Football: Man of the world who fell to earth

His crown slipping and reputation waning, a hero of USA 94 bids farewell to France 98; Andrew Warshaw reflects on the decline of the remarkable Bulgar Hristo Stoichkov
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IF A year is a long time in politics, four years are an eternity in football when your name is Hristo Stoichkov. Top scorer with six goals at USA 94, the strutting star of Bulgaria's World Cup campaign left France on Friday with the finger of blame pointing firmly in his direction after a disastrous three weeks.

In all probability, the former Barcelona and Parma striker will never pull on a national shirt again having scored 36 times in 74 appearances. Stoichkov's minimal contribution to Bulgaria's three first-round matches - he failed to score and spent much of his time arguing up front with Emil Kostadinov - has been targeted by the Bulgarian media as the main reason why their country, semi-finalists four years ago after beating Germany, fared so badly at France 98.

If that sounds harsh, consider Stoichkov's recent behaviour, which makes Paul Gascoigne's various antics, those that are football-related at least, tame by comparison. A week ago today, Stoichkov and his team-mate Luboslav Penev suddenly quit their training camp at Coudray Montceaux, 60 kilometres south of Paris, and headed for a jolly in the French capital.

Their 24-hour disappearing act meant they missed training and a news conference. No one knows what Stoichkov and Penev got up to when they reached Paris, but the fact that they told no one where they were going, why, or when they would be returning, emphasises the temperamental nature of the raging bull in Stoichkov's head.

The Bulgarian management reacted by saying both players would be heavily fined, and rumours swept through the camp that the hero of 1994 would be dropped for the final game against Spain. Stoichkov made the starting line-up but was so ineffective that he was substituted at half-time. Officially he had picked up an injury. Unofficially, with his team two goals down, he refused categorically to play on. Bulgaria ended up losing 6-1 and their coach, Hristo Bonev, resigned, saying he couldn't continue with such a rabble. He is expected to be replaced either by Nasko Sirakov, another member of the 1994 World Cup squad, or by Dimitar Dimitrov, coach of the newly crowned Bulgarian champions Litex.

At the post-game press conference, all Stoichkov said was "Good match" to a handful of Spanish journalists. "Stoichkov has been at the centre of every single crisis in the Bulgarian team here," said Vassil Kolev of the Bulgarian daily football newspaper Meridian Match. "Whoever takes over from Bonev, I can't see he can pick Stoichkov again."

When the Bulgarians flew home, their reputation in tatters, Stoichkov went straight to the coastal resort of Varna for his annual summer holiday. Thereafter, he will head to Japan to play for Kashiwa Reysol on a lucrative contract. No one is surprised: during a crucial period of last season, he walked out on his club, CSKA Sofia, to play a couple of games in Saudi Arabia for a reported $250,000. Money for old rope.

"His club needed him badly at the time for the Bulgarian cup final which they lost. I don't think he'll be feeling the least bit guilty about what has happened here," said Kolev. "He's not that kind of man. How he is with his family [wife Mariana and two daughters], nobody knows."

Unlike some superstars struggling to deal with sudden fame, it is hard to feel sympathy with Stoichkov, whose single-minded petulance has long been chronicled. Two years ago, he boycotted the national team after the previous coach, Dimitar Penev, was sacked. It took some gentle persuasion by his image- conscious sponsors - a $2m deal but only if he competed in the World Cup - to make him change his mind. His frequent rows with Johan Cruyff while at Barcelona were legendary. Despite winning four championships with the Catalan giants, he was sent off 11 times.

And yet, there does appear to be a kinder side to this footballing schizophrenic. Witness Euro 96 when he charmed busloads of schoolchildren with a willingness to smile, pose for photographs and sign autographs without a hint of impatience.

"I am genial, but mad too," he once told an interviewer in Spain, during his remarkable spell in Catalonia. "No one knows what to expect from me - not even me!"

Now, after a spell at Parma and back in Bulgaria with CSKA, he is on the road once again at the age of 32. Off to Japan, where the cash flows like honey for those reaching their twilight. Quite what the reverent Japanese, who have made a host of friends at France 98, will make of Hristo Stoichkov is anyone's guess.

Errant boys of the World Cup

Teddy Sheringham: Former patient in the the infamous Euro 96 "dentist's chair" was forced to make a public apology after being seen in a Portuguese nightclub at 6.45am two days before joining up with the rest of the England squad at Lilleshall. Told off by Glenn Hoddle but not discarded.

Faustino Asprilla: Tino was kicked out of Colombian squad after criticising coach Hernan Dario Gomez on national radio and going absent without leave from training. He later issued a grovelling apology and pleaded to be readmitted to the squad - but it was too late.

Brendan Augustine and Naughty Mokoena: The two South Africa players were branded "tourists" by the coach Philippe Troussier after going out clubbing until 6am after second Group C match. The "Bafana Bafana" boys swiftly became "Buffoona Buffoona". Both were sent straight home.

Henning Berg and Erik Mykland: Another pair caught out until the wee small hours after Norway's opening 2-2 draw against Morocco. The Norwegian camp fiercely denied any alcohol had been involved.

Hristo Stoichkov and Lyuboslav Penev: Fined heavily by the Bulgarian coach Hristo Bonev after returning to team hotel at 2.30am last Monday, having missed a news conference and a team tactics talk.