Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Profiles of the Great and Good: Hristo Stoichkov: "There Are Only Two Christs...The Other Is in Heaven"
"There are only two Christs; one plays for Barcelona, the other is in heaven," so said Hristo Stoichkov before collecting his award for European Footballer of the Year in 1994.
With Hristo directly translating as Christ, you could be forgiven for thinking he was joking and that it was a play on words...but you'd be wrong. Stoichkov had three massive elements to his person, a God-given skill, a God-sized ego, and a Devil of a temperament...
Starting his career as a mere 16-year-old with local team Hebros, Stoickov quickly became the bright young star of Bulgarian football. Even then, his technical skills stood out.
As a left-sided winger, he terrorised teams with his pace and precision and it came as no surprise to see CSKA Sofia, the biggest team in the country, come in for the young prodigy.
Within a year of signing for CSKA, they began to realise that this precocious talent also had a wild temper, and in 1985 he instigated a brawl in the Bulgarian Cup Final against Levski Spartak.
The game had become a wild affair with both sets of players guilty of X-rated assaults on each other, and our young hero took exception to one tackle too many.
Although CSKA Sofia won 2-1, Stoichkov and six other players were suspended for three months each, and both teams were disbanded.
CSKA Sofia had their name changed to CFKA Sredets and our young Stoichkov returned to action a couple of games into the next season, after working on building sites as an electrician.
Stoichkov came back in imperious form. The prodigy's reputation was growing in Bulgaria and he had begun to add goals to his game. His skill was also improving day by day and Sredets began employing him as a left-sided forward in their 4-3-3 formation. He had added power and strength to his dynamic dribbling skills, and his passing and shooting had moved to another level completely.
It had taken Sredets two years to get over the '85 Cup Final, but they returned to the pinnacle of Bulgarian football in 1987, and they went on to win the league for the next three seasons running, with Stoichkov the influential force throughout.
In Bulgaria, a Golden generation of player were beginning to come of age and none summed this up more than Stoichkov. Players like Yordan Letchkov, Illian Kiriakov, Krassimir Balakov, and the goal scoring machine of Emil Kostadinov were all starting to shine and European football was starting to realise that a new force was emerging.
With Stoichkov as the focal point, Sredets swept all aside in Bulgaria on their way to another title. And your prodigy was beginning to fulfill his promise. He scored an incredible 38 goals in 30 games for Sredets to win the European Golden Boot.
It wasn't until Sredets made a great run in the Winners Cup that people outside Bulgaria finally realised just how ridiculously talented Stoichkov was.
During their run to the semi finals, Sredets knocked out teams like Panathinikos and Roda JC, before they came face-to-face with Johann Cruyff's "Dream Team" at Barcelona.
Barcelona won the two legged affair to progress to the final but it was Stoichkov who stole the show. And Cruyff put in a bid immediately and snapped the young star up for the following season.
However, Stoichkov's temper was to get the better of him again, in his debut season at the Camp Nou. After he disagreed with a refereeing decision, he went over to remonstrate with the official. As he starting shouting at the ref, he furiously stamped on his foot, leaving the ref injured.
He was given a two-month suspension and Cruyff's decision to bring the volatile Bulgarian to the club was questioned at all levels. Despite the suspension, Stoichkov still managed to score 20 goals from midfield that season and the questioning relented.
But not before Stoichkov questioned Barcelona's director's parentage...live on television.
The signing was to be the inspiration behind Barcelona's best-ever period. With Stoichkov pulling all the strings from the left hand side of midfield, Cruyff's Barca went on to win the league for the next four seasons in a row (91, 92, 93, 94), the European Cup (92), the European Super-Cup (92), the Copa Del Rey (90), the Super Copa de Espana (91, 92, 94).
The name "Dream Team" was truly deserved (some things never change) with players like Ronald Koeman, Bakero, Salinas, Michael Laudrup, Nadal, and current manager Josep Guardiola, not to mention Gheorghe Hagi, Romario, and Stoichkov himself, as Barcelona played some of the best football ever seen in Europe.
With Stoichkov as the focal point of Cruyff's Dream Team, they were unstoppable. Hristo had come of age; he orchestrated every Barca attack with the skill of a composer.
His rapier-like attacks, slicing though every opposition, his technical skill unsurpassed, his dribbling sheer perfection, his passing impeccable, and his shooting laser perfect. Stoichkov deservedly won the European Footballer of the Year award in 1994.
During his time at Barca, Stoichkov regularly clashed with his idol, Cruyff. And the relationship between the two could be described as fractious at best. After one massive argument with Cruyff and the press, Stoichkov told them at a press conference: "I am not talking to any of you bastards until November."
Cryuff's response to his star? Another argument!
It would be unfair to say that Stoichkov was a volcano constantly on the verge of eruption. In 1992, he paid for the 1992 European Cup Finals broadcasting rights for Bulgaria after the National broadcaster could not afford the fee and his amazing acts of benevolence have become the stuff of legend back home.
But something else was happening in Bulgarian football. Stoichkov, its undoubted star, now had ample support. Some of the country's best players had been exported to the top leagues in Europe and as the World Cup in America came around Bulgarian football was at an all-time high.
Stoichkov may have been part of the Dream Team at Barca, but he was also the centerpiece of Bulgaria's Golden Generation.
Without a World Cup win in their country's history, Stoichkov led a quietly confident Bulgaria team to America.
Having being placed in a group with Nigeria, Argentina, and Greece, few gave Bulgaria any chance of progressing, especially given their lack of experience at this level.
That lack of experience showed in the first game as a stage struck Bulgaria team froze against Nigeria who swept them aside with a comprehensive 3-0 win. With Greece up next before Argentina, a win was the minimum that Bulgaria needed to give themselves a fighting chance, and a big win too.
With Nigeria registering a big win against them and with Argentina destroying Greece 4-0, goal difference was always going to be a factor in deciding this group.
Bulgaria took to the pitch against Greece like men possessed and hammered them 4-0, with Stoichkov bagging two. Argentina beat Nigeria 2-1 to set the group up on a knife edge going into the last game.
Mathematicians all over the world still suffer headaches with this one.
As we entered the last group game, Argentina were top of the group with 6 points and a goal difference of +5, Nigeria had 3 points and +2, and Bulgaria had 3 points and +1. Depending on the result any team could go out as it would come down to a head to head battle.
The cut and thrust of it meant that Bulgaria had to win by two clear goals.
Their cause was helped by Diego Maradona's disqualification from the tournament after cocaine was found in his urine sample, something he strenuously denies to this day.
With Argentina reeling from the loss of their prime inspiration, Stoichkov missed out on the chance of a master vs. master battle that so many had looked forward to.
But he was not going to let Maradona's absence spoil his World Cup.
The game was a tight affair, with Argentina spoiling throughout, and Bulgaria found it hard to find a rhythm. And despite Stoichkov being under close attention from Argentinian defenders he was still the best player on the pitch.
In the 61st minute, Stoichkov and Bulgaria got the moment they had been waiting for. Balakov intercepted a cross from Caniggia and headed the ball wide to Kostadinov whose perfect pass sent Stoichkov racing through three Argentina defenders. As the keeper came out, he was coolness personified as he passed the ball into the back of the net to give Bulgaria a fighting chance.
Argentina packed out their defence and Bulgaria crashed upon their wall time and time again as they searched for that elusive goal.
As the game headed into injury time Argentina were actually top of the group but all that was to change in the 92nd minute as Sirakov pounced to break Argentinian hearts and send Bulgaria and Nigeria through to the knock out phases.
Argentina also went through as the best third-place team, but the damage had been done and they crashed out to a Hagi-inspired Romania in the next round.
Bulgaria's opponents were to be Mexico who had topped a group containing both Ireland and Italy, and again Stoichkov was on the mark, scoring his country's only goal in the 1-1 draw. Eventually Bulgaria progressed after they won the penalty shootout 3-1.
They faced Germany in the Quarter Finals, and in a match that is regarded by many as being one of the best matches of the tournament they beat Germany 2-1.
Lothar Matthaus had given Germany the lead right on the stroke of half time, but a Stoichkov-inspired Bulgaria played phenomenal football in the second half, and two goals in the space of three minutes from Stoichkov and Letchkov gave Bulgaria a memorable win.
After becoming the fans favourite because of their beautiful expansive football, Bulgaria found themselves paired in the semi finals with Italy. Brazil and Sweden played in the other.
Of all the teams remaining, Bulgaria were the only total footballing side left in the tournament. Italy and Brazil had been grinding results out from the start and Sweden were a tough well organised team, so Bulgaria found themselves as the team that everyone wanted to win.
With pressure growing and Italy beginning to find their feet, Bulgaria had come up one match short. Roberto Baggio scored twice before Stoickov replied, but there was to be no way back and Bulgaria went out of the World Cup at the semi final stage.
Stoichkov won the Golden Boot, and was heralded as one of the world's greatest-ever players.
Two years later, he left Barca for high-flying Parma in Italy. With him gone Johann Cruyff's team failed to live up to the heights they had reached with Stoichkov in the team, and he was sacked the following year.
His time in Italy was an unhappy one, marked tightly by overzealous defenders, Stoichkov and his volatile temperament found it a difficult place to play.
Defenders constantly wound him up, and their "agricultural" play frustrated him constantly. He only managed to score five goals in an injury-plagued 23 games.
In the '96 to '97 season Bobby Robson, seeking a leader and an inspiration for his Barcelona team, brought an aging Stoichkov back to the Nou Camp.
Although he could not inspire Barca to the league title, Barca did manage to win the UEFA Cup, the Copa Del Rey, and the European Super Cup in his two seasons there.
By the time the 1998 season rolled around, an injury hit 32-year-old Stoichkov was on the wane, and he went back to Bulgaria and CSKA Sofia to try to inspire the next generation.
Frustrated with his lack of game time because of injuries, Stoichkov decided to learn his coaching badges, and travelled the world for the next five years, gaining experience at lower levels.
The biggest impact he had during this time was when he smashed a student's leg apart while playing for DC United in the MLS; he was sued for this horrendous challenge and eventually settled out of court.
In 2004, he took over as manager of the Bulgarian national team and over the next three years they failed to make any kind of progress and he was sacked in 2007.
One of the best players ever to play in Europe was also one of the most volatile, but was also one of the most generous.
Stoichkov played like a God, lived like a God...and fought like a Devil.