Stoichkov, Hristo


Stoichkov, Hristo
▪ 1996

      In leading Bulgaria to a best-ever fourth place finish in the 1994 World Cup, Hristo Stoichkov showed fans worldwide what those in Bulgaria and Spain (where he starred for Barcelona) already knew—that he had become one of the most potent offensive weapons in association football (soccer). In the process, the explosive striker was named 1994 European Player of the Year. While his battles of will with the Barcelona coach, Johann Cruyff, were well known, many were stunned when Stoichkov shifted teams in the middle of the 1994-95 season, moving to Parma in the Italian first division. That move brought a transfer fee of some $16 million (half to Stoichkov, half to the club he had led to four consecutive Spanish league championships and the 1991-92 European Cup of Champion Clubs).

      Born on Feb. 8, 1966, in Plovdiv, Bulg., Stoichkov began his soccer career early. By age 12 he was playing for Maritza Plovdiv in the Bulgarian second division, where his goal-scoring prowess earned him a contract with the powerful CSKA Sofia in 1984. Lifetime bans were imposed upon Stoichkov and five others in 1985 for fighting during a match; however, the bans were lifted 10 months later, after Bulgaria qualified for the 1986 World Cup. Stoichkov did not play for that World Cup team, but in 1987 he made the first of 60 appearances as a Bulgarian international. His professional career skyrocketed in 1989 when he tallied 38 goals for Sofia, sharing the award for Europe's leading scorer.

      In 1991 Stoichkov took his dangerous left foot and fierce competitiveness to Spain. The emotional intensity that earned "the Raging Bull" a two-month suspension (for kicking a referee) during his four years with Barcelona also made him a huge fan favourite.

      Stoichkov was at his best during Bulgaria's remarkable 1994 World Cup run. In five previous appearances, Bulgaria had failed to gain a World Cup victory (10 losses, 6 ties), but after the fall of the communist regime in 1989, the country's best players were free to hone their talents against the world's finest in leagues in Western Europe. Although the 1994 competition looked promising for Bulgaria, it was forced to play heavily favoured France in a do-or-die match in Paris to qualify. Doubting his team's chances, Stoichkov promised to walk to Barcelona should the Bulgarians pull off the upset. They did; he did not. Instead, he became the World Cup's leading scorer (six goals) as Bulgaria advanced to the final 16 by defeating Greece and Argentina. Then Stoichkov led the way to a semifinal victory over defending champion Germany. Only a hard-fought loss to Italy kept Bulgaria from reaching the finals.

      (JEFF WALLENFELDT)

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Universalium. 2010.

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