Surrounded by reporters, not long after the final whistle in Paris, perhaps in heat of the moment, David Ginola looked absolutely shell shocked: “C’est terrible, c’est terrible,” he whimpered. A mistake by none other than himself had led opponents Bulgaria to victory with seconds left to play and seen France fail to grab the point they needed to qualify for the World Cup. The visitors would be playing on the world’s greatest stage the following summer but those representing the tricolour of blue, white, and red would not. Ginola had a few more words of despair then hurried off shaking his head. All these years later and some have still yet to forgive him.
Despite a recent bribery scandal, at the beginning of October 1993, French football was still on the crest of a wave. At the start of the summer Olympique de Marseille had become the first French club to win the European Cup, or indeed any European competition, whilst two French sides had reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. And, although the national side were not favourites to win next years World Cup in the USA many certainly believed Les Bleus still had half a chance of lifting the trophy for the first time.
France had not yet actually qualified for next summers tournament but only needed one point from their two remaining games, both at home at the Parc des Princes, against lowly ranked Israel and certainly better but still unfancied Bulgaria. The idea that they might not qualify seemed a fallacy.
Everyone knew the Israel game was supposed to a formality and a straight forward victory as, after all, France had already put four past them without reply in the reverse fixture. The newspapers were talking as if France had already qualified with one publication in the build-up running with simply that Q word as one of its headlines. The matchday programme, meanwhile, used the title “Let The Party Begin” and the VIP section of a prominent Parisian nightclub had been reserved for the players after the match. All the talk was of America next summer and not of Israel at the Parc des Princes in the here and now.
It would be described by some as a trauma and certainly, France’s defeat to Israel was unexpected. Israel were in front after 21 minutes but France managed to come from behind to lead at the break with Ginola. arch nemesis in the next match, grabbing the second. The win seemed in the bag until Israel equalised seven minutes from time but a draw would have been enough to see France qualify. Unfortunately in the 90th minute disaster struck. Israel ran forward and in the blink of an eye won the game 3-2 scoring to leave French manager Gérard Houllier looking rather glum in his technical area.
Perhaps the anger and frustration would have been worse had it not been for the fact that France still had a second chance. Defeat to Israel depressing as it may have been was not the end of the world or indeed France’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup tournament. They still only needed a draw in their final game. Another month would pass before the Bulgaria match and the despite Michel Platini stating: “This [Israel] defeat is the worst result for the France team for forty years,” the general consensus amongst the nation did not change, France would surely still be in the States next summer. There was no blame game just the belief that the eventual outcome would be World Cup football next year. Unfortunately, it did not turn out that way and sports daily L’Equipe compared the performance against the Bulgarians to that of a village team.
Didier Deschamps captain for France on the day would years later say in reference to the Bulgaria match: “The Parc des Princes contains my worst memory.” Deschamps as we well know would be captain of the France team that won the World Cup on home soil almost five years after the Bulgaria debacle but that was won at the new Stade de France not yet built when qualifiers for 1994 took place. Others, however, took their anger out on one man in particular. Manager Houllier said of David Ginola: “He sent an Exocet missile through the heart of French football,” and would later call him a bastard in his autobiography. Whilst although forward Eric Cantona never used such flavoursome words in his condemnation of Ginola he too never forgave the man either. His crime came in the form of a cross into the box.
The nightmare began not as a nightmare but with France taking the lead and their World Cup place looking assured. They went in front through Cantona on 32 minutes and although they conceded five minutes later they were still on course to grab the point they needed. One Bulgaria goal would put a dagger through French hearts though so things probably were at least little bit nervy albeit seemingly nowhere near panic stations. Jean-Michel Larqué who commentated on the match for France’s main free to air tv channel TF1 disagreed, however, and felt there had been severe anxiety from the word go: “As soon as they entered the field they were trembling,” Larqué said of the French side. Hristo Stoichkov, Bulgaria’s star player at that time, also thought along the same lines and said: “The French were so scared they played with their buttocks clenched.” Mind, trembling or not the French side were seemingly holding on for the required point they needed as the match drew to a close and it wasn’t until the 90th minute that things went pear-shaped.
The footage of Ginola slumped over the advertising hoardings at full-time looking absolutely deflated is now iconic and he is the man who will forever carry the can for France’s failure to qualify for USA ’94. With seconds left to play France were awarded an indirect free-kick to the right of the box. Ginola, who had entered the field as a substitute some twenty minutes earlier replacing Jean-Pierre Papin who’d set up Cantona for his goal but had failed to head the ball clear before the equaliser, saw the ball knocked to him by Vincent Guérin. Ginola decided to cross the ball into the box hoping to find Cantona but unfortunately for Ginola, his cross missed everyone and bounced out of the box to the feet of a Bulgarian. Bulgaria promptly went up the other end and scored and that was that the Bulgarians won the match and France had failed to qualify. In other words “A crime against the team,” or at least that was another phrase Houllier would use to describe the incident. Ginola’s actions really did upset him.
It seemed to many that Ginola struggled to come to terms with what happened that night and indeed he wrote in his autobiography in 2000: “It is something which will haunt me for the rest of my life.” Ginola, in 1993 playing for Paris Saint-Germain, did, however, go on to have a successful career in the English Premier League so perhaps those events did not completely destroy him and besides, years later he would be more philosophical on the issue: “The whole thing is such a long time ago I don’t care anymore. I didn’t kill anyone. I made a mistake on the pitch.” Houllier never did forgive him though, in fact, things turned into a feud which got so bad that in 2012 Ginola unsuccessfully tried to sue Houllier for defamation.
Houllier for all intents and purposes would not take any responsibility for France’s failure to qualify. In his post-match press conference, he declared that despite the loss he would keep his job and said: “My contract lasts through the end of 1994. I’m going back to work.” Houllier’s assumptions were misplaced, however, and he was soon replaced by his assistant Aime Jacquet. Under Jacquet, France would reach the semi-finals of Euro 96 just two years after the American World Cup they missed and, as the whole footballing world well knows, followed that up by winning the ultimate prize two years later. Their 1998 World Cup triumph on home soil, however, did not include substitute Ginola or indeed much of the starting line up from that Bulgaria match.
With Zinedine Zidane the star of the show, Marcel Desailly, Emmanuel Petit, and captain Deschamps were the only three players who started that Bulgaria clash to enter the Stade de France pitch for the 1998 final, although, alongside them were Bixente Lizarazu and Youri Djorkaeff who had both been substitutes in 1993. It probably would have been four but Laurent Blanc was sent off in France’s semi-final win and therefore banned for the final. Ginola himself played ten more times for the national side after the Bulgaria match with his last cap coming in 1995 against Azerbaijan. Injury prevented him from playing in the next match against Romania and he was never picked again. Ginola would regret missing out on playing in a World Cup on home soil and said the nation’s victory was: “fantastic for the French people, but on the other hand, from a personal point of view, it was terrible.”
After that 1998 triumph France won a second successive major tournament when they triumphed at Euro 2000 under Roger Lemerre, Jacquet’s assistant, which capped off what had been a rather successful seven years following the 1993 disaster – far more successful than it had been for Bulgaria despite them reaching the semi-finals in the USA. France won the World Cup again in 2018 and thankfully for them, those three triumphs mean their football is not defined by that November night in 1993.