Holland’s next opponent in their pre-Euro 2012 campaign are Bulgaria. The friendly is scheduled at the Amsterdam ArenA on Saturday evening.
Once a formidable football nation, Bulgaria now occupies a dismal 96th place in FIFA’s world rankings. That’s halfway down the list and the lowest ranking ever for Bulgaria. The highest (eighth) was in the mid-1990s, when their tall goal-getter Lyuboslav Penev was in his prime.
Penev now serves as national manager. Six months ago, he took over from Lothar Matthäus, who had failed to steer Bulgaria to this summer’s European championship. The Balkan nation ended bottom-of-the-list in qualifying group D with a mere five points, and scoring just three goals in eight matches. Group leaders were England with 18 points.
Out of the doldrums
So, how is Penev going to turn the tide for Bulgaria?
“There’s only one solution: to work hard,” the 45-year-old national manager told Radio Netherlands Worldwide, the single representative of the Dutch media at a press conference at the Amsterdam ArenA. It was attended by a handful of Bulgarian reporters. The bulk of the Dutch journalists were still at the Holland training camp in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” Penev continued.
“But I can well remember that, back in 1988, before the European Championship that Holland went on to win, we played against the Dutch and did quite well [Bulgaria won 2-1 in Rotterdam, ed]. And I’d be satisfied this time around if we were to play the same sort of game as we did back in 1988. So, I guess we can make history repeat itself: if we win on Saturday, then you can go on to clinch the European title.”
Penev admits that it won’t be easy to beat the 2010 World Cup runners-up. But he draws encouragement from the only game he’s stewarded so far: a 1-1 draw at a February friendly in Hungary.
“During the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, we created a lot of opportunities but failed to convert them. In Hungary, I think we showed some major improvement. And so, Saturday’s match against Holland is really important for us, because they’re at a different level. We still have a lot to learn and this will be a perfect opportunity to do just that.”
Admirer of Holland
The Bulgaria manager says he’s always admired Dutch football.
”I think they have adopted one of the best playing styles within Europe, and even outside the continent, in the world as a whole. Very good technical skills, at times aggressive play, excellent collectively and individually. And not only at the national level, because Dutch club teams play attractive football too. I think Holland are definitely one of the teams that can go the whole way at the upcoming European championship.”
But there’s one nation for which Penev has a soft spot. It’s the country where he peaked as a player, scoring as many as 145 goals in ten years.
“Of course, one of the teams I like very much, and I have my motives, is Spain. They’re defending the 2008 title. And it won’t be easy for Spain, because there are other excellent teams like Germany and England too. I’m expecting a very interesting Euro 2012, with strong teams and very strong players."