Football / World Cup USA '94: Stoichkov and Dahlin the danger men for the underdogs: Trevor Haylett on the Bulgarian known in his adopted country as 'The Gunslinger'

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The Independent Online
MA STOICHKOV had better take it easy over the next few days because the chances are that Hristo, the golden boy of the family and the golden boy of Bulgarian football, has more excitement up his sleeve for her and his vast army of fans.

Penka Stoichkov, 47, got so carried away with Bulgaria's win over the defending champions Germany and her son's irresistible contribution that she suffered heart problems and was taken to hospital (happily later released). It was the third time she had suffered watching him - she last collapsed after Hristo's club Barcelona were crushed 4-0 by Milan in the European Cup final in May.

Even his father admitted he had to take tranquillizers at their home 100 miles south-east of Slovia to sit through the tense quarter-final. The tablets will be in supply again today for the semi-final against Italy in New Jersey.

Clearly, life is far from easy with an offspring who combines explosive talent with a volatile temperament. Quick, strong and with an eye for the main scoring chance of his left foot, the 28-year-old Stoichkov regularly flouts authority and has suffered suspensions for his many outbursts.

On Sunday at Giants Stadium we saw his other side as he stroked home a free-kick of such subtle deception that the German goalkeeper, Bodo Illgner, was left rooted to the spot. He said the inspiration for the equaliser had come from remembering it was the sixth birthday of his daughter, Mihaela.

Earlier, his perception in setting up a chance which Krasimir Balakov rammed against the upright appeared to disprove the theory of Johan Cruyff, his Barcelona coach, that he is a selfish player. 'There have been times when I have had the feeling that, for Stoichkov, team-mates are just people to be used for his own individual ends and then thrown away,' Cruyff said.

When he scored against the Germans it was his fifth goal at the World Cup, putting him one behind the Russian Oleg Salenko. He can be dormant for large parts of the game before bursting into life, his pace perfectly tailored to the national team's counter- attacking strategy.

He joined Barcelona in 1990 after six years with CSKA Sofia, having just been awarded the European Golden Boot with 38 goals. The supporters in his adopted country call him 'El Pistolero' (the gunslinger) and the global game has long been aware of his capabilities. Now it is beginning to learn what his less celebrated team-mates, like Yordan Lechkov, can do as well.

'I think the world will realise we have some very classy footballers in Bulgaria,' Stoichkov said. Arriving at USA '94 with a 16- game, no-win record in the World Cup finals hardly inspired confidence. Bulgaria got off on the wrong foot with a 3-0 hammering by Nigeria but it meant they could discard the psychological burden that had affected their play.

'We realised we had nothing to lose,' Stoichkov said. 'We are now playing relaxed football and will have the same success (against Italy) as we had on Sunday.'

Stoichkov wanted to face Spain in the semi-final, but he will be quite happy if the opposition grants him the chance of revenge for Barcelona's 4-0 defeat by Milan.

(Photograph omitted)