Luke GinnellComment

DECONSTRUCTING THE PLOVDIV PISTOLERO

Luke GinnellComment
DECONSTRUCTING THE PLOVDIV PISTOLERO
the-bulgaria-siblings.jpg

ORIGINS                              

In the middle of the 4th century B.C., the all-conquering army of Philip II of Macedon swept southwards through the Balkans, thus setting into motion an enduring legacy that would be continued and expanded upon by Philip's more renowned son; the famous, infamous, and glorious Colin Farrell.[1] In the course of that marauding charge - in 342 B.C., to be precise - Philip passed through the now-Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, renaming it after himself as he did so (Philippopolis). The arrival of Philip preceded centuries - millennia, even - of invading forces pitching their tents at the walls of Plovdiv, attempting to make the city their own. 72 B.C. saw the Romans give it a shot, under the leadership of Marcus Lucullus. More than a hundred years later, in 46 A.D., Plovdiv finally ceded to the Romans and their Emperor Claudius.

As the years went by, a succession of would-be conquerors came and went - the Krums of Bulgaria, the Byzantines, the Simeon Bulgarians, the ex-Crusaders of the Latin Empire, the Byzantines again, the Terterian Bulgarians, the Byzantines again, the Ottomans, and, ultimately, the Bulgarians again.

However, despite the constant and confusing stream of would-be aggressors turning up at the city walls, Plovdiv had to wait until 1978 until it was finally conquered by a man so charismatic, popular, and talented that he succeeded in uniting not just the city, but the entire country. This man had an explosive temperament, an aggressive streak, and a tendency towards the megalomaniac side of egocentricity. Yet, the people of his nation and those he would go on to vanquish almost universally adored him. His name was Hristo Stoichkov Stoichkov, and 1978 marked his début for Maritsa FK's first team.

Born in 1966, famously the year that gave us the births of both Eric Cantona and my own dear mother, Hristo would go on to play in the Bulgarian second division for Maritsa at an age that can only be described as "tender" - 12-years-old. This seems quite astonishing to think of; a pre-teen playing against potentially hardened veterans of the game. A sign of the man's genius, surely. His youth career began at Maritsa[2] two years before, and two years after his début for the team, he was on his way down the eponymous river to play for Hebros of Harmanli. Never again would Stoichkov play a professional game for a team from his hometown.

Hristo's talent quickly outgrew Hebros. It was only a matter of time before the big boys of the Bulgarian league came calling. Soon enough, in 1984, he made the move that transformed him into a national VIP, signing for Bulgaria's most successful club, CSKA Sofia.

ONWARDS AND UPWARDS                         

At CSKA, Hristo became a legend. Unsurprisingly, he scored lots [and lots] of goals for the Army Men, both domestically and on the European scene. His proficiency in front of goal even led to him being crowned Europe's top scorer for the 1989-90 season (the third Bulgarian to earn the honour, after Petar Zhekov - 1969 - and Georgi Slavkov - 1981), his last at the club.

The mulleted, devastatingly forceful wrecking-ball that was Hristo Stoichkov grew rapidly as a footballer during this seven-year period at CSKA. His ego developed in tandem. Stoichkov’s status as a talented-yet-volatile forward was cemented in the aftermath of a by-now infamous on-pitch riot at the 1985 Bulgarian Cup Final. The match took place between CSKA and their city-rivals (understatement alert) Levski. In an already incendiary atmosphere, Hristo and several others indulged themselves with a classical footballing brawl. The result: a lifelong ban for our man (along with four others), which was later [thankfully] repealed upon Bulgaria's qualification for the 1986 World Cup.

Unfortunately for CSKA, Hristo's magnificence eventually outgrew the club from his nation's capital, and a transfer to pastures new was all but inevitable. When, in 1990, Mijnheer Cruyff and the money-men of FC Barcelona came a-knockin', the strength of Catalunya's appeal was too much to resist for our man Hristo. Similarly, the unsubtle temptation of FCB's cheque-book proved enough to convince the CSKA administrators to accept a bid for the jewel in their crown. As a footnote to this, 1990 was, interestingly, the first year in which Bulgarian players were permitted to play outside the country before their 28th birthday; at the time, Hristo was 24.

Thus, Stoichkov was shipped off to meet his destiny with the Blaugrana.

If he had been a national star at CSKA, he developed into an international superstar during his time at Barcelona. Whilst at the club, he became one of the Nou Camp’s most popular players - if not the most popular. He was an icon in Catalunya, taken to the hearts of Barca fans in the manner of its greatest heroes. This was as much down to his combative, determined, and belligerent nature as his phenomenal skills.

Occupying the left-wing role at Barca, he displayed to all that he possessed quite stunning acceleration and what I’m sure many commentators would describe as “that most rare of talents, the ability to run as quickly with the ball as without.”[3] Stoichkov was explosive. He was versatile, possessed of the proverbially “thunderous” left peg, and a crossing ability so accurate and consistent that it wreaked havoc amongst defences throughout Europe and worldwide for many years. His prowess at picking out his team-mates from the sideline would produce exceptional results upon the arrival in Catalunya of a diminutive Brazilian maestro by the name of Romário de Souza Faria. In Hristo, these elements made for a lethal, deadly cocktail which, when combined with his nigh-on unparalleled set-piece mastery, made him one of the most dangerous and feared players in Europe.

As for that Romário chap, he wasn’t a bad player either. Having signed in 1993, he and Stoichkov formed what was surely one of the most exotic, flair-filled, and generally outstanding forward partnerships of the 1990s. Hristo's all-action style was complemented beautifully by the little Brazilian’s sharpness and flair in front of goal; together, they created something very beautiful indeed.

Hristo's spell at Barcelona was one of success for him as a player. It made him into a force to be feared at local, national, and international level. With the Bulgarian national team, he also excelled. The 1994 World Cup in the US belonged as much to him as it did to the great Roberto Baggio or his club-mate Romário. In that tournament, he was as prolific as he was dazzling, finishing as the top scorer and capturing the hearts of millions worldwide. If he was part of a Dream Team including Koeman, Bakero, Salinas, Michael Laudrup, Guardiola, and Nadal at Barca, he was also part of a Bulgarian golden generation that thrilled the world in 1994. Along with Stoichkov, this Bulgarian side featured the likes of Letchkov, Balakov, and Kostadinov. They became a cult team – and justifiably so as a result of the wide spectrum of dodgy hairdos that occasionally threatened to hold them back on the pitch, spearheaded as they were by Hristo and the aforementioned trio of Baldy, Permy, and Mullety. Let’s not even raise the spectre of Trifon Ivanov.

However, Hristo's career was not to be without failure - or, at least, something approaching failure.

In 1995, he signed for Parma, who were at the time managed by Nevio Scala, the Emilian club’s very own Arrigo Sacchi. Parmalat and their milky millions helped bring the Bulgarian to the club after Johan Cruyff decided on pursuing a youth-centric policy at Barcelona[4]; it was reported that Hristo was paid $7 million per year at Parma, whom he chose to join ahead of Internazionale. Coincidentally, this was the same year that a young Filippo Inzaghi arrived at the Ennio Tardini.

Stoichkov's experience at Parma was not a positive one - for him or the club. The 1995 season brought about a spate of injuries for Hristo, whilst his team managed only a sixth place finish in Serie A, far below the expectations of their wealthy backers. Hristo found himself tightly-marked in a tough, competitive, and more defensively-adept league. He netted just five times in more than twenty games that year.

During the season, other Parma players even went so far as to organise a boycott against Stoichkov, unhappy as they were at his vastly higher wage-packet. The boycott was led by future Chelsea hero Gianfranco Zola. In the end, Hristo returned to Barcelona for the start of the following season. The years after 1998 saw Stoichkov enter Veteran-Pro-Tours-World-In-Search-Of-Fat-Contract mode, pitching up in Saudi Arabia, Japan, and the USA. In the lattermost nation, he made a real impression, leaving behind lasting memories for fans of Chicago Fire, some of whom grew to idolise him in much the same way as their Catalan counterparts had in the preceding decade.

Unfortunately, however, he would also create some unwelcome memories in the United States, particularly in relation to the ill-fated Freddy Llerena, whose leg Stoichkov broke in a game in 2003.

THE MADNESS

There's something else you should probably know about Hristo.

He was, if truth be told, a bit of a maniac.

And, in a way, that's part of what thrusts him to the forefront of ones nostalgic recollections. It contributes to his legend, elevating him to the level of cult hero, somehow enhancing the Myth of Stoichkov. It’s just possible that Hristo wouldn’t maintain the same place in our memories without what is best referred to as his “streak.” Belligerency, it appears, was part of his nature, and whilst I don't in any way condone violence on or off the field, it certainly makes for some interesting anecdotes in relation to El Pistolero.

Stoichkov's temper got him into many a sticky situation - the Bulgarian Cup Final incident being just one example of this. Aside from that, his most well-known “moment” saw him stamp on the foot of a referee whilst playing for Barcelona. This led to a two-month suspension. At an anniversary party, Stoichkov is said to have assaulted a journalist, Svetozar Momchilov, from a US-based Bulgarian newspaper. He seems to have reserved special animosity towards the media, also allegedly attacking a Bulgarian photographer who approached him in a restaurant in Barcelona.

By far the worst, however, was the leg-break involving Freddy Llerena - who was just 18 at the time. Unhappy at a decision by the linesman, Hristo took out his frustration on the teenage Llerena with a vicious tackle. Llerena suffered a compound fracture of his right leg, necessitating the insertion of a metal plate, and resulting in an ongoing disability. The young man would go on to sue Stoichkov for a fee of $5 million. The case was eventually settled out-of-court. This incident was all the more puzzling given that the match was a pre-season friendly. Essentially, there was nothing to play for; thus, what would drive an experienced and hugely successful veteran undertake such a malicious action?

The answer: quite simply, the man's constitution.

Stoichkov was a man prone to outbursts of brutality, both verbal and physical, and as a result, his character must be questioned - in footballing terms, at least. Should his temperament, then, enhance his legend as theorised above, or should it stain his [footballing] memory? That's for the individual to decide.

It should also be pointed out, in this regard, that Hristo was a mentor-figure to many younger players he came across, particularly during his time in the US. He was looked up to by many, and is reported to have dedicated a large portion of his time to aiding the development of his various clubs' youth players.

Stoichkov will always be remembered as a player of the very highest calibre. He was one of the greats of his generation and his era. I recall his marauding, electrically-charged runs with great fondness and a large touch of wistful nostalgia. His bad temper has rearranged itself into something more acceptable in my rose-tinted spectacles. For this reason, I will always retain a very special place in my heart for Hristo Stoichkov Stoichkov of Plovdiv, Bulgaria.                 

[1] Aka Alexander the Great, Ishkandar, etc.

[2] The name of the river that passes through Plovdiv

[3] Picture Motty saying that

[4] Not sure how that one worked out

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