Hristo Stoichkov is never far from the headlines in Bulgaria and has certainly begun 2012 in the spotlight after agreeing to coach reigning champions PFC Litex Lovech.
Stoichkov, the 1994 Ballon d'Or winner in the year he helped Bulgaria to the FIFA World Cup semi-finals, showed no fear on the pitch but certainly has a mighty challenge with Litex, who are aiming for a third straight title; the champions lie seventh in the standings and 11 points behind PFC Ludogorets Razgrad at the winter break. Indeed, their focus is already switching to the Bulgarian Cup, where on 1 April they meet PFC Minyor Pernik in the quarter-finals.
"The realistic target is winning the cup," said Stoitchkov, who turns 46 next month. "Of course, we will try to defend the title, but it will be very hard for us to do that. All the players now must work hard and do their talking on the pitch. There are a lot of examples of teams winning titles despite big gaps in points midway through the season. Everything is possible in the next 15 rounds, but our priority will be the Bulgarian Cup and a place in the UEFA Europa League next season."
Previously in charge of the Bulgarian national team, RC Celta de Vigo and South African club Mamelodi Sundowns, Stoitchkov's strategy will be to make full use of Litex's youth academy, whose recent products include 19-year-old twins Georgi and Iliya Milanov. "I have always said that as a coach I will rely on young prodigies," Stoitchkov said.
"In my career I have seen that in Bulgaria we have very talented young players and they deserve to get a chance. As a national team coach I did that too. You see that the members of the great Bulgarian team from the 90s are now working as coaches. We all have the desire to relay our knowledge to the youngsters. This will be a boost for their development. But the young players must work very hard to make their breakthrough on the bigger stage."
However, Stoichkov has also looked to more immediate team rebuilding, with early signings including PFC Cherno More Varna goalkeeper Ilko Pirgov, Albanian international forward Armando Vajushi from KS Vlasnia Skodra and Brazilian striker Marcelo Nicácio, formerly of Ceará SC.
Litex resume their campaign away to struggling PFC Kaliakra Kavarna on 3 February in a postponed game but it is the last trip of the season on 12 May that is inked in Stoichkov's diary, visiting his old club PFC CSKA Sofia, coached now as when he was a player there by his mentor Dimitar Penev. "We meet each other every day," Stoichkov said. "I have total respect for him. I achieved my greatest success under him."
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