9th June 1994
Bulgarian star has ungodly reputation
Hristo Stoichkov, whose given name means Christ in Bulgarian, is given to a turn of phrase that sounds as if he is taking the Lord's name in vain. The truth is Stoichkov merely is being vain. "There are only two Christs," the star forward for FC Barcelona often says. "One plays for Barcelona, and the other is in heaven." That sentence sums up the personality of one of the world's best goal-scorers, captain of the Bulgarian national team that meets Greece in the first round of the World Cup June 26 at Soldier Field. Stoichkov is egocentric, often malcontent and always impulsive. His behavior has been very costly throughout his career. This is a man who, at 28, has played on nine straight league championship teams-five with CSKA Sofia in Bulgaria, four with Barcelona in Spain. And this is a man, who, at 19, was banned for life briefly by Bulgarian soccer officials for his role in a brawl during the Bulgarian Cup final. Stoichkov also was banned two months by Spanish league authorities two years ago, when his rage over a referee's call led him to stomp the official's foot. It was among his many run-ins with game officials. "I have nothing against referees," Stoichkov insisted. "The best man in my wedding was a referee. But I can't stand being wronged, and I say that to them. That has given me a bad reputation, and the referees have it in for me from the beginning." His strong personality, without a doubt, has been part of what has made Stoichkov such a great player. But so has his speed, aggressiveness, passing ability and powerful left foot. Despite his oral confrontations with Barcelona coach Johann Cruyff, the club's president and its directors-one such occasion, when he challenged their parentage, was recorded by TV-Stoichkov remains one of the Barcelona fans' favorites. He certainly won affection by paying for members of his Barcelona fan club to attend the 1992 Cup Winners Cup final in London, where Stoichkov became the first Bulgarian to be part of a European Cup-winning team. His countrymen were able to share in that achievement because Stoichkov bought the TV rights that allowed the match to be seen in Bulgaria. Yet his largesse goes only so far. Bulgaria planned 1994 exhibition matches with Spain, Belgium, Italy and England that were to be promoted by a company of which Stoichkov is majority stockholder. The deal fell through when the company and the Bulgarian Soccer Federation could not agree on Stoichkov's percentage of what would have been important training matches for his country. Stoichkov, called "Itso" by his friends, was born in Plovdiv "with a ball between his feet," according to his mother, Penka. He was a ballboy for the hometown team, Maritza Plovdiv, until he began playing for it in 1977. One of Stoichkov's coaches said he had no future in soccer but another, Atanas Uzunov, recognized his potential and moved him to a factory-sponsored team in the regional championship. From there, Stoichkov's rise was steady. By 1984, playing for CSKA Sofia, he became a national hero. In 1990, after he scored 38 goals, Stoichkov attracted the attention of Barcelona coach Cruyff, the Dutch star of the 1974 World Cup. Barcelona bought him for $4 million, and his play since then has driven up the asking price to $15 million. Stoichkov plays far forward for Barcelona, for whom he has averaged one goal every two games. His role with the Bulgarian team is more of a roaming, withdrawn forward, moving into midfield to create plays or going back toward the defensive end to get the ball and bring it up. Stoichkov, whose $1.85-million-per-year contract runs through 1996, has rejected offers from Italian and French teams to stay in Barcelona with his wife, Mariana, and daughters Mijaela, 6, and Christina, 3. He was voted professional player of the year in 1993 by a French soccer magazine but was a bitterly disappointed runner-up to Marco Van Basten of AC Milan in voting for the 1992 Golden Ball as European Player of the Year. "Van Basten is an incredible player," Stoichkov said, "but I deserved the Golden Ball. Van Basten recognized that. Silvio Berlusconi (president of AC Milan and now prime minister of Italy) used his influence to have Van Basten win that election." Bulgaria did the impossible to make the World Cup, when it needed a victory over France in Paris in the final qualifying match. The chances of that were considered so slim Stoichkov promised to walk back to Bulgaria barefooted if the team won. After Bulgaria rallied for a 2-1 victory in the final seconds, Stoichkov begged off. "I walked around Paris all night (to celebrate)," he said. "Now let me take a plane." Stoichkov dreams of being the leading goal-scorer in the World Cup, mainly because that will mean his team has played well. "I know I am Bulgaria's most feared player, because I play for Barcelona and all Europe knows me, and I hope I keep being seen that way because that will mean I have scored many goals for my country," he said.