer players in Bulgaria," said Stoitchkov, on a day of national athletic pride that will long echo across the Balkans.

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