A tribute to Hristo Stoichkov at Barca, the Boss of the Dream Team
“If you can’t eat steak in a fish restaurant, you must find another restaurant. It’s that simple.”
This was Johan Cruyff at his loquacious best. Describing a key ingredient for playing high-pressing, aggressive, attacking football, the great Dutchman cited a player’s inherent nature as tantamount.
“What you see on the pitch often mirrors what happens around it,” he said. “In Barcelona we play attacking and aggressive football. That’s because everyone around the team has an aggressive and offensive attitude.
“If there are star players who are not aggressive, how can you have an aggressive team? Impossible.”
Bulgarian forward Hristo Stoichkov fitted the bill more than most.
Prior to being signed by Cruyff, his rap sheet already included receiving an initial life ban from football for his part in a mass brawl in a Bulgarian Cup final, which was later reduced to a month. He was just 19 at the time.
The man the Spanish press eventually dubbed ‘El Pistelero’ shot from the hip as well as his savage left foot. Few avoided his crosshairs.
It’s a testament to Cruyff’s alchemy and his belief in the conflict model for team building that the moment he was closest to producing what became the ‘Dream Team’ at Barcelona was the very moment he decided to throw a potential grenade into the mix by signing Stoichkov.
He had had two years in charge at the Nou Camp, and the vultures were circling.
A UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and a Copa Del Rey were keeping them just about at bay, but with Barcelona having won only three La Liga titles in close to 30 years, it was now or never for Cruyff the Barca manager.
Signed in the summer of 1990, Stoichkov certainly didn’t take long to make his mark on Spanish football: in his first Clasico in the Spanish Super Cup, he was sent off and received a lengthy ban for stamping on a lineman’s foot.
The 1990-91 season had started badly for the club and the gamble on Stoichkov was already looking ill-conceived.
But Cruyff, as ever, remained calm and was under no illusion as to what he’d bought.
“Before Stoichkov came, we had a team of very nice people,” he said. “But you can’t just have a team of very nice people.
“You need someone like Stoichkov who is aggressive in a positive way. He goes for the ball and when he gets the ball he shoots at goal.
“There are other players who might wait and see if there is a more beautiful way of doing it, or maybe pass it but he just went ahead and hit it in.”
Cruyff saw a need to win the ball high up the pitch to regain possession quicker and in more dangerous areas.
Whether it was Stoichkov or a defensive pivot in Jose Bakero playing just behind the forwards to regain possession, it would be a key weapon in the Dream Team.
Stoichkov’s directness in heading towards goal or scoring provided a further depth to Barcelona’s high-speed circulations and something else for opponents to try to negate.
He was also a more modern forward than many of his contemporaries.
Able to play anywhere across the front line, whether it was moving inside from the wings or playing as a more traditional centre-forward, his versatility and effectiveness in other positions allowed for a fluid tactical set-up.
In fact, despite having signed him as the reigning European Golden Boot winner, Cruyff often referred to Stoichkov as a midfielder.
Dream Team complete
Michael Laudrup would often operate as a false 9, and the interchanging of positions between team-mates helped Barca follow the Dutch model that Cruyff himself had been a key protagonist in during the 1970s.
Total Football’s origins may be along the Danube, but following a first-class education from Rinus Michels, Cruyff had established it in the DNA in Barcelona where it remains until this day.
In that sense, there was something apt about Barcelona winning their first European Cup wearing orange.
Apart from that first European Cup, the Barca ‘Dream Team’ won four straight La Liga titles (a feat not achieved before or subsequently), a UEFA Super Cup and three Spanish Super Cups.
Despite a number of sending-offs, Stoichkov delivered the goals – over a hundred of them in all competitions in just five seasons at Barca.
The 1993-94 season was particularly fruitful, with Stoichkov and new signing Romario forming a deadly strike duo, scoring 56 goals between them as they claimed a fourth consecutive La Liga title on the final day of the season.
But it couldn’t last.
Talent management can sometimes be akin to walking a tightrope. As a player, Cruyff had never been afraid of upsetting people if he felt doing so would be conducive to winning.
As such, though Stoichkov was functioning well at the Camp Nou, his outbursts of anger and other shows of displeasure were tolerated rather than accepted.
While Cruyff ceded that, “The clever people can get away with anything,” he also said: “It’s difficult to have problems with me because my rules are very clear and only someone who breaks the rules has problems.”
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The moment Cruyff thought Stoichkov wasn’t contributing effectively enough anymore on the pitch was the moment the toleration for his outbursts ended.
Despite having been a star at the previous summer’s World Cup – where he finished as joint top scorer with Oleg Salenko on six goals as he helped Bulgaria to a remarkable fourth-place finish – just two goals in the second half of the 1994-95 season sealed Stoichkov’s fate under Cruyff.
“With a player like that, everything has to be 100%,” Cruyff said. “He’s 95% and he’ll go downhill very fast. The book on Stoichkov is closed. He got on badly or not at all with more than a third of the other players.”
Stoichkov was sold to Parma where he would team up with Gianfranco Zola in the hope the little Italian would provide ‘El Pistelero’ with the bullets.
Sadly, however, his one season in Italy turned out to be a fairly miserable affair as he failed to settle, providing a return of just seven goals during the 1995-96 season.
The tougher defences in Italian football provided little joy for the Bulgarian.
However, with Cruyff sacked by Barca chairman Jose Nunez after two seasons without a trophy, Stoichkov was re-signed in the summer of 1996 for just £2million in a move which pleased the Blaugrana faithful.
He’d had a moderately successful Euro 96 on an individual front, scoring three goals (two of them outstanding) in three group games, but despite two goals as a sub on his first game back at the Camp Nou, he remained only an option from the bench in place of Ronaldo, Juan Antonio Pizzi, Luis Figo or Giovanni.
New manager Bobby Robson saw the same deterioration as Cruyff.
“He’s gone, finished in many ways,” he said. “He can’t run so how can he play? He’s all right for half an hour, but long term, he’s finished.”
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Stoichkov scored only eight in all competitions in 1996-97 and returned to Bulgaria and CSKA Sofia midway through the following season, with Louis van Gaal now in charge, to get games before the World Cup in France in 1998.
He scored only one goal as Bulgaria exited at the group stage.
Stints in Saudia Arabia, Japan and the USA brought more controversy – including breaking the leg of a DC United youth team player in training – rather than success, and in 2003 he called time on his playing career at 37.
For the most part, Stoichkov managed to channel his aggression positively during his career scoring a number of spectacular goals, often at high speed, and leading both Barcelona and Bulgarian national team to new heights.
He was loved at Barcelona for embracing the Catalan cause – and because he meant it.
It continued even after he retired: there is the story of him kicking a seven-year-old boy out of training while in charge of the Bulgarian national team over 20 years later. The youngster had turned up in a Real Madrid shirt.
Whatever the misgivings of him, Stoichkov had always been Stoichkov, a man who could drive you mad in both a good and a bad way.
By Leon Wilde