The greatest Bulgarian footballer of all time, the inimitable Hristo Stoichkov was the inspiration behind his country's best-ever performance at the FIFA World Cup™ finals, masterminding their exhilarating run to fourth place at USA 1994, where he also shared the adidas Golden Shoe with Oleg Salenko. Now applying his expertise as a coach, the Barcelona idol will be watching South Africa 2010 from the stands, and spoke exclusively to about the tournament ahead and his own personal memories of the greatest footballing show on Earth.

Asked to name his favourites for the FIFA World Cup, Stoichkov saw no reason to look beyond the usual suspects. "There are a lot of favourites," he began. "There are 32 teams who are ready to reach the top, but if you ask me who might win it, I'd have to say the same old names – Spain, who are playing spectacular football right now, Brazil, Argentina and Italy, who are always there or thereabouts and come through when you less expect them to.

"The African teams could do well, especially Cameroon, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire," added the larger-than-life Bulgarian, listing his dark horses for the tournament. "They're virtually playing at home and they’ll have the support of the fans. As for the rest, I like the look of Mexico and I also think Serbia and USA could do well. It's going to be an evenly balanced competition."

Testing conditions
How well the contenders do will depend on their ability to cope with the usual factors that come into play in a major tournament. Having coached in South Africa until recently, Stoichkov knows exactly what the 32 aspirants can expect. "It's going to be a very different World Cup. First of all you've got the altitude. A lot of teams could struggle with that, especially in the second half of games. The fact it's winter here means that weather conditions will be different too."

As a former star of Spanish football, Stoichkov is better placed than most to assess the qualities of the UEFA EURO 2008 winners whom he believes can handle these conditions better than anyone. "They won the European Championship not so long ago and they're a definite candidate for the World Cup. You only have to look at the fantastic talent they've got. The Barça players are second to none and they are in tremendous form, but the key thing for the team is not to believe they're champions by right. They have to take each game as it comes. If they don't, they could be in for a surprise."

As a proud Bulgarian, Stoichkov is understandably disappointed his countrymen are missing out on the big event for the third time running. "The problem is that not enough's being done at youth level," he said, going straight to the root of his country's recent woes. "The clubs don't devote their energies to creating players. Bulgaria have four or five really good players like Dimitar Berbatov and Stilian and Martin Petrov, but the rest are not at the same level and that makes things really difficult. The fact is, it hurts not to be here."

Cherished memories
As a member of a gifted generation that also featured the likes of Iordan Letchkov, Krassimir Balakov and Borislav Mikhailov, Stoichkov's sense of regret is understandable. His memories of their stunning exploits at USA 1994 remain as vivid and as cherished ever. "To spend a month with those amazing team-mates was just fantastic. It was thanks to their hard work that I won the Golden Shoe and when I collected the award I dedicated it to them."

Bulgaria thrilled the world with their performances in the United States, recovering from a slow start against Nigeria to beat Greece and Argentina and set up a last-16 meeting with Mexico. "It was a tough game," he recalled. "We went ahead and then they equalised. But God was mightier than football and we came through on penalties." Then came their shock quarter-final defeat of Germany, the most famous victory in Bulgaria's history. "To be honest with you it was an easy win," Stoichkov said in typically forthright manner. "We outclassed them right from the start. It was my eldest daughter's birthday too, and I was also fortunate enough to score from a free-kick."

The talisman's joy was tinged with sadness, however. Picking up his second yellow card of the tournament against the Germans, he was forced to sit out the semi-final against Italy. "I missed the most important match of my life and that’s something I'll never forget," he explained with sadness in his voice. "It was a great World Cup, the first time that Bulgaria had gone so far, and I wasn't there on the pitch. I didn't deserve to have to go through that." Maybe, but what a journey while it lasted.