There can be no denying that Bulgarian football has never been at a lower point. The nation hasn't qualified for a major football tournament since Euro 2004, and you have to go back a further six years for their last appearance at the FIFA World Cup. Domestically, Ludogorets have held the First Professional League hostage in recent years, racking up the last eleven Bulgarian championships on the spin. They have managed to reach the UEFA Champions League on two occasions, most recently in 2017, and even featured in the UEFA Europa League this season. But elsewhere, it makes for grim reading.
CSKA Sofia, who are looking to end their Razgrad rivals' stranglehold on the Bulgarian top flight, made it as far as the UEFA Europa Conference League playoff round before being eliminated by Swiss outfit FC Basel. Their city rivals Levski Sofia were dumped out of the same competition by Maltese minnows Hamrun Spartans in front of a packed house at the Georgi Asparuhov Stadium in one of the lowest points in the club's entire history. Fellow Bulgarian side Botev Plovdiv were eliminated from the competition by APOEL Nicosia.
A Huge Opportunity to Break the Jinx
But Euro 2024 represents an opportunity for Bulgarian football to get back on track. Since the European championships were expanded from 16 to 24 teams, a whole host of smaller nations such as Finland and North Macedonia have qualified for the tournament, and Bulgaria will never have a better chance than this year. That's because they have been drawn into a group alongside three of their Balkan rivals in qualifying, namely Hungary, Serbia, and Montenegro. Lithuania are the fifth and final team in the group.
Current manager, Serbia's Mladen Krstajic, led his home nation to a first-ever FIFA World Cup back in 2006, and he will be looking at the Euro 2024 qualification campaign as a massive opportunity to end his adopted country's two-decade-long dry spell. When it comes to the European Championships themselves, , which compares betting odds and offers, has made France the favourites for the trophy. Following their performances in Qatar last winter, it's clear to see why. While Bulgaria certainly won't go all the way, there is no reason why they cannot at least reach the 24-team tournament in Germany next summer.
With that being said, let's take a closer look at their rivals and their projected finish in the group.
Without a doubt, Serbia are the team to beat in Group C. They have qualified for three of the last four FIFA World Cups, including the recent showdown in Qatar. When it comes to the European Championships, however, they have no pedigree whatsoever and have never qualified for the competition under the Serbian flag. And as we saw at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, they are most certainly beatable.
They finished rock bottom of Group G in the Arabian Gulf last winter and conspired to throw away leads on two occasions. They led Cameroon by three goals to one before eventually drawing 3-3. They also led rivals Switzerland by two goals to one, . Their star striker Dusan Vlahovic is in horrifying form for Juventus and missed a penalty in his side's recent 4-2 victory over Sampdoria. In fact, he has just four goals to his name in 2023, and Bulgaria should be looking to take full advantage of that.
While Serbia are the team to beat heading into Euro 2024 qualifying, Hungary are most certainly the form team. They have qualified for the last two European Championships and even managed to reach the round of sixteen back at Euro 2016. But it has been in the UEFA Nations League where the Hungarians have truly impressed.
Since the competition was founded back in 2018, The Magyars have progressed from League C right the way to League A. And it was in the most recent UEFA Nations League which took place late last year where Hungary announced their return to the upper echelons of European football.
They defeated England home and away in the tournament, including a 4-0 drubbing at Molineux, home of Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers. They also beat Germany away from home, which set them up for an all-or-nothing clash against Italy in their final game in the competition. Had they picked up the victory, they would have qualified for the Nations League finals, but in the end, the Italians had too much for them and ran out 2-0 victors in Budapest.
Despite that, Hungary's national team has never had more backing from the Hungarian public, and they will aim to impress once again in the upcoming qualifiers.
Montenegro have never qualified for a major football tournament under their own flag. They did participate in the 2006 FIFA World Cup alongside Serbia under the name of "Serbia & Montenegro" however, the team was mostly comprised of Serbian stars.
Bulgarian were drawn against their Montenegrin neighbours in qualifying for Euro 2020, and both matches ended up as draws. Montenegro finished rock bottom of the group, however, with Bulgaria and lowly Kosovo finishing above the pair. The closest they have come to qualifying for the tournament proper was back in the 16-team edition of the competition at Euro 2012. They were soundly beaten 3-0 by the Czech Republic in the playoff round, however.
On paper, there is nothing about the Hrabri Sokoli. Their starmen are Atletico Madrid defender Stefan Savic and Lazio winger Adam Marisic. Both would get into the Bulgarian team, but the same could be said vice versa, and Bulgaria should be aiming for more than a draw when the pair lock horns once again.
On paper at least, Lithuania should be the whipping boys of qualifying Group C. Their only win in the last calendar year came against San Marino, and in that time frame, they have lost to the likes of Luxembourg (twice) and the Faroe Islands. They have never qualified for a major international tournament and we don't expect that to change anytime soon.
In the Nations League however, they have managed to successfully keep their heads just above water in League C, and haven't been relegated to the dreaded League D. It would take a miracle to see them qualify for Euro 2024, and anything less than six points for Bulgaria would be a disappointment.
Copyright (c) Novinite.com. Published with permission via Big News Network news agency