Franz Beckenbauer called him "the best Bulgarian player I've ever seen" while for José Mourinho he was "a real giant"; UEFA.com salutes Hristo Stoichkov on his 50th birthday.
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Moments after 23-year-old CSKA Sofia forward Hristo Stoichkov lobbed Barcelona goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta from distance in the first leg of the European Cup Winners' Cup semi-final at the Camp Nou on 5 April 1989, home coach Johan Cruyff is reported to have said: "I want him in my team."
Barcelona won that game 4-2 and triumphed 2-1 in Bulgaria two weeks later but – having scored all three of his side's goals in the tie – Stoichkov had made his mark. He headed for Barcelona in 1990, where he was – in 1992 – a key member of the first Barcelona side to lift the European Cup.
"I knew about him before that [goal]," Cruyff later maintained. "I signed him not because of his goals but for his character and mentality. He has a hard but strong character – everybody knows that. I badly needed such a personality. He was fast, sharp; he scored, he passed and he had a killer instinct in front of goal."
Fans in Bulgaria knew he was destined for something special. Stoichkov joined CSKA from Hebros Harmanli in January 1985, a month shy of his 19th birthday, and made an immediate impression, top local names like Georgi Dimitrov, Stoiycho Mladenov and Radoslav Zdravkov stunned by the teenager's fearlessness.
The forward was initially banned for life for his part in disturbances during the 1985 Bulgarian Cup final, but the sentence was lifted in 1986 and Stoichkov took Bulgarian football by storm on his return. "There was never a doubt that he was a tremendous talent and had a strong character," then-CSKA coach Dimitar Penev said. "His explosive speed, directness and left foot were unbelievable."
Penev and Stoichkov were reunited to devastating effect following the latter's move to Barcelona, the pair steering Bulgaria to the FIFA World Cup semi-finals in 1994. The tournament's joint-leading scorer along with Russia's Oleg Salenko, Stoichkov became the first – and only – Bulgarian to win the Ballon d'Or that year.
Indeed, his quarter-final strike against Germany became one of the most celebrated moments of that tournament and Bulgarian football as a whole. "Stoichkov is the best Bulgarian player I have ever seen, and I know players like Krasimir Balakov, Yordan Letchkov and Emil Kostadinov, and also played against the likes of Georgi Asparuhov and Hristo Bonev," said Franz Beckenbauer.
José Mourinho is another who had the chance to admire Stoichkov at first hand, saying: "He is a real giant. I first saw him in a tournament in Setubal in the late 1980s and he, Kostadinov and Luboslav Penev just demolished my team. He was so young but so impressive. Later with Barcelona he demolished Porto in the 1994 UEFA Champions League semi-final when I was working as an assistant to Sir Bobby Robson.
"In 1996 as Barcelona assistant coach I talked to him as Bobby Robson wanted him back at Barça from Parma. His motivation and class were phenomenal. That's why he belongs to that special band of footballing giants."
Bulgaria will recognise Stoichkov's impact with a tribute game at Sofia's Vasil Levski Stadium on 20 May, with Diego Maradona, Romário, Roberto Baggio, Jean-Pierre Papin, Gianfranco Zola, Predrag Mijatović, Dejan Savićević and Gheorghe Hagi all scheduled to take part.
"Stoichkov is the greatest Bulgarian player; he was the best of our generation," said one of his former international team-mates Balakov. "It's a pleasure and honour to have played with him."