Player to Watch: Bulgarian Bojinov soaring in Serie A
Former Azzurri great Gianluca Vialli says he is "better than Christian Vieri was at his age." The British Sunday Times recently proclaimed him one of the ten young sportspeople to watch out for in 2005. Just 21 matches into the season, he has already scored 11 goals in Italy's Serie A, more than Francesco Totti and just two less than Andriy Shevchenko. Who is he, you ask? 18-year-old Bulgarian striker Valeri Bojinov.
Barcelona, Chelsea, Arsenal, Inter Milan and AC Milan are just a few of the footballing superpowers who have looked into acquiring the young prodigy. But Bojinov's response to their overtures was to ink a 13 million Euro deal with fellow Serie A strugglers Fiorentina just before the transfer deadline. "I want to see how I measure up against the world's best players in the world's most prestigious league." All the same, it seems inevitable that Bojinov will one day move to one of Europe's top clubs after a stint in Florence.
In January 2002, at the tender age of 15 years and 11 months, Bojinov became the youngest player ever to play in the Serie A (in a 1-3 defeat to Brescia). Since those heady beginnings, he has gone from strength to strength. When asked about his stunning goal-scoring record for Lecce this season, his bullish reply is revealing: "Why shouldn't I score 20 goals?" He is certainly not lacking in self-confidence then, and that quality comes in handy when he shrugs off his moniker among some of the locals: "l'immigrato" (the immigrant). Bojinov simply greets his nickname with a wry smile and more goals.
The road to success for the 6-foot, lightning fast left-footer began in 1999 on a Mediterranean Island. Then 13 years old, Bojinov was in Malta with his mother Petranka a former player on the Bulgaria's national women's basketball team and Sasho Angelov, a former player on Bulgaria's football team. While playing for local side Pietà Hotspurs, he was spotted and snapped up by Lecce's Director of Sport, Pantaleo Curvino. He would turn out to be a bargain at 15,000 Euro.
Bojinov's rise through the ranks at Lecce began with early triumphs in U-14 tournaments such as the "Giovanissimi". After breaking though into the first team at the tenderest of ages, the youngster received his full international call up shortly afterwards. Now, after a memorable outing against Italy in Bulgaria's final group match of EURO 2004, and his first goal in a Bulgarian jersey against Ireland last August, he is already a regular in Hristo Stoichkov's starting lineup.
Despite his giddy rise through the ranks, Bojinov has not forgotten his roots; nor has he lost sight of life away from football. "I can't forget my past, and I can't close my eyes and turn away when I see ships arriving on the Italian coast every day, bringing refugees in search of a life free from hunger, war, and suffering," he told the Italian daily "Il Giornale". He is especially generous toward those less fortunate than himself, always ready with a smile, a handshake, or an autograph requests which have become part of his daily life as a footballer. And he never forgets to send his mother and sister Micaela a check at the end of each month.
Role models: Chevanton and Zeman
Among his role models Bojinov cites former teammate Javier Chevanton, now with AS Monaco, and Lecce coach Zdenek Zeman. It is hardly surprising that he feels indebted to Zeman; his passionate chain-smoking mentor from Bohemia is a great advocate of attacking football and gives his young prodigy every opportunity to shine.
Bojinov explains: "Under Zeman, I had the best opportunity to develop, and if I ever play at one of the world's top clubs, I'll have him to thank." Zeman returns the compliment: "Bojinov is an example of a complete striker". Zeman already sees him as a Signori or Totti in the making.
Even though there are obvious parallels with Wayne Rooney a similar age, a comparable position on the pitch, and a relatively compact build Bojinov is very much his own man. And even at this early stage in his career, he defies comparison.
The Bulgarian team is currently unbeaten in the qualifiers for Germany 2006 and sitting comfortably in second place in Group 8. Should they qualify, Bulgarian fans will be looking to Fiorentina's new signing Boom Boom' Bojinov to fire them to glory.