Football: Rebel Stoichkov turns teacher

The Bulgarian star remains upbeat despite a 3-0 defeat to Poland in his debut as captain.
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IF YOU ask Hristo Stoichkov, who will lead out the Bulgarian team to face England at Wembley today, about the only previous occasion he played at England's national stadium his eyes light up and, as if indelibly etched on his memory, he says: "20 May 1992."

That was when Stoichkov's Barcelona beat Sampdoria 1-0 in the final of the European Cup, thanks to an extra-time winner from Ronald Koeman. Stoichkov's day was made even more memorable as, when the trophy was passed along the line of jubilant players and arrived in his hands, instead of raising it aloft he seated himself adjacent to the Queen and posed for photographs, one of which remains a prized possession.

With 35 goals in 74 internationals, Stoichkov has been one of the leading strikers of the decade, but he has also been one of the most controversial. After being voted Bulgarian Footballer of the Year three times in a row, he became his country's most expensive footballing export when he joined Barcelona for pounds 2m in 1990. He spent eight years there - on and off.

Hugely popular with the Catalan fans, he rarely saw eye to eye with his coach Johan Cruyff who often left him on the bench or, as he had done with Gary Lineker, played Stoichkov out wide which did little to appease an appalling temper which landed him in trouble with the authorities time and again. At its worst, he received a lengthy ban for stamping on a referee's foot.

Barcelona offloaded him to Parma, in Italy, but he was soon back at the Nou Camp and spells in Saudi Arabia and back home with CSKA Sofia were, for various reasons, just as fruitless. Finally, he was sacked by the Spanish club in March of this year and now he plays in Japan for Kashiwa Reysol. In a move some would describe as inspired and others completely daft, he was appointed captain of his country for last month's match against Poland, but a 3-0 defeat, Bulgaria's first at home for seven years, was hardly the perfect start. However, it was the coach, Hristo Bonev, who carried the can and resigned.

Now, under Dimitar Dimitrov, and without many of the players who took Bulgaria to the giddy heights of fourth place in the 1994 World Cup, the 32-year-old finds himself with real responsibility for the first time in his career. So far, the signs are that he is responding well, both on and off the pitch.

The England coach, Glenn Hoddle, said yesterday: "I saw him against Poland and he looked a lot calmer in himself. He realised he had to help the youngsters. He's at an age where the legs start to go, but players like that improve in different ways as they get older."

When the Bulgarians arrived in London on Thursday, Stoichkov himself said: "At this stage it is very important for Bulgaria that I assist in whatever way I can. It comes with the territory and there's a moral responsibility on my part. When I was young the senior players helped me out, and now it's my turn."

It would not be too much of an exaggeration to describe the whole of Bulgarian football as in a state of crisis. On the playing side, expectations rose after USA 94 but the next generation of players has been slow to come through. Dimitrov, who has no experience as a player but who coached Litex Lovech to the Bulgarian title last season, their first in the First Division, has been obliged to recall Ivailo Iordanov, Zlatko Iankov and Daniel Borimirov from the '94 squad and he would have liked Luboslav Penev and Krassimir Balakov to come out of international retirement but they declined.

Instead he must rely on players like the 22-year-old striker Georgi Ivanov and Kaiserslautern's Marian Hristov. Meanwhile, another member of his squad, Ilia Gruev, was at the centre of a domestic row which at one stage last month threatened Bulgaria's participation in the tournament. After testing positive for anabolic steroids in training last April, Gruev was banned for the rest of the season and excluded from the World Cup in France where, as in Euro 96, Bulgaria disappointed.

The government were not happy at the punishment handed out to Gruev by the Bulgarian Football Union, suggesting instead a two-year ban, and revoked its licence. The world governing body, Fifa, stepped in and for the time being the BFU is back in charge but, with violence on the increase during league games as well, the affair seems far from resolved.

These are not ideal circumstances for the new coach, but his captain at least is keeping his eye on the real goal: "Our target is to get an interaction going between the youngsters and the new management team," he said. "The manager will keep faith with them and hopefully they will give him all their support." Of their chances this afternoon, he added: "They are the same as England's. Each side has no points after one game, and we do not fear anybody."