Hristo Stoichkov, the former Barcelona star and Bulgarian international, is a great admirer of South Africa – the place that he has called home for the last eight months.
Stoichkov went to South Africa less than a year ago to take up the coaching position at Mamelodi Sundowns, but he resigned after failing to lead the club to the league title. However, the flamboyant Bulgarian, who has rather expectedly enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the South African media, heaps praises on the country that is preparing to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup™.
“I have been staying in South Africa for many months now, and I think it’s a very beautiful country. It’s very nice here, I like it a lot,” said the man who was joint top-scorer at USA 1994 to FIFA.com during an exclusive interview. “I don’t like comparing places because places are different. Barcelona is different from Johannesburg, so is Cape Town. I don't mean that in a bad way, but people must understand that places are different. In those three places, you find different people with different cultures, so of course the experiences will be different.”
Stoichkov, who led Sundowns to second place in the Premiership only a point off the pace of champions Supersport, waved away the possible concerns of tourists who will travel to the tip of the African continent for the FIFA World Cup. “Before coming here, I had read a lot in the newspapers, a lot of negative things. However, what I have experienced is something different to what I read.
“I have been in South Africa for about eight months or so, and I walk around a lot, I go to many places. I have made many friends here. I meet people in the streets and my experience has been good with them. Like any country in the world, there are places you don’t have to go to. And, this applies to Madrid, Barcelona or London,” he added.
Having travelled the country extensively during his tenure as the Sundowns head coach, the former European Player of the Year believes South Africa has the capacity to host a great World Cup finals. “FIFA’s President [Joseph S.] Blatter fought hard for Africa to be given a chance to host a World Cup, and I think he was right. Now it’s up to South Africans and Africans to repay the confidence he showed to them by hosting a successful World Cup. Having seen the infrastructure here, I’m sure they will not disappoint. South Africa will pass this test.”
In South Africa, Stoichkov is widely admired for his role at the 1994 FIFA World Cup as well as for his time with Barcelona. The quick-thinking and skilful Bulgarian was part of what is now fondly referred to as the Catalan’s “dream team,” which dominated Europe in the early 1990’s. He also endeared himself to Sundowns supporters after he turned around what had initially looked like an average season for the club and had them fighting for league honours until the last week of the campaign.
Although he is hesitant to predict who will win the world’s showpiece event this summer, Stoichkov doesn’t see a surprise package emerging victorious. “You have countries like Brazil, England, Spain, Italy, Argentina – they are all favourites. All these teams are organised and will be dangerous. Then you have the African teams whom I believe will fight very hard in this tournament. You have Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana, very good teams. Then there’s South Africa whom I think will have a point to prove. Those three African sides will be hard to beat, more especially if they advance to the knockout stages,” he added.
The legendary player and now coach, who has also led the Bulgarian national team and Celta Vigo in Spain, rates Barcelona’s Lionel Messi high and insists the on-form Barcelona maestro is the player to watch in this World Cup. “He is the best player in the world at the moment. He is playing for the best team [Barcelona] and he is very good.
“At the moment, if you talk about the best players, you have to mention [Wayne] Rooney, Cristiano [Ronaldo], Kaka, [Andres] Iniesta and few other that I might have forgotten. Of course you will have the African guys like Didier Drogba and [Samuel] Eto’o,” he said.