Group 4. Tough group and difficult to predict. France was the leader, of course, but Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and DDR were pretty much equal. France traditionally having troubles against Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Yugoslavia was not in great shape, already noticed in the their failure at the 1984 European finals, which made them vulnerable to both DDR and Bulgaria. Bulgaria had a good crop of players at the moment – not a great team, but at least equal to the Yugoslavs. DDR was tough opponent. Depending in form, luck, momentary inspiration or out of the blue failure, everything was possible in this group. Luxembourg nobody counted for anything else than point donor and a team to improve one’s own goal-difference – in this group, it was felt, goal-difference was likely decisive factor. Ups and owns colored the progress of the group, eventually coming to rather early Bulgarian qualification to the finals, which, if anything canceled out great final rush of team DDR – they won their last 4 matches and ended with the most goals scored in this group, but missed the finals in Mexico. France was not in the form which made them European champions and had to fret to the last moment, when a win over Yugoslavia was a must. It was a home game and Yugoslavia was already out and dispirited, which helped as well and France finished not only ahead of the last direct threat, DDR, but first in the group. Bulgaria had nothing to play for at this moment, so they took it easy and also their squad was greatly disturbed by the Cup final scandal a few months earlier, ending with suspensions of large group of key national team regulars. So, Bulgaria finished 2nd in the group on worse goal-difference.
1.FRA^ 8 11 5 1 2 15- 4
France qualified and on top of its group of that, but it was not easy. This is squad which actually made it in the last round against Yugoslavia. Variety of factors may explain the French difficulties: very often a great winning team plunges down a bit after its great success, so in the qualifications following the 1984 European finals France was not at its best. Inconvenient opponents, against traditionally France struggled. Aging players and may be no equal replacements at hand. Traditional problems with the attacking line. The squad above at least shows some of the problems: Toure and Ayache were hardly stars at the level of the rest and Rocheteau still a starter – on and off starter for years… who else? Every possible player tried, placed, replaced, and again and again trying Rocheteau in new combinations, old combinations, with other players, alone, as a support striker, as a central striker, dismissed, recalled, and so on in the same vicious circle with no way out. Yet, France qualified, putting itself together when it mattered most and even the impression that the next year would be quite better, or at least not shaky.
2.BUL^ 8 11 5 1 2 13- 5
Bulgaria was the first to qualify and luckily so, for in the middle of 1985 the Cup final scandal shook and depleted the national team. To a point, Bulgaria benefited from circumstances – France, traditionally beatable team, was not at its best as well, and Yugoslavia was weaker than it used to be. This leveled the ground and although Bulgaria did not display exciting football, it was able to get results from pretty much equal, but disorganized games. To a point, the very first match in the group determined the outcome: Bulgaria managed a scoreless tie away against Yugoslavia, which boosted moral and confidence. That was in 1984. The key victory was the home match against Yugoslavia, a messy match, in which Bulgaria prevailed 2-1. After the game Bulgaria had 9 points and 2 games to go, the next one visiting Luxembourg. France had 7 points and 3 matches ahead of them. Yugoslavia – 8 points and 2 games to go, both tough – at home against DDR and last match visiting France. DDR had 4 points and 3 matches to go. The only concern at that point was Yugoslavia – to decide the fate of Bulgaria, but only in case Bulgaria lost or tied its match against Luxembourg. Which was practically impossible… Bulgaria won 3-1 and left the other teams to fight between themselves for the second spot for the Mexican finals. The real concern was the next year… the reason for the picture above, taken at the end of 1985, after the qualifications were finished. It was different team… a team with problems. Sitting form left: Anyo Sadkov (freshly renamed from his original Turkish name Ayan Sadakov, for the anti-Turkish program was started already), Radoslav Zdravkov, Roussy Gotchev, Nikolay Arabov (the irony of politics… the ethnic Turk Sadakov was forced to change his name, but the Gypsy Arabov was not even if his last named clearly has Muslim roots), Kostadin Kostadinov. Middle row: Christo Kolev, Plamen Getov, Georgy Dimitrov, Ivan Voutzov – coach, Georgy Vassilev – assistant coach, Krassimir Koev, Atanas Pashev, Zhivko Gospodinov. Top row: Bozhidar Iskrenov, Iliya Valov, Emil Dimitrov, Stefan Lakhchiev, Lyubomir Petrov, Petar Petrov. First of all, CSKA and Levsky were ‘disolved’ and the new clubs were not the same and quite confused, so some usual national team choices were not in form. But more importantly key national team players were suspended for long time, some for life – notably, Borislav Mikhailov, Plamen Nikolov, and Nasko Sirakov, all Levsky players. Suddenly the national team had to be started anew and second stringers had to be called – thus, Lyubomir Petrov, Emil Dimitrov, Stefan Lakhchiev, and to a point, Krassimir Koev. It did not look good, it did not promising, it was not the same team. The whole atmosphere was somewhat tense and there was no immediate remedy: schedules for friendlies were already made, there were no official games to really try a new formation, the feeling was the team collapsed and there will be no way to build a new one. But that was a problem for the next year – so far, it was fine campaign and Bulgaria reached the world cup finals for the first time since 1974 and had to get somewhat ready for its 5th appearance at the finals.
3.DDR 8 10 5 0 3 16- 9
DDR performed somewhat like it ever did – tough, even with chances to qualify, but hardly memorable . This was one of their better campaigns and yet they failed. Their finish was strong – 4 wins in a row – but not enough to catch up. The squad above is from the beginning of the qualifications, from 1984 for the home match against Yugoslavia, which they lost 2-3, but more or less that was the squad for the whole qualification cycle and beyond. Two things perhaps should be said about them – one is trivia: that was the first time DDR dropped its affront and started using Adidas gear. The second is more important: for all dominance of Dynamo Berlin in East German football, few players of the team were in the national team. Only Troppa, Ernst, and Rohde. May be the doctored domestic championship had a lot to do with international failure.
4.JUG 8 8 3 2 3 7- 8
Here is one of the formations which played unsuccessfully against Bulgaria. Standing from left: Zajec, Hadzibegic, Gudelj, Stojic, Capljic, Radanovic. First row: Bahtic, Bazdarevic, Mlinaric, Vokri, Djurovski. Frankly, a so-so team, especially if compared with teams from 1970s and 1960s. A crisis was detected during the 1984 European finals and there was escape from it yet – the current generation was not great, there were very few truly bright players and there were problems in every line. Objective circumstances, nothing to be done with.
5.LUX 8 0 0 0 8 2-27
Luxembourg was absolute outsider and that was all. Lost every game they played, but that was expected.
Group 5. Not a difficult group on the surface, but one of the groups without direct qualification of 2 two teams – the second placed had to go to a play-off against the 2nd in Group 1. Which meant coming on top was a must. And looked clear, though… Cyprus was the outsider, Austria in decline, Hungary not really strong, and Holland, although slowly and shakily recovering from its crisis started after 1978, was seemingly the strongest team and unquestionable winner. Hungary and Austria were to fight for second place and the Austrians perhaps had better chance. It turned out very different.
1.HUN^ 6 10 5 0 1 12- 4
Hungary started very strong and their key match was the second, when the visited Holland and won 2-1. That was perhaps perhaps the waking point for both their opponents and international observes – Hungary had 2 easy games with Cyprus, a visit to Austria, and their last match was at home against Holland. Looked like they were going to make it. How good was the squad was another matter – may be not all that good, certainly not a team everybody was raving about, but its moral was boosted and fueled further by the successful international campaign of Videoton. Some players of the club were now in the national team, lead by the goalkeeper Peter Diszt, who became quite famous if not by his abilities, at least because of his wild bearded face. Hungary was also helped by the state of affairs around: both Holland and Austria were shaky and although going into opposite directions, they were beatable teams, not very different than Hungary. So, momentary form, some luck, courage, enthusiasm, helped along and Hungary won 5 games in a row, making their last game meaningless. Strange or not, but Hungary mainly prevailed in second halves after trailing 0-1 against all opponents in their first three games. In their 4th match, hosting Cyprus, they ended the first half 0-0. Not the play expected from strong and confident team, but they collected their wins one after another, finishing everything in Vienna, where they won their 5th match 3-0 – the only match Hungarians concluded in the first half. Rather unexpected victory, but who could blame winners?
2.HOL> 6 7 3 1 2 11- 5
Holland was still in transition – Rijkard, van Basten, and Gullit were already regulars, but regulars also were Willy van de Kerkhof, Brandts, Spelbos, van de Korput. A mix of bright young stars and veterans mostly remembered for stiff and insignificant play. Holland started losing their first games and particularly painful was losing from Hungary in Rotterdam. After that things somewhat improved, but Holland was still unable to win at home against Austria (1-1) and the fate was to decided in the very last group match – and here one may say the Dutch were immensely lucky: Hungary, already a world cup finalist, had nothing to play for. May be for Dutch point of view their team was brave and fought tooth and nail to win, but Hungary had no motivation at all and perhaps was more concerned to keep its players out of injury than wanting to do honorable match in front of its supporters. Holland won 1-0 and finished 2nd – which meant going to qualification play-off against old foe Belgium.
3.AUT 6 7 3 1 2 9- 8
It was clear by now that short of miracles, Austria was hardly a first rate contender. The team was declining for some time – key players aged, but save for Tony Polster, there were no young talent near the level of Pezzey, Prohaska, Jara, and Koncilia. Same names and faces for 10 years now they were fading away already, the peaks of their careers in the past. Given the problems of the other teams in the group, it was still possible Austria to go ahead, but it was also very possible they would not. Austria was out of first teams exactly in the manner of fading team: losing at home 0-3 to Hungary. What remained was the hope for 2nd place and play-off. They did their best and tied Holland 1-1 in Rotterdam and then won at home against Cyprus 4-0, their lats match. Now their fate depended on others… if Hungary only tied Holland, Austria was through. But Hungary had nothing to play for and certainly not doing favours, which may prove devastating. Holland won and took 2nd place on better goal-difference. Austria perhaps got some consolation that the campaign was lost ‘only’ on goal-difference, but there was no world cup finals.
4.CYP 6 0 0 0 6 3-18
Cyprus, on the left before the start of their home game against Holland, was just hopeless outsider. Nothing new… they lost all 6 games and if Cypriot football was improving, it did not show in the qualification tournament. May be the other three teams made extra effort to get all points from their games with Cyprus in order to cover for their otherwise shaky condition, the fact nevertheless was that improving Cypriots were unable to get even a point from shaky and declining opponents. But eternal outsiders as they were, the Cypriots perhaps did not shed tears over it.