50 Greatest players in World Cup History: #49 Hristo Stoichkov
0-1, 1-6, 0-0; 0-2, 0-3, 1-3; 2-3, 2-5, 1-1; 0-0, 1-1, 1-4; 1-1, 1-1, 0-2, 0-2; Five World Cups, Zero Wins. As Bulgaria got ready to take part in their sixth FIFA World Cup in 1994, no one gave much more than a casual glance... and that was just because they'd managed to make the trip by knocking out France, in France, during the last day of qualifying.
There were good players in the team, but nobody expected much and their first match didn't do anything but reinforce those pre-World Cup assumptions as Nigeria gave them a proper 3-0 hiding.
By the time they played the second, though, their captain had decided enough was enough. An angry man, never short of a few cuss words - or the odd punch* - Hristo Stoichkov was a brilliant, brilliant footballer.
Partnering Romario upfront for Johann Cruyff's Barcelona Dream Team, he was a strong man, impossible to dislodge off the ball, with a sharp burst of pace that could leave anyone rooted, and a magic wand for a left foot - part machine-powered jack-hammer, part deft paintbrush. He was their one truly world-class player, and he'd decided enough was enough.
(*The most Stoichkovy of anecdotes - He had been suspended for life in 1985 for instigating and taking healthy part in a brawl during the Bulgarian Cup final - but the authorities had a change of heart and reduced it to one month. One Month. From a lifetime. That's some change of heart).
Recollecting the moment years later, Stoichkov told FIFATV, "We told ourselves that we'd give the Greeks a good hiding, a serious thrashing..." and boy did they. With the Barcelona man dispatching two cool-as-cucumber penalties (he rarely, rarely missed), the Bulgarians thrashed the Greeks 4-0.
They then took on Argentina, a Diego Maradona-less Argentina. Stoichkov ran the match - scoring the opener with a sublime first-time finish just outside the box, and they won 2-0.
In the second round, Stoichkov gave Bulgaria the lead with one of the great World Cup goals... running onto a superb through ball from Daniel Borimirov, taking a touch and absolutely leathering one into the top, near, corner. The Bulgarians would win that on penalties and in the quarters would pull off their greatest ever victory.
Once again, it was Stoichkov at the heart of it all, equalising (after Germany had taken the lead through a Matthaus penalty, earned by a trademark Klinsmann dive) with a magnificent freekick that left Bodo Illgner gaping, rooted to the spot, in the German goal.
Bulgaria would win it thanks to a header from the balding Yordan Lechkov (who was brilliant in this WC) and Bulgaria would upset the defending champions in the quarterfinals!
Although Stoichkov despatched another dead-eyed penalty against Italy, that Buddhist firecracker Roberto Baggio proved too much to handle, and the Azzurri would win - but Bulgaria would always have this amazing, fairytale run to take home... and a World Cup Golden Boot for Hristo Stoichkov (6 goals, tied with Oleg Salenko of Russia) - their player of the tournament, their hero, their greatest ever.
In the subsequent tournament, '98, Stoichkov ran on fumes, and could not inspire anything more than a mere participation certificate for Bulgaria but for his exploits in '94, his goals, his swagger, and his unrestrained charisma... he's one of our 50 Greatest players in World Cup History.