Dimitar Penev, who flourished as a player and a coach with CSKA Sofia and guided Bulgaria to the 1994 FIFA World Cup semi-finals, has turned 70. Stoyan Georgiev pays tribute.
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Dimitar Penev, one of Bulgarian football's most celebrated personalities thanks to his achievements as both defender and coach, turns 70 on Sunday. UEFA.com's Stoyan Georgiev salutes the 'Strategist of Mirovyane', a man who accomplished so much during a career spanning six decades.
According to his passport, Penev was born on 12 July 1945 in Mirovyane, near Sofia, though it is believed the actual date was 10 July as his parents registered the birth two days later. Penev's love of the game led him to join Lokomotiv Sofia's academy aged 14. The Railwaymen played some entertaining football in the early 1960s, but silverware was proving elusive. That changed in 1964 when the capital team – with a spine of Penev, Nikola Kotkov and Spiro Debarski – won the championship.
Penev moved to CSKA Sofia soon after and the rest, as they say, is history. With the Army Men, he lifted seven league titles, five domestic cups and reached the semi-finals of the 1966/67 European Champion Clubs' Cup, CSKA losing to Internazionale in a replay after two 1-1 draws. Penev was voted Bulgarian player of the year several months later.
A stylish yet physical centre-back, Penev shone in Bulgaria colours. He scored two goals in 90 appearances – 15 as captain – and earned nine of his caps at the 1966, 1970 and 1974 FIFA World Cups. Having made 364 league outings and never been sent off, Penev retired in 1977 aged 32.
Successful players do not always make great coaches – but Penev did. He guided a CSKA side featuring Hristo Stoickov, Emil Kostadinov and nephew Luboslav Penev to the last four of the 1989 European Cup Winners' Cup, succumbing to eventual victors Barcelona. As a coach he was never afraid to give youth a chance, pitching Dimitar Berbatov, Stiliyan Petrov and Martin Petrov into battle as teenagers without hesitation.
After steering CSKA to three more championships and four Bulgarian Cups, the logical step for Penev was to take over the national team, which he did in 1991. What followed was the greatest chapter in their history, Bulgaria pipping France to a 1994 World Cup spot and surprising millions by getting to the semi-finals in the United States.
Bulgaria had travelled to North America seeking to win a World Cup match for the first time in their sixth final tournament. Penev, however, oversaw four victories, including a 2-0 group stage defeat of Argentina, a penalty shoot-out triumph against Mexico in the round of 16 and a stunning 2-1 quarter-final elimination of Germany. Italy, or more specifically Roberto Baggio, ended their fairy-tale run in the last four. More success came as Penev qualified Bulgaria for EURO '96. He stood down shortly after their group stage exit, returning for a brief second tenure in 2007. The greatest recognition of Penev's impressive career came when he was voted Bulgaria's coach of the 20th century.
"It still hurts that I missed out on the European Cup final with CSKA in 1967 after three thrilling games against Inter. My other regret is also a semi-final and again involves Italian opposition – the 1994 World Cup in the United States. I still think CSKA and Bulgaria could have gone all the way on those occasions."
"I had to walk 6km every day to train with the Railwaymen [Lokomotiv Sofia]. It hurts me so much to see the problems CSKA Sofia and Loko Sofia are having and that they will not be part of the top flight. I have played with, and against, many great players. I cannot say who was the best – it was simply an honour for me to be there and I enjoyed every moment in my career."
"I have learned most in my career under Dimitar Penev."
"Penev gave me a chance – he trusted me all the way when I was a teenager. It is a great honour and a privilege to have worked under him."
Dimitar Berbatov, Bulgaria's all-time leading goalscorer