To help mark UEFA's Jubilee in 2004, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. Bulgaria chose Hristo Stoichkov as their Golden Player.
Bulgarian football's hall of fame contains many talents: Georgi Asparuhov, Ivan Kolev, Dimitar Yakimov, Dimitar Penev, Hristo Bonev, Nikola Kotkov, Georgi Sokolov, Bozhidar Iskrenov, Nasko Sirakov, Emil Kostadinov, Krassimir Balakov, to name more than a few.
However, none of the above attained the legendary status bestowed on striker Hristo Stoichkov, a footballer for whom there was often a thin line between genius and madness. Stoitchkov was the first Bulgarian star of the modern game, who became his country's first big footballing export when he moved from PFC CSKA Sofia to FC Barcelona in 1990.
In his debut season in Spain he scored twice in Barcelona's UEFA Cup Winners' Cup semi-final victory against Juventus, but missed the final through injury. Barcelona lost that game, but Stoichkov was on the field 12 months later as the Catalan giants won the European Champion Clubs' Cup against UC Sampdoria at Wembley. The forward was also involved, as a substitute, when Barcelona lifted the Cup Winners' Cup in 1996/97, beating Paris Saint-Germain FC.
With Barcelona, Stoichkov was a key member of Johan Cruyff's celebrated 'Dream Team'. It was Cruyff who had brought Stoitchkov to Spain, having seen the Plovdiv-born player score a wonder goal against Barcelona for CSKA in the 1989 Cup Winners' Cup semi-final. "I want that boy, he is a genius," the Dutchman is reputed to have said.
During his years at Barcelona, Stoichkov won five Spanish titles and two Spanish Cups to add to the three Bulgarian championships and four Bulgarian Cups earned with CSKA. Stoichkov later enjoyed success in the United Arab Emirates with Al Nasser (1998 Asian Cup Winners' Cup) and then in the United States with Chicago Fire (2000 MLS Cup). It was only a brief interlude with Italy's Parma AC in 1995/96 that failed to deliver silverware.
Perhaps his greatest achievement, though, was to score six goals at the 1994 FIFA World Cup, propelling Bulgaria to the semi-finals, where they lost to Italy. That tally made him the tournament's joint-top scorer alongside Russia's Oleg Salenko. His exploits were recognised the following December when he was named European Footballer of the Year.
There was an ugly side to Stoichkov's game too. As a 19-year-old with CSKA, he received a one-season ban for his part in a notorious brawl in the 1985 Bulgarian Cup final against PFC Levski Sofia. Typically, he bounced back and, by September 1987, was able to make his international debut in a UEFA European Championship qualifier against Belgium.
In December 1990, he was suspended for three months for standing on the feet of the referee during Barcelona's Spanish Super Cup meeting with Real Madrid CF. Undaunted, he returned in style, helping Barcelona to a first league title in six years and becoming a cult figure.
After EURO '96, he announced his international retirement yet reconsidered and led Bulgaria to the 1998 World Cup. The last of his 83 caps, which yielded 36 goals, came in a UEFA EURO 2000 qualifier in June 1999. His mentors, former Bulgaria coach Dimitar Penev and Cruyff, were both in attendance as England were held to a 1-1 draw at the Bulgarska Armia Stadium.
After hanging up his boots at the end of the 2002/03 season, Stoichkov returned to Europe from the US to take up a coaching position at Camp Nou. Then in July 2004 he took over as Bulgaria national coach but failed to lead them to qualification for the 2006 World Cup and resigned the following year. Stoichkov has since had stints in charge of RC Celta de Vigo in Spain and Mamelodi Sundowns FC in South Africa.
Last updated: 21 January 2011
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