A Tender-Hearted Dagger Abroad: The Story Of Bulgarian Village Boy Hristo Stoitchkov

Football legends come in different shapes and sizes. Those that tend to talk the talk, and some tend to walk the walk. Some prefer silence, and let their performances on the pitch create the talk. One legend continuously divided opinion wherever he was, and that is none other than Barcelona legend Hristo Stoitchkov, nicknamed ‘The Dagger’. 

He’s often described as problematic, lazy for some. He’s no saint by any means. However, Stoitchkov represented the street footballer to perfection, that somehow ascended to Europe’s elite but kept his boyish heart. He’s full of controversies. Unlike most would probably assume, his hot-headed character did not come from fame. No, he was not a player whose fame suddenly got to his head. Becoming one of the best strikers of his generation, he was always like this. Before joining Barcelona for Johan Cruyff’s legendary ‘Dream Team’, he was already noisy in Sofia. In the derby where Hristo’s CSKA opposed eternal rivals Levski, his brawl in the national cup in 1985 led to an initial lifetime ban, until the Bulgarian FA reduced it to a year-long suspension.  

At first sight, Stoitchkov’s character sounds toxic, horrific for the dressing room, and one to avoid. But there’s another side to Hristo’s coin: his culture and his background. The Bulgarian striker was raised in a modest village near Plovdiv, central Bulgaria. As such, he didn’t always have an easy life, as he describes it himself: “I was raised in the middle of the street […], you learn certain things there.”

It’s quite unconventional for elite football to hire madmen, and yet, that’s what Johan Cruyff thought was missing from his side in 1990. Eventually, Hristo was the key alongside his Brazilian partner Romario. Cruyff famously explained why ‘The Dagger’, later dubbed as ‘El Pistolero’ by Spanish, was so much needed for the 1992 Dream Team: “You need someone like Stoitchkov who is aggressive in a positive way. He goes for the ball and when he gets the ball, he shoots at goal.” 

One might ask, how could Hristo Stoitchkov coexist with Johan Cruyff, contrasting in so many ways? As much as Hristo’s inner lion was channelled on the outside, he was far from a selfish man and player. Often paired with Romario, he was happy to prioritise the Brazilian’s heroics and forget his own spotlight. As violent as he was — sent off in his first Clasico, stepping on the referee’s foot, he was ready to defend the team at all costs. And that’s the typical Bulgarian character. Behind the roaring, there’s a tender heart. A heart that’s willing to step up for the team, no matter how much he’ll boast about himself.

That survival instinct, replicated on the pitch, doesn’t only belong to Stoitchkov. But where most try to tone it down (Dimitar Berbatov, for example, repeatedly preferred to describe the simplicity of his childhood in the streets), Hristo preferred to keep it at the centre of his career. In his own words, “I will tell you one thing, whether I have black hair or white hair, that mad boy will live inside me forever, it will always be like that.” 

If the media tend to characterise him with that wilder image, few mention his kind-hearted actions. When Bulgaria faced Argentina in the 1984 World Cup, Diego Maradona wasn’t allowed to play as a consequence of a failed drug test. Hristo told the media he had tried to call the Argentinian legend, as “I understand what he’s going through.”

When everyone was down in Bulgaria’s camp, one man stepped up as the leader. In 1993, when Bulgaria were set to meet France at the Parc des Princes, when most were nervous, Stoitchkov reminded his team that fear never helped anyone. “Is (Eric) Cantona better than me?” he roared. “Is (David) Ginola stronger than Letchkov? Maybe on paper but it will be us on the pitch!”

Bulgarians are known for fighting for their lives, and in sports, it’s more noticeable than ever. Most Bulgarians lived a tough life, in the case of the Stoitchkov, decaying communism was the environment. Bulgaria’s story is one of struggle, and there was nothing that embodied it more than Emil Kostandinov scoring the winner in injury time against France.  

Wherever Stoitchkov went, he kept his character. His hot blood and honesty remained the same. After leaving Spain, as his character eventually did clash with Cruyff, and some adventures in the Middle East, he found a new home in the US, with Chicago Fire and D.C United. It was already the 2000s, and most would assume Stoitchkov had calmed down, content to enjoy his last years of football.

Yet he was sued after injuring an ex-university student in a friendly. Still, he made his own name. Stoitchkov never stopped being Bulgarian first and foremost, and perhaps that is what made him so different to other Bulgarians – he liked to challenge himself, but he never forgot where he came from.

He was also deeply Christian. Hristo means none other than Christ in Bulgarian, which might surprise at first hand, and yet, he’s always dedicated his success to God, eventually claiming him winning the Ballon D’Or “was a proof that God is Bulgarian.”  

On the outside, Stoitchkov was a brute, causing continuous trouble with referees, refusing to comply with norms and always provoking drama and brawls. But those that know the tough Bulgarian character of the streets know that with thst brutish nature, there’s a deeper, tender-hearted village boy inside of Stoitchkov, ready to stand up for the team, shoot when it had to be shot, no matter how uneasy or unaesthetic it might have appeared.

The Bulgarian forward is still hailed in his country, seen as the best representation of Bulgarian success abroad, and obviously, still criticised. Equally so, he only lasted a while as a manager, trying the likes of Bulgaria’s national team, Celta Vigo and other smaller teams across the globe, with not much success due to his impetuous temperament, often lasting a month or two before finding ways out of those offers with usually very sudden disagreements and career decisions. Equally loudly he would express his lack of interest of tactics — which admittedly, explains why he’s disappeared of the football scene since. His glory might have been short, but fans will forever remember the unique memories he gave them.  

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