Free of leukaemia, U17 finals ambassador and ex-Bulgaria captain Stiliyan Petrov says he has come to appreciate "every small detail in life" following his illness.
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Former Bulgaria captain Stiliyan Petrov is back in his homeland for the first time in three years. In March 2012 the erstwhile midfielder was diagnosed with leukaemia, a disease that curtailed his career, but after a long battle he is now healthy and ready to lead by example again. The 2015 UEFA European Under-17 Championship finals ambassador was all smiles when he met the media two days before the start of the tournament.
"I can only give one piece of advice to all the young players at the finals – follow your dreams with a smile," he said. "Football is a game for the fans. Let the players entertain the fans and make them happy. I hope the boys will recognise that this is a tremendous occasion and realise the great honour of playing for Bulgaria.
"They have a great opportunity in that they are playing at home in such a big tournament and before the eyes of the Bulgarian fans, something that my generation did not get.
On his role at the finals, the one-time PFC CSKA Sofia, Celtic FC and Aston Villa FC player said: "It is a great honour for me to be the tournament ambassador and to be part of the occasion. I hope everyone will be happy with the finals as they are a fantastic experience."
The 35-year-old paid tribute to everyone who rallied around him in his time of need, saying: "I am so happy to be back in Bulgaria after three very hard years. I want to thank all the Bulgarian people for their support. The whole football world was behind me. The feeling is just incredible. Such moments change a person. Now I appreciate every small detail in life. It is so great to kiss your wife and embrace your children. My family was totally behind me – their support was incredible."
Montana-born Petrov – scorer of eight goals in 106 internationals – will receive UEFA's ceremonial cap for centurions from Bulgarian Football Union (BFS) president Borislav Mihaylov before the hosts' Group A opener against Croatia in Stara Zagora, kick-off 18.00CET.
He is back in football working as a coach at Aston Villa, having accepted an invitation in March from manager Tim Sherwood in the hope that his return would inspire the Midlands club in their struggle against relegation. "My position at Villa allows me to work when I have the possibility to do so," he said.
"Working nine to five takes a lot of energy, which I still don't have. Gradually I am trying to get back to my best shape, but it will take some time. I am training again and even playing in an amateur league for over-35 players and enjoying every second of my life."