After an unhappy year in Japan and his recent retirement from the Bulgarian national team, could a move to Watford be on the cards for Hristo Stoichkov? Mark McQuinn weighs up his options
As Hristo Stoichkov left the field 16 minutes before the end of the European Championship qualifier against England in Sofia on June 9, the prolonged and passionate applause from his adoring public showed more clearly and touchingly than the post-match eulogies what “The Dog” means to his people.
It was his 83rd and final match for Bulgaria, an international career spanning 17 years and 37 goals. At a private cocktail party following the match, Stoichkov graciously played down the suggestion that the occasion had been slightly dampened by the involvement of an England team featuring some players incapable of bringing a football under full control before lashing it aimlessly into space.
At 33, Stoichkov’s pace and stamina have diminished considerably from the time of Barcelona’s 4-0 stroll against the current holders of the European Champions League, when it seemed as though Denis Irwin was wading through treacle trying to keep up with him. However, his passing and shooting skills are still strong and his ability to stare opponents out remains world class.
Stoichkov had personally arranged for the two people he feels made him a star to be at the cocktail party – Johan Cruyff and ex-national team coach Dimitar Penev. Predictably, both talked generously about Stoich- kov’s talents as a footballer and the highlights of his playing career.
However, most of those assembled had their minds on Stoichkov’s future rather than on his past achievements. Three possibilities are being touted: that he will reluctantly stay with his current team, Kashiwa Reysol in Japan; that he will stage a bloody coup and displace Dimitar Dimitrov as boss of the national team; or that he will become part of Watford’s challenge for the Premiership.
Stoichkov’s love of the physical aspects of football – scrapping it out with defenders and punching members of the press – makes him well suited to life in English football. However, given that his wage demands are extremely high and that he is looking ideally for a place to use his beloved motor-cruiser and indulge his passion for Serbian folk music, Watford may not be his ideal destination. Then again, Elton is in need of a change of direction musically.
Stoichkov has said he would be happy to play in England. He recently stated that he would love to return to Wembley, where he was a brilliant member of the Barcelona team that won the European Cup in 1992, to lift a trophy again. When it was pointed out to him that Watford were not the most likely team to feature in a Wembley final next year, Stoichkov replied curtly that things would change if he arrived.
It is now certain that he will not return to Japan after spending an unhappy first year there. Characteristically, Stoichkov offered some forthright opinions shortly after arriving in the country. Hristo has found few Japanese friends to spend the nights carousing with. He also finds it irritating that his on-field histrionics are generally met with bemusement by team-mates, the opposition, the officials and the fans: stoic acceptance of life’s ups and downs is alien to Hristo.
Stoichkov is currently taking a complete break at his Andorran holiday home. Intrigues will begin in earnest on his return to Bulgaria. A year playing in Europe would probably suit Stoichkov best. By the end of next season Bulgaria will have completed their already unsuccessful European Championship qualifying campaign and the time would be right to change managers. Then again, waiting patiently is hardly Stoichkov’s forte either.
Bulgarian fans are overwhelmingly in favour of him taking over the national team. However, some of the squad are sure to have their doubts. Stoichkov is an all or nothing man – if he likes you he can’t do enough for you, but if he doesn’t, then burning in hell is a preferable experience to dealing with him.
Team talks certainly won’t be dull if Stoichkov does becomes manager of Bulgaria and crockery bills are sure to mount. Whether this happens after an interlude at Watford, or another European side, or by the start of next season is harder to judge. But if he does opt for Vicarage Road the local karaoke bars may struggle to get hold of the latest Serbian folk hits, causing Hristo to add Hertfordshire to his long list of “dull places”.
From WSC 150 August 1999. What was happening this month