BUYING IN: Even Valeri Bozhinov, who reportedly considered quitting the national team last year because of a conflict with then-manager Lothar Matthaeus, appears converted by Penev's no-nonsense approach and scored Bulgaria's sole goal against Hungary.
So there is life for Bulgaria's national football team after Dimitar Berbatov's retirement after all.
Since the Manchester United striker quit international football in May 2010, Bulgaria has endured its most embarrassing qualifying campaign in decades, finishing dead last in its five-team group behind the likes of Montenegro, Switzerland and Wales. Worse yet, the team is on its fourth head coach in that span of time.
Berbatov has recently given the first indication that he might be open to the idea of un-retiring. So dreadful has the national team been since his departure that even Berbatov's very vague non-committal – "if I get called up, I'll think about it," he told reporters earlier in February – had large swathes of Bulgarian fans clamouring for his return.
Ahead of the friendly against Hungary in Gyor on February 29, the team's head coach Lyuboslav Penev said that he had talked to Berbatov, but the striker was not prepared to return just yet. Whether the issue was physical – Berbatov has been used very sparingly by United this season and could well be short of match fitness – or mental, Penev did not say.
But then something surprising happened in Gyor and Bulgaria showed a lively attacking style of play, fully deserving the 1-1 draw, even though bookmakers had the hosts as the overwhelming favourites for the match.
For Berbatov, it was a lost opportunity to return as the hero who brings succor, which would have been a sharp contrast against his last several years with the national team, when media and fans alike blamed the star striker and team captain for looking too nonchalant and occasionally uninterested on the football pitch, accusing him of saving his best for his club side.
For Penev, the style of play more than the result, will spare him the immediate pressure to deliver results and give him the breathing space needed to impose his philosophy on the team ahead of the World Cup 2014 qualifiers in the autumn.
Despite having had only a short career in club management, Penev has quickly established a reputation as a strict disciplinarian who does not tolerate any excesses from his stars. Always compared to his more illustrious uncle Dimitar Penev – who led Bulgaria's "golden generation" of the 1990s to the semifinals of the 1994 World Cup in the US – "the nephew", as he is sometimes ironically called by supporters, wasted no time in imposing his authority on a locker room that has grown fractious in the past qualifying cycle.
It is just as well that Berbatov decided to skip on the invitation (if he indeed was sent one – veterans Martin Petrov from Bolton and Stilian Petrov from Aston Villa, two of the team's mainstays in the past decade, were likewise omitted as Penev introduced a slew of new faces).
Berbatov is the one player that can, by himself, create a different centre of gravity in the national team, diminishing Penev's authority. Penev was a much less celebrated footballer than Berbatov, even though he finished as runner-up with Valencia in Spain's Primera Division in 1990 and won the domestic double with Atletico Madrid in 1996, but he was always in the shadow of Hristo Stoichkov and Emil Kostadinov during his playing days, whereas Berbatov is the indisputable star of his generation.
The change seems to have done the team plenty of good, as it showed an ability for incisive attacking play that has been lacking for years. Bulgaria might have even won the match, so numerous were its opportunities in the second half. After the match, Penev was disappointed by missed chances, but not too concerned.
"We played well in the first half and much better in the second half. We were more focused," he said. "I think we were the better team on the pitch. The boys were not good, not excellent, they were perfect."
"I think we should look at this match and see not the missed chances, but the scoring opportunities created. Look at the football aspects – we dominated the match and had more possession. We'll start scoring too."
Then again, it was only Hungary, a team that is clearly on the ascendant, having successfully bottomed out, but hardly a world-beater. And as for Bulgaria's turnaround, time will tell whether it was the start of better things to come or just the odd reversal of normality seen on leap day.