Bulgaria will begin its 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign next year with a home match against four-time world champions Italy on September 7, followed by two more home matches, but will face a tough stretch of four consecutive away matches in 2013.
Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) officials said after the end of scheduling talks that they were "90 per cent happy" with the team's qualifying calendar.
"From a purely financial point of view, we wanted to start the campaign with Italy [at home] and we got it. The only wish that we did not get is playing a match in June next year. In particular, the away matches against Italy and Malta have been set one after another because it is convenient for travelling," BFU president Borislav Mihailov said on November 29.
Bulgaria will face Italy, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Armenia and Malta in its qualifying group. The latter is the only team that Bulgaria has had any recent success against; Armenia is the one unknown, but the other three have all defeated Bulgaria over the past decade.
New national team manager Lyuboslav Penev said: "It is a good thing that we start with three home matches against opponents who will play at Euro 2012. If they happen to be tired, we will have a better chance to beat them. But while the schedule is important, the more important part is to build our own style and have a core group of players who will pick up the bulk of the work."
"I am happy that we will play very strong opponents. I want the players that will now join the team and the returning ones to grow against such teams. I do not want to play weak opponents," he said.
A quick start to the qualifying campaign would help Penev, who will face the toughest qualifying group in decades, avoid the fate of Stanimir Stoilov, sacked after a poor start to the Euro 2012 campaign, and Lothar Matthaeus, whose contract was terminated by mutual agreement when he failed to dig his way out of the early hole.
Matthaeus, who got snide comments from Bulgarian media during his rare visits to the country when he was manager of the team, was back in Sofia in late November, ostensibly to officially end his contract with the BFU.
The German said that he had waited for the contract to run its course before signing on any new managerial jobs. The BFU said in September that it had terminated Matthaeus' contract with immediate effect, less than a month after offering Matthaeus a two-year extension on his contract.
Matthaeus wished Penev better luck on the job. "It is not an easy job – as you saw, results after I left were the same, losses against Ukraine and Wales. I said from the very start that a lot of things have to change in Bulgarian football to get the desired results," he said.
He rejected criticism that he did not spend enough time in Bulgaria, saying that he followed the domestic league closely and visited the players who play abroad. "Maybe I should have had better communication with the people in the BFU," Matthaeus said.
At the end of his reign, Matthaeus faced player rebellion over the restrictions he imposed on players when in camp, and it will be an issue that Penev, known as a disciplinarian coach, will have to face early on as well.
On November 19, Penev told TV7 cable channel that he and his staff were working on strict team guidelines that will go in effect even before his first match in charge of the team, a friendly in February.
Players unhappy with the new regime would not get called up to the national squad. "I have rules and conditions that I impose – these are football conditions, concerning our common job. It is pointless to call anyone unwilling to show character and follow these rules. I do not want to waste time – my time, the time of Bulgarian football fans or Bulgarian football players," Penev said.
September 7 2012 – Italy (home)
September 11 2012 – Armenia (home)
October 12 2012 – Denmark (home)
October 16 2012 – Czech Republic (away)
March 22 2013 – Malta (home)
March 26 2013 – Denmark (away)
September 6 2013 – Italy (away)
September 10 2013 – Malta (away)
October 11 2013 – Armenia (away)
October 15 2013 – Czech Republic (home)