Bulgaria's Trifon Ivanov remembered for rugged looks and performances
Once upon a time, when he still was an active player, Trifon Ivanov bought a tank. He purchased it directly from the army, without ammunition, and drove the meadows of countryside in his spare time.
Eventually, he became bored with the tank and sold it. Ivanov, who passed away on Saturday aged 50 following a heart attack, was truly one of a kind.
Football lovers would easily recognise Ivanov after his remarkable performances for Bulgaria at the 1994 World Cup in the United States. He was imperious at the heart of the team that sensationally reached the semifinals, but also very noticeable because of his unusual looks. Big, broadly built, sporting long hair and a huge beard, he was nicknamed "The Wolf". His presence on the pitch was intimidating in the extreme.
Ahead of the quarterfinal clash against Germany, Ivanov amusingly told his coach Dimitar Penev not to worry: "Just relax. With my bloodthirsty look, they will be scared to death. Rudi Voller will fall to the ground when he feels my breath."
He had a superb game in a 2-1 win, best remembered for Yordan Lechkov's flying header. Ivanov's biggest moment came when he threw himself to block a fierce shot from Lothar Matthaus.
Such a selfless style endeared Trifon to all of Bulgaria. Levski Sofia fans are known to dislike CSKA Sofia players, past and present. They despise Hristo Stoichkov, for example, but Ivanov -- who had four spells at CSKA and won three league titles with them -- is adored even by the Levski faithful.
"Trifon is respected by everyone, because it is impossible to hate him. He was a person who united all around him," Bulgarian journalist Konstantin Simidchiyski told ESPN FC.
That was indeed the case in the national team, where the dressing room was usually torn between Stoichkov's friends from CSKA and the Levski Sofia camp led by Borislav Mikhailov and Nasko Sirakov.
"I helped them negotiate with each other. Sometimes Stoichkov wouldn't train, claiming that his leg hurt, and they would immediately demand to know what's going on.
"I asked them to let him rest, and smoothed everything," Ivanov remembered.
His contribution to Bulgaria was immense ever since his debut in April 1988 -- bizarrely as a midfielder -- and duly scored from a Sirakov corner in a 1-1 draw with East Germany.
Ivanov scored six goals in 76 appearances for the national team and two of them stand out.
The first was the phenomenal volley against Wales in Cardiff that opened the score en route to their 3-0 win in Euro 96 qualifiers. Trifon received the ball on the edge of the penalty area and sent a stunner into the top corner without letting it touch the ground -- a strike of pure class by any player, let alone a rugged defender.
He possessed a great shooting technique from the days when he played as a striker at Etar Veliko Tarnovo, before one of the youth coaches decided that he was better suited to play at the back.
The second was a superb header against Russia in the 1998 World Cup qualifiers. The 1-0 win made sure the Bulgarians finished top of the group ahead of their rivals and qualified for the tournament, which eventually turned out to be immensely disappointing. Bulgaria took just one point at the group stages, and captain Ivanov retired after the 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Spain.
That fact is somewhat symbolic, because Trifon started his Western European adventure in Spain after moving from CSKA Sofia to Real Betis in December 1990. He was so impressive in his first games that Johan Cruyff wanted to sign him for Barcelona, since Ronald Koeman was out injured. However, Betis owner Manuel Ruiz de Lopera refused to sell his star man.
"We need you here," he told Ivanov and blocked what could have been the greatest opportunity of his career. Betis were relegated that season, and Ivanov was loaned out to Etar and CSKA before playing in Segunda Division in 1992-93 season.
Trifon managed to make some headlines at Camp Nou nevertheless. Ahead of the defender's first game at the stadium in February 1991, Stoichkov -- who was suspended for the fixture -- visited his close friend at the hotel.
"We will score four goals against you," the striker said.
"I am not sure about that, but I will score twice myself," Ivanov replied.
Stoichkov laughed at such a bizarre claim and agreed to buy the defender a bottle of whiskey and let him drive his new BMW if that indeed happened. Eventually, both were right. Barcelona won 4-2, with both Betis goals coming from Ivanov's penalties. He enjoyed driving Stoichkov's car very much.
Betis fondly remember their great Bulgarian defender to this day. Juan Merino, their current coach who played alongside Ivanov, once said: "He looked like he came from the wilderness, and was brave enough to say things others were afraid to. That is why he became our captain."
After leaving Spain in 1993, Ivanov spent two seasons at Neuchatel Xamax in Switzerland, where he used to clash with coach Gilbert Gress. Trifon loved to tell an amusing story about how the club president forced Gress to play him despite the fact he was supposed to be out of the squad.
"I was sitting in the cafeteria, drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette when the president came along.
"'What are you doing here?' he asked. 'I am not playing today,' I said," Ivanov recalled.
The game had already started when the coach stunned the Bulgarian, asking him to warm up. He came on and headed home a last minute winner.
Ivanov's best personal season was probably in 1995-96, when he signed for Rapid Vienna. The club won the title in Austria and also reached the Cup Winners' Cup final, beating Sporting Lisbon, Dynamo Moscow and Feyenoord on their way to the big occasion.
"It is a game that I will never forget. Only four Bulgarians have ever took part in a European final -- Stoichkov, Emil Kostadinov, Dimitar Berbatov and myself. It is a great honour. I am glad that I had such an experience," Trifon remembered in his last interview. He had a decent performance that evening in Brussels, marking Rai and Youri Djorkaeff, but Paris Saint Germain won 1-0.
Ivanov was voted Player of the Year in Bulgaria in 1996, and played in the Champions League with Rapid, who took two points from six games against Manchester United, Juventus and Fenerbahce. The game at Old Trafford was especially memorable, not least because he exchanged shirts with Eric Cantona.
"After the final whistle many Rapid players ran over to him, but the Frenchman said that his shirt is saved for Trifon Ivanov," the Bulgarian proudly remembered.
After retiring from football in 2001, Ivanov preferred to lead a quiet life, close to his home town of Veliko Tarnovo. His legendary status never diminished, and occasional interviews were always eagerly awaited by fans all over Bulgaria. The country might have known more naturally talented players in the golden era of the 90s, but nobody was universally loved more than Trifon, fondly known as Tunyo.
His untimely and sudden death came as a shock to Bulgarian fans, who will have to cherish the memories of the great Wolf without him.
His legacy will live forever and the amazing photos of his looks at the 1994 World Cup are still fresh in mind as though the tournament only ended yesterday.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced European football writer who contributes to ESPN, Blizzard, Champions and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin