by Tom Stewart
Born: 8/2/66 (Plovdiv, Bulgaria)
Clubs: Zavod; Hebros; CSKA Sofia; Barcelona; Parma; Barcelona; CSKA Sofia; Al-Nassr; Kashiwa Reysol; Chicago Fire; DC United
International: Bulgaria (83 caps, 37 goals)
Management: Bulgaria; Celta Vigo; Mamelodi Sundowns; Litex Lovech
Do you remember the 90’s? Do you share my love for Bulgarian’s? If the answer to these questions was ‘yes’ then I can only suggest you read on. Our latest entrant to the Flair Hall of Fame was known as ‘The Dagger’, ‘The Dog’, ‘The Modern Left’ and ‘The Gunslinger’. You may know him as Hristo Stoichkov.
Stoichkov is considered to be one of the finest players of his generation, with a wand of a left foot, strength and speed. He was also famed for his incredible temper and is undoubtedly the greatest Bulgarian footballer of all time.
He made his name playing for CSKA Sofia in the mid to late 80’s. During the 1985 Bulgarian Cup final, he was involved in a fight which earned him a months suspension. Despite this he still won the European Golden Boot, scoring 38 goals in 35 games. In his 6 years in Sofia he scored 81 goals in 119 games.
This earned him his big move to Barcelona in 1990. Here he was part of Johann Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’, and won the 1992 European Cup against Sampdoria at Wembley. Stoichkov was seen as the most popular player at the club during this time, despite playing with Brazilian legend Romario, with whom he struck up a prolific partnership.
He and Cruyff were both very ‘large’ characters, and often clashed. However, there is known to be great respect between them. Stoichkov said:
“Cruyff was the man that believed in me, more than anyone else, the coach that made even the impossible come true to take me from CSKA Sofia. Together we won the Spanish Championship four times in a row, the European Champions’ Cup, Football’s ‘Golden Ball’ etc,etc.
“Cruyff was the best coach in the world but he was also the man with the most difficult character of all I have worked with. I am also an explosive character,so we had to combine the things together. Everyone of us always said what he thinks and this made the dialogue between us really hard to accomplish. What can you say to a player, who has thrice won the European Champions’ Cup and was thrice awarded the ‘Golden Ball’, a man that has achieved everything possible with teams of Ajax, Barcelona and Feyenord?
“It is very difficult to talk with him, because he is only used to giving orders and doesn’t mind the advices of the rest. However I have always declared that I highly estimate his the character of a winner that he has. I am not ungrateful, I have always admitted that it is due to his attacking tactics and the help of my team mates that I have won my individual prizes. I have always said that there can’t be a good coach without good players,or good players without a good coach.”
Whilst at Barcelona, he earned himself yet another ban, this time for two months, for stamping on a referees foot during a game. Despite the ban he still netted 14 goals.
His team mate, Michael Laudrup, said: “He has an awful character,explosive and even wondery. I honestly think that the gathering of the four characters: Hristo, Cruyff, Ronald [Koeman] and me was one of the biggest accomplishments of the ‘Cruyff era’.”
The 1994 World Cup is perhaps the highlight of his career. He was joint top scorer at the tournament, with Russian Oleg Salenko (who scored 5 goals in one game), as Bulgaria had their best ever performance at a World Cup, coming 4th. Their best performance was perhaps against World Champions Germany in the Quarter Finals. In this game Bulgaria were trailing 1-0 after a penalty from future Flair Hall of Famer, Lothar Mattaus, before Stoichkov equalised with a trade mark free-kick. The balding Yordan Letchkov won the game with an incredible diving header. They were unfortunate to lose 2-1 to Italy in the semi-finals, before a fatigued side were hammered 4-0 by Sweden in the 3rd place play-off. He was voted European Footballer of the Year later that year.
In 1995 he left Barcelona, joining Parma. He lasted just one season in Italy (scoring just 5 goals in 23 games), before returning to Barcelona for a two year spell.
That great Bulgaria side from ’94, unfortunately, had peaked, and were unable to build on their impressive display in USA at Euro 96. Here they were drawn in a group with France, Spain and Romania.
They drew their opening game against Spain 1-1, with Stoichkov scoring with a penalty, and having a late goal incorrectly ruled out for offside. He then scored the winning goal in a 1-0 win over Romania, but they were knocked out after losing 3-1 to France (Stoichkov scoring again).
Bulgaria again disappointed in 1998, finishing bottom of a group containing Nigeria, Paraguay and Spain. They picked up just one point, in a 0-0 draw with Paraguay, losing 1-0 against Nigeria and being hammered 6-1 by Spain.
He retired in 1999 with 83 caps and 37 goals to his name. By then his career was beginning to wind down. After Barcelona he moved back to CSKA Sofia for a short spell, before spending time in the middle-east with Saudi side Al-Nassr. He then had a successful spell in Japan with Kashima Reysol, and finally ended his career in MLS with Chicago Fire and DC United.
Whilst at DC United, he was sued by a college student for a violent tackle with broke the students leg. He settled out of court for $2,000 (he was also given a 2 match ban).
Stoichkov then made his natural succession into coaching, with his first job being with the Bulgaria national team. However, his fiery temper did not lend itself to a successful coaching career. He constantly fell out with players, with several quitting the team in protest, and was sent off for arguing with a referee. Bulgaria failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup and were on the way to failing again in qualification for Euro 2008. Despite being a national hero, Stoichkov was fired in 2007.
He followed this with a disappointing spell at Celta Vigo, leaving the club at the foot of the Second Division.
Here is what three footballing legends have said about him:
“Stoichkov and I are friends, not only because we are strong in the field, but also because we are crazy heads. I wish that we could play in one and the same team, but destiny always passes us each other. I hope that at least we will never be rivals.”
“Stoichkov is among the biggest actors in world football. I would call him volcanic. Compared to him I look apathetic. There is no way for his famous career to be forgotten.”
“He is like a mayor of Barcelona. Football seems an easy game with him. Hristo is like an explosive in the field. A man that doesn’t give up, even when everything seems to be hopeless, he can decide the outcome of every single game on his own.”