A key member of Johann Cruyff’s legendary 'Dream Team' that won four consecutive La Liga titles and Barcelona’s first-ever European Cup, Hristo Stoichkov is better remembered in his homeland for firing Bulgaria to fourth place at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, sharing the adidas Golden Shoe with Oleg Salenko. Controversial like few others, Stoichkov remains as outspoken and fiery today as he was during his playing days.
After hanging up his boots, Stoichkov followed in the footsteps of his former Barca team-mates Michael Laudrup and Ronald Koeman by making the move into coaching. Having left his position as Bulgaria coach in April 2007, the 41-year-old subsequently touched down in Vigo in a bid to save a free-falling Celta side from the dreaded drop. A derby win over fierce rivals Deportivo la Coruna in his first game in charge provided the perfect response to those who questioned his appointment, and although two subsequent defeats have kept the club deep in the relegation mire, Stoichkov is relishing the challenge.
FIFA.com: What made you accept the Celta job, given their delicate league situation?
Hristo Stoichkov: I studied the team carefully and saw that they had players with both quality and talent. It’s nice to be able to work intensively with the players every day. I’ve always liked the day-to-day aspect of this job and that’s what made me decide to come back to Spanish football, and a historic club like Celta.
Coaching at club level is quite different from working with a national team.
Totally different. With the national team you only get to spend four or five days with the players and you can’t get much done. You basically just have to work out whether they’re carrying injuries, think how you can get all your players back and do a bit of preparatory work for the game ahead. At club level you get to work with a bigger squad on a day-to-day basis and you have the entire week to prepare for a game. That makes things easier.
What is your verdict on your three-year spell in charge of Bulgaria?
That period of my life is now in the past. When I was there I tried to do the job as best I could, and really threw myself into it. But when something doesn’t work, there’s nothing you can do. Nobody is a prophet in their own land. There’s always somebody ready to criticise you, who demands more than they have the right to demand and who doesn’t want to see what’s really happening. They say that there are good players [in Bulgaria] but, however hard you work and whatever you try, the results just won’t come.
In that case, do you think that the Bulgaria side that appeared at the 1994 FIFA World Cup was the best ever?
It will always be the best, it will never be bettered. It’s very unlikely that what we achieved will be matched in the near future. Maybe one day far off in the future those feats could be repeated, but it’s very improbable because that team was a one-off.
What memories do you have of that experience?
We played a lot of matches, and we’d learn something new every day. Undoubtedly, 1994 was the most glorious year of my sporting life. I won the European Ballon d’Or and World Cup Golden Shoe in the same year. That said, I also had to endure two major low points: the doping scandal involving Diego Maradona, and missing out on my dream of playing in the World Cup Final.
Is it difficult making the move into coaching after such a successful playing career?
I found it very easy. I train with my players, I play with them. And they pick up things from me. I’m not an authoritarian figure though. I don’t like the idea of saying 'Do it because I say so'. The mood in the dressing room is what matters most to me, and I make sure there’s plenty of communication. Having said that, at the end of the day I’m the one who decides who plays or not.
You were a very fiery character on the playing field, so it is a surprise to see you so calm on the bench. Is that down to the change in role or have you matured with age?
I’m still the same, I don’t change. I want to win every game, but now I’m on the other side of the white line. Perhaps I’m more aggressive and more direct in training sessions and pre-match team talks than I am on the touchline. In my playing days I protested a lot because I wanted to win. Now I’m not on the pitch and I can’t win the game myself even if I protest, because I’m not playing.
Is your new role more stressful?
I live every game and go through everything my players do. I feel very close to them.
Do you think your fame could be a hindrance at this difficult time or could it work in your favour?
I think that having been a player is a very positive factor because I understand the mood in the dressing room better. The players tell me that I’ve helped steer some of the media pressure away from them, and that’s a good thing. They’re not put out because I haven’t been taking the limelight away from them, only the kind of negative pressure that can affect your preparation before matches.
What would you say was the Stoichkov coaching philosophy?
First of all we’ve got to come through our remaining games, and once we’re safe we can start thinking about how to start a new era. We need to organise the whole club structure, and place more emphasis on players from the youth set-up. They feel how much it means to wear the shirt more than anybody else. Not that I don’t respect those players from elsewhere who also give everything they’ve got. That’s my intention, to bring through players from the youth team.
You were part of Cruyff’s 'Dream Team'. Was that side better than the current Barca team?
That team won games, enjoyed ourselves and entertained the fans. My era was better. I’m sticking up for my team (laughs). I’m not one for comparisons, but I wouldn’t have changed my team for anything.
Do you think that the standard of football has suffered in recent years?
I think that football hasn’t been the same for a long time. Marketing and advertising take up a lot of players’ time nowadays, meaning they get less rest. Footballers train for two hours a day and spend the rest of the time in front of the cameras, and that affects their performances. The same thing happened to me, but I was able to put a stop to it in time. I wasn’t focusing enough on games and so I chose to put football above everything else that was on offer. I put severe limits on the time I spent on non-sporting matters.
And what about the standard of Spanish football?
It was a harsh blow not having a team in the Champions League final, although they [Spain] have both teams in the UEFA Cup final. English football has been the strongest this year, the most disciplined in every sense. It’s more effective and there’s more fighting spirit, whereas here games can be more like a kickabout. There’s a lack of competitiveness.
Of everything you achieved in your career, what makes you feel most proud?
It would be a lack of respect to choose just one. My footballing life can be divided into two stages: Bulgaria and Barcelona. I’ll never forget either of them. I also learnt a great deal in Japan and the United States, where I learnt how to handle the business side of a club. I’m very proud of my entire career. No Bulgarian will ever match my achievements.