Football: Stoichkov heads home

IT HAS been a rocky eight-year relationship and eventually the inevitable happened when Bulgaria's Hristo Stoichkov split with Barcelona on Friday.

Citing irreconcilable differences with the coach, Louis van Gaal, Stoichkov said he was saddened by the rupture with the Spanish club. "It is very sad. Wearing the Barcelona jersey is very important to me and I have been at the club a long time," Stoichkov told a news conference.

Barcelona club officials would not comment on Stoichkov and his contract situation but said they expect to make an announcement concerning the player within the next few days. The Bulgarian coach, Hristo Bonev, said Barcelona had ended Stoichkov's contract, which had been due to run until 30 June.

"I just received a call from Hristo Stoichkov who told me his contract with Barcelona has been terminated and he is coming back to Bulgaria." Bonev said. "I am concerned about his preparation for the World Cup finals," said the coach, who is relying on Stoichkov for France.

Stoichkov travelled to Argentina with the Bulgarian squad for Wednesday's friendly international but without his club's permission. He returned to Barcelona on Thursday and his representatives spent three hours in discussions with club officials.

"It is now in the hands of the executive board and we expect a decision before Monday but it is very difficult for Hristo to continue at Barcelona," his agent Jose Maria Minguella said.

CSKA Sofia officials have recently been in Barcelona to discuss taking Stoichkov on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move. The player himself has said he has had offers from Mexican clubs.

Relations between Van Gaal and Stoichkov have been strained since the Dutch trainer's arrival in the last close-season. Stoichkov has played in only one league match and the European Super Cup first leg since the end of last August.

The 1994 European Player of the Year, who has been struggling with fitness and injuries, has been fined by the club for publicly criticising van Gaal. On Friday it seems both parties decided that enough was enough.

After last weekend's 3-0 win over their arch rivals, Real Madrid, Van Gaal has never been in a stronger position and he will be looking to consolidate the lead in the Spanish League when they travel to Valladolid today. Van Gaal will have no problems motivating his team who are on a roll, and will be more worried about their physical fitness. Oscar Garcia is expected to replace Sonny Anderson up front.

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