Football: Farewell to the flicks of Hristo

Andrew Longmore laments the leaving of an inspiring showman
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IF THERE was confusion over Hristo Stoichkov's intentions earlier in the week, there was none by the end of Wednesday night. Even for a man who measures short-term thinking on a different timescale from the rest, who can change his mind as quickly as he could change a game, the valediction was unequivocal. For now, at least. "The time has come for me to give way to the younger players coming through," he said after the sterile 1-1 draw with England. "I have given so much to the Bulgarian team." And there were bouquets of flowers and a thousand kisses and the presence of Johan Cruyff, his mentor at Barcelona, just in case the old rogue failed to take the hint. "He is a legend for us," as one Bulgarian journalist put it. "But we want to have good memories to take with us."

One of Stoichkov's final acts in the red shirt of his country was to console his distraught compatriot, Martin Petrov, dubbed the new Stoichkov, who was sent off for a second bookable offence just 15 minutes after coming on as a second-half substitute. Petrov's despair stemmed more from the belief that he had sullied his hero's farewell party than from the certainty that he had erased his country's last glimpse of qualification for Euro 2000. Stoichkov guided Petrov to the sidelines like a father shepherding a reluctant son to his first day at school.

In bursts, Stoichkov remind-ed the crowd of 30,000 at CSKA's dilapidated stadium where he first learned his trade that the memory does not play tricks. True the gesture, the upward karate chop of the right hand which became the enduring symbol of Bulgaria's march to the semi-finals of the 1994 World Cup, has lasted a little better than the legs. But Stoichkov's little flicks and darts, his instant control and, in one lightning thrust down the left wing, his prevailing instinct for goal still hinted at technical heights not occupied by anyone in a white shirt. He was in fine theatrical form, one moment remonstrating with the fans of CSKA, who had spent much of the evening baiting the rival Levski fans in the opposite corner of the ground, the next giving the talented young Milen Petkov a playful clip round the ear for not giving him the ball exactly where and when he wanted it.

But it is not just the loss of Stoichkov's footballing ability which will leave the game poorer for his retirement. Stoichkov was a genuine eccentric, a man of enormous ego who, no less than Maradona, refused to be constrained by football's growing uniformity. If Hristo wanted to say something, to criticise his manager or his team-mates, the Bulgarian Football Union or the state of the nation, then he would do so in the sure knowledge that his goals, 37 of them in 84 internationals, had earned him a captive audience. In Barcelona, where he enjoyed his most prolific period in club football under Cruyff, he topped a fans' poll of all-time favourite Barcelona players, an extraordinary achievement for a Bulgarian in the Catalan capital. Stoichkov still has a house in the city as well as an apartment in Sofia and a holiday house on the Black Sea.

There have been persistent rumours that Stoichkov will take over the running of the Bulgarian national team or become the technical supremo. Given the parlous state of Bulgarian football a miracle is sure to be required sooner or later and there is no one better qualified to work it than Stoichkov who, at present, is seeing out his $3m [pounds 1.9m] a year contract with Kashiwa Reysol in Japan. The thought is intriguing. Substituted as usual about 15 minutes from the end on Wednesday, Stoichkov appeared in the technical area urging on the 10-man Bulgarian side to the draw they deserved. He could be elected president if he wanted because no one is identified more completely with the Bulgarians' image of themselves as a proud, courageous, mercurial people than the poor boy from Plovdiv.

On the concrete steps inside the stadium an hour after the game Cruyff gave a damning critique of the inadequacies of modern football. It can be taken as read that Stoichkov was excluded from the criticism. His one moment of inspiration brought a low left-footed cross which arrived swift as an arrow on to the foot of Hristo Yovov, another expected to lift the mantle from Stoichkov's shoulders. At the far post, Yovov managed to bundle the ball high over the bar. Stoichkov stood aghast.

As Stoitchkov left the international field for the last time the referee, Mario van der Ende, made a point of shaking him by the hand. No one should take the retirement for granted, of course. It would be out in keeping with his career if rumours of a return did not surface soon. Stoichkov is only 33, after all. But if he stays true to his word, we have seen the last act of a great showman.