Hristo Stoichkov was both a genius and a polemic figure on the pitch. Loved by some but denounced by others, the former striker regularly divided opinion.
Considered the best footballer Bulgaria has ever produced, Stoichkov has a trophy cabinet a player of his undoubted talent deserves. The forward was feared for his speed and potent shot, but is widely remembered for his fiery temperament. When he channeled his aggression during a match, he was a formidable player, often carrying his team single-handedly. Renowned for his never-say-die attitude, Stoichkov fought for the ball with fierce intensity whether it was the first minute or the last. Nevertheless, that aggression was also his own worst enemy, and he became a controversial figure through occasional violent outbursts and irate protestations.
Dream Team idol
Born in Plovdiv on 8 February 1966, Stoichkov began his career as a teenager in Bulgaria’s second division. His performances soon attracted the attention of the country’s biggest team, CSKA Sofia, who signed him as an 18-year-old. A year later the youngster was involved in a brawl in the Bulgarian Cup final that almost resulted in a lifetime ban. However, the punishment was reduced to a month’s suspension and upon his return to action, Stoichkov showed the other side of his character with some dazzling performances and a keen eye for goal. He was awarded the Golden Boot in 1989 for finishing as Europe’s top scorer with 38 strikes in just 30 games.
In 1990 a move to Barcelona followed, where the No8 became one of the icons of Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team, winning numerous titles, including the club’s first-ever European Cup. Aside from a spell in Italy with Parma during the 1994/95 campaign, the striker was with the Iberian side until 1998. Despite an inauspicious start to his time with the Catalans - Stoichkov received a two-month ban following a deliberate stamp on a referee - they were his best years as a footballer. Not only did he win titles, the free-scoring forward also conquered the hearts of the fans with his explosive runs, prodigious left foot and unique ability to swerve past an opponent at top speed.
No Bulgarian will ever match my achievements.
One of the highlights of Stoichkov’s career came in 1994, when he was awarded the prestigious Ballon d’Or by French magazine France Football.
It coincided with his rise to hero status in the national team, after guiding Bulgaria to their best finish at a FIFA World Cup™. At USA 1994, the east Europeans reached the semi-finals, where they lost to Italy 2-1 before succumbing to Sweden 4-0 in the match for third place. Stoichkov’s disappointment was offset by the personal satisfaction of finishing as the tournament’s joint-top scorer, along with Russia’s Oleg Salenko.
Two years later Bulgaria qualified for the European Championships for the first time in 28 years. While they were eliminated at the group stage, Stoichkov scored in each game in what was unquestionably a golden era for Bulgarian football.The forward retired from the international scene in 1999 after 13 years in which he netted 37 times in 83 appearances. “No Bulgarian will ever match my achievements,” he told FIFA.com with characteristic confidence in 2007.
After leaving Barcelona, Stoichkov returned briefly to CSKA. Before hanging up his boots for good in 2004, spells with Al Nasr in Saudi Arabia, Kashima Reysol in Japan as well as a stint in MLS, where he became a cult figure with Chicago Fire, marked the final chapter of his playing days.
Not wanting to leave the game entirely, Stoichkov embarked on a coaching career and learned the ropes in Barcelona, having established his home there. In 2004 he took charge of the Bulgarian national team, but internal conflicts quickly surfaced after clashes with some of the side’s leading players. Failure to qualify for the 2008 European Championship led to his dismissal as coach in 2007. Stoichkov subsequently took on the challenge of keeping a struggling Celta de Vigo side in Spain’s Primera Division, but was unsuccessful and lasted just six months at the club.
A season on the touchline at South African outfit Mamelodi Sundowns followed before Stoichkov managed Litex Lovech in his homeland. He returned to CSKA after one season with Litex, but departed Sofia after just a month amid disagreements with the club's owners. While he has not been able to replicate his success as a player from the dugout, he still displays the same commitment and hot temperament - qualities that can inspire and motivate his charges, but occasionally still land him in hot water.
That is unlikely to change, given the controversial Bulgarian’s summary of his career: “Do I regret anything? A lot of things, but I’ll never let my guard down because there’s always somebody trying to get the better of you, especially people who envy you.”
Did You Know?
Hristo Stoichkov came to Johan Cruyff’s attention in the semi-final of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup between Barcelona and CSKA Sofia in 1989. After the Bulgarian scored twice in the Camp Nou, he was wearing Barcelona’s colours the following season.
In the 1990 Supercup against Real Madrid, Hristo Stoichkov was sent off and reacted by angrily stamping on the referee’s foot. Years later, he gave the official the boots he had been wearing.