'Excellent Match' Arrives Too Late for the Spaniards


When Spain was slotted into Group D, nicknamed the "Group of Death" for the anticipated excellence of its four teams, the top-seeded Spaniards could never have imagined they would become a fatality in the first round.

But in one of the biggest surprises of this World Cup, Spain is finished after only three matches, having saved its best effort for too late.

Spain's 6-1 victory over Bulgaria Wednesday at Stade Felix Bollaert in Lens was rendered meaningless because moments earlier, Paraguay had defeated group winner Nigeria, 3-1, in Toulouse to grab second place and the other berth in the round of 16.

Paraguay will face France, the winner of Group C, Sunday at Lens. Spain, with a 1-1-1 record and four points, finished third in the group and became the first top-seeded team to be eliminated in group play since Italy was sent home early in 1974. Bulgaria, a semifinalist in 1994 but 0-2-1 here and able to produce only one goal, finished fourth in a group that didn't live up to its superb billing.

"It's quite disappointing," said Spain's coach, Javier Clemente. "At the same time, we played an excellent match. We came out here and did our job.

"I must congratulate Paraguay. They have an excellent team and so our efforts were in vain. Life goes on. For better or for worse, I think the team showed its unity. I think we can be proud of our performance in this World Cup."

Bulgaria's coach, Hristo Bonev, acknowledged his team had played poorly and resigned after the game.

"I am a man of principles. After what I saw, I can't continue," said Bonev, a former Bulgarian national team player who took over as coach in August 1996.

Bonev had as many off-the-field problems to deal with as on the field. Earlier this week, he fined Hristo Stoitchkov and Luboslav Penev for violating team rules and missing a meeting and a news conference.

"I realize we disappointed all our supporters. It was a disappointing tournament for all of us," Bonev said. "We were the weakest team in our group. . . . We will have to analyze the game, but it looked like the team had already given up. They did not fight."

Spain, considered a dark horse to win the championship, faced an uphill battle after it lost its opener to Nigeria, 3-2, after holding a 2-1 lead. Spain's task became more difficult after it played a scoreless draw with Paraguay.

With only faint hopes remaining--and Bulgaria offering little resistance--Spain showed some explosiveness Wednesday.

Fernando Hierro converted a penalty kick in the sixth minute and Luis Enrique took a pass from Etxeberria and knocked the ball off the left post and into the net in the 19th minute for a 2-0 lead.

Francisco Morientes scored in the 53rd and 81st minutes and Kiko scored in the 88th minute and again in injury time.

But by the time Spain got its offense into the high gear it was supposed to have reached earlier, players knew Paraguay had upset Nigeria and killed their hopes of squeezing into the second round.

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