Almanac Soccer: Vale Trifan ‘The Wolf Man’ Ivanov

One of the many things that drew me in to watching Football World Cups as a kid and beyond was the sense of mystery away from Australia. A new country would qualify and I would be intrigued about that country, about the players, about their story. While I was all over the teams and players of a lot of sport in Australia with Rainman like accuracy there was intrigue about someone like Romania appearing from behind the falling iron curtain qualifying for Italia 90 or Cameroon coming from nowhere to conquer all and win hearts in the same tournament through flair and sheer brutality.

With the increase in globalisation, improved worldwide communications and the end of communism this air of mystery began to fade but there was still time for some more sides to fire up the curiosity in 1994. Nigeria had their dance moves and dollar bill strips, the Swedes their power and Colombia had their abject tragedy but Bulgaria were the side to come from the unknown. The side had somehow fluked their way to the USA ’94 tournament with a mental last gasp win over a fancied France and featured a team of fractured geniuses including the unhinged superstar Hristo Stoichkov, Yordan Letchov with the killer finish and best hair island in sport as well as Borsialv Mikalov who was their star keeper who had appeared earlier in his career severely balding but now had shown up in the US complete with a head full of hair.

As the players lined up for the national anthems in their first game at the tournament one player stared back at me as the camera panned along the starting line up. This man who had a stare like a calculating hit man, wild facial hair, a mullet that could only be described as luxurious and a face like the fall of the roman empire. This man was Trifan Ivanov.

Ivanov was a central defender who had played in Bulgaria his whole career up until his introduction to the world via the national side and this World Cup. Upon further investigation in to this player I found rumours/tall stories where it was said he had been raised by wolves in the Rhodope Mountains hence the appearance and nickname ‘The Wolf Man’. In Shoot magazine they had the stories of farmers using his appearance for scarecrows. There was also the line that he would walk out of the tunnel at the start of a match clean shaven but grow a 5 o’clock shadow throughout the match. Despite all this it was more than unique physical features and an unfortunate face that made him such a memorable player.

Ivanov played  in a very well drilled side that made it to the semi finals of said USA 94 knocking out the champions Germany in the process. He was a defender that was effective in the legal sense kicking strikers up the arse all over the pitch that didn’t match his demeanor off it. He could hit a free kick with more venom and power than anyone but the trouble was with power came a complete lack of accuracy and despite repeated attempts his kicks would 99% of the time almost take out low flying aircraft rather than ripping in to the back of the net or almost breaking the hand of a keeper. With a massive ego like Stoichkov in the side who could also hit a free kick it took some balls to stand up to the Barca’ star and take the free kick instead.

After USA ’94 and with the world opening to Eastern Europeans he took his chance in Spain with Betis and then in Switzerland with Xamax. There were the stories that were told that you would hope were true to add to his mystique. There was the match against Wales (where he did actually score for once as seen in the you tube video above) where he snuck in a mate in to the UK to watch disguised as part of the Bulgarian squad because said mate didn’t have the necessary VISA. He also managed to score in this game too.


There was the time his love of the ciggies saw him dropped from playing a game for his Swiss club just before the match for having a quick one in the changerooms to calm the nerves (a common thing in Bulgaria). With his side down at half time Trifon was recalled from the bar after a beer and a few more darts had been consumed, got kitted up and equalised for the side in a drawn match. He also fell out with the same coach (Gilbert Gress) at the same Swiss club Xamax when he sculled champagne from a bottle in the changerooms straight after the game because it was birthday and ‘these things were important in life’.

When Gress had tried to confided in Bulgarian national team coach Dimitar Penev about if he knew Ivanov smoked to try and get him to stop his Penev’s reply was, “Of course I know he smokes. He bums them off me at training all the time.”

Switzerland and their boot camp like coaches weren’t for him so he ended up in Austria quite happy with his lot until retirement in 2001 with the odd stint back in Bulgaria on loan. For the Bulgarian national side he also played in another World Cup in 1998 and at the European Championships in England in 1996 where they didn’t go near to their heroics in 1994. Unlike many of his teammates from the USA 94 squad Ivanov didn’t seek to try and become a football administrator or national coach to make a quick buck and cash on his legacy which tarnished so many others. His work was focused on youth development, charity and a good family life in his native Bulgaria helping those not as fortunate as he was being humble to the end. He still appeared at charity and testimonial events despite his rather heavy set appearance.

For all his feats on the field and looking after others he didn’t look after his own health continuing his love of the ciggies and drink which undoubtedly resulted in contributing to his death last Saturday from a heart attack. He was only 50.

The outpouring of grief since for a player that was no world beater but served his purpose was profound and deserved as he more than just a cult player. It seems he symbolised a time lost where now with the internet a quick check of wikipedia or another site would probably tell you everything you need to know about each player when a World Cup rolls around, the mystery is all but gone. The memories and stories about Trifan Ivanov will remain though and to quote Hunter S Thompson..

“There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM Presenter. Glory Guerrillas Producer and Co-Host. Contributer to Football Nation Radio and Football West. Worships at the feet of the mighty Cats, Socceroos, Matildas, West Perth, Glory and Glasgow's Green and White most of the time.

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