Hristo Stoichkov: Barcelona and Bulgaria’s mad genius

Being praised by fans and fellow players must be a great feeling. But, to be labelled a genius by the great Johan Cruyff is pretty much as good as it gets.

Three goals over two games against Barcelona in the 1989 European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final was all it took for Cruyff to be convinced that he needed Hristo Stoichkov in his Barcelona team.

Born in Bulgaria’s second largest city, Plovdiv, Stoichkov signed for his hometown side, Maritsa Plovdiv, aged 11. In 1982 he took a step up, to the third tier of Bulgarian football as he signed for Hebros Harmanli. Stoichkov quickly impressed and scored 14 goals in 32 appearances across two years at Hebros.

At the age of 19, Stoichkov’s talent drew interest from some of the biggest clubs in Bulgaria. After signing for CSKA Sofia, fans were given a glimpse into the other side of the striker. During the 1985 Bulgarian Cup Final, tensions were high as rivals Levski Sofia had a run of consecutive victories over CSKA leading into the game.

Dodgy refereeing decisions led to fan trouble throughout the game which eventually spilled onto the pitch with players from both sides clashing. In the 78th minute Stoichkov was sent-off and was by order of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, banned for life. Thankfully the ban was reduced to just a year.

After 111 goals in just 162 appearances for CSKA, Stoichkov needed to move on in order to progress. Johan Cruyff had been watching Stoichkov’s progress for a while but the two games against CSKA convinced him to sign the Bulgarian.

“I signed him not because of his goals but for his character and mentality. He has a hard but strong character – everybody knows that. I badly needed such a personality. He was fast, sharp; he scored, he passed and he had a killer instinct in front of goal.”

Johan Cruyff

Similarly to his first season with CSKA, Stoichkov received a lengthy ban, this time two months for stamping on a referee’s foot. Despite the ban, he was still able to score an impressive 21 goals in his first season as a part of Cruyff’s ‘dream team’.

Stoichkov fit perfectly for Cruyff’s side that featured current Premier League managers, Ronald Koeman and Pep Guardiola. The left-footed forward could play across any of the forward positions, combining his pace and close control to devastating effect. His partnership with Brazilian legend, Romário, is one of the finest partnerships Europe has seen.

Stoichkov’s international career was also a reasonable success. The 1994 World Cup almost saw Stoichkov lead Bulgaria all the way. The quarter-finals saw Bulgaria come up against defending champions, Germany. A 47th-minute Lothar Matthäus penalty saw Germany take the lead only for Stoichkov to equalise in the 75th-minute. Three minutes later Yordan “The Magician” Letchkov scored the winner. Bulgaria lost 2-1 to Italy in the semi-finals.

Stoichkov’s six goals saw him finish the tournament as joint top scorer with Russia‘s Oleg Salenko. His performances at the 1994 World Cup were a fine example of a standout player stepping up when it matters.

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After winning his fourth of five La Liga titles with Barça in 1994, Stoichkov was awarded the Ballon d’Or award at the end of the year. His Ballon d’Or award was fully deserved and cemented his place as one of the best players of his generation. In 2004 he was named in FIFA’s 100 list as one of the world’s greatest players.

Stoichkov’s talent and temper made him one of the most entertaining players to watch with his temper earning him the nickname, ‘The Dagger’. Still recognised as a cult hero amongst Barcelona fans, Stoichkov’s legacy is simple, the greatest Bulgarian footballer ever and one of the best players of his generation.

“Stoichkov is the greatest Bulgarian player; he was the best of our generation.It’s a pleasure and honour to have played with him.”

Krasimir Balakov