“Some write that I’m a genius, others say that I’m disrespectful towards their country. Just like they were towards mine. If you remember in 1993 I squatted to tie my shoe during the French national anthem. I don’t care what they write about me.” Hristo Stoichkov
The above quote is just an example but, seriously, this guy could start an argument with his own reflection and, throughout his career, could frequently be seen having a go at the referee, his opponents, or his manager.
However, aggression can be a very good attribute and, in Stoichkov’s case, is what drove him to become one of the best players in the world. I’ve always thought that it was such a shame he never played in English football, as his style was a perfect match to that of the English game. He fought for everything, chased back when he lost the ball, and a high tempo bought the best out of him.
‘So, the same style as Craig Bellamy then?’, I hear you say. Yes, but unlike Bellamy, Hristo Stoichkov was world class. Great as a support striker, the Bulgarian played at his best as an attacking left-winger, mainly because his crosses had an uncanny ability to find their targets in the penalty area. With the sort of pace a greyhound would be proud of, he never had a problem beating his man either, and when he wasn’t setting goals up, he was scoring them. His career record reads 220 goals in 455 games, including 83 goals in 175 games in one of the best Barcelona teams ever to have graced the Camp Nou.
Dubbed the ‘Dream Team’, Johan Cruyff’s side were unstoppable as they won La Liga four years in a row, and the Champions League in 1992. Stoichkov was the fans favourite, and remains a legend in their eyes today, having won everything he possibly could have with the club, and frequently stating his hatred for Real Madrid.
Standing at a modest 5ft 10in, the Bulgarian looked in no way a powerhouse, but that didn’t stop him producing explosive left-footed pot-shots from distance, which would have Popeye wondering what his diet consisted of. This ability also extended to sublime free-kicks, which most goalkeepers would simply have to watch as they sailed into the top corner.
The best way to remember Stoichkov is to think back to the phenomenal World Cup he had at USA ’94. That tournament was a showreel of his brilliance. The world couldn’t believe its eyes as the Bulgarian led his country to the semi-finals against all the odds, and scored some absolute beauties along the way, to clinch the golden boot. This culminated in him being crowned European footballer of the year, and earning global admiration.
Fine, his career did tail off slightly after leaving Barca, and he was last seen breaking a kid’s leg in the MLS, but who cares? Stoichkov is a true modern great, and that kid now has a story for his grandkids. Anyway, is Dimitar Berbatov the best Bulgarian player in history?
Not in my book…
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