Last autumn, Bulgaria missed out on qualifying for a major tournament for the sixth consecutive time. Long gone are the days when the national team used to defy the odds and upset the European heavyweights.
With no competitive fixtures to be played until the start of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers in September, this year’s biggest football event in the country turned out to be Hristo Stoichkov’s exhibition game ’50 Years No. 8’ on May 20.
Always hot-headed and unpredictable, Stoichkov and his mad genius were the driving force behind Bulgaria’s jaw-dropping success 22 years ago, when the national side reached the World Cup semi-final. This February, the ex-Barcelona star turned 50; but instead of accepting presents, he decided to give one.
Hristo invited his former team-mates and world football legends to a spectacular all-star game at the National Stadium in Sofia. Paolo Maldini, Jean-Pierre Papin, Ivan Zamorano, Gheorghe Hagi and Carlos Valderrama led the legion of prominent guests who illuminated the event, dedicated to Stoichkov’s 50th.
It was no coincidence that the game was played on May 20. On this day 24 years ago Barcelona won their first European Cup, defeating Sampdoria 1-0 after extra time in the final at Wembley. Stoichkov became the first Bulgarian player (and he’s still the only one) to win the most coveted trophy in European football.
More than two decades later, the man they used to call The Dagger replicated the Wembley celebrations. Surrounded by some of his former Barca team-mates – Txiki Begiristain, Migel Angel Nadal, José Mari Bakero and Sergi, among others – Stoichkov lifted the cup once again. The star of the show also paid an emotional tribute to the late Johan Cruyff, the architect of Barcelona’s first Dream Team. The match was stopped in the 14th minute as a mark of respect for the man who revolutionized football not once, but twice. While 40,000 fans in the stands applauded the great Dutchman, Stoichkov couldn’t hide his tears. Cruyff’s place on the bench was taken by his grandson who was among the special guests.
This wasn’t the only emotional moment of the night. Just prior to kick-off Stoichkov bade farewell to his close friend and former team-mate Trifon Ivanov, who passed away at the age of 50 earlier this year.
It was another member of Bulgaria’s Golden generation, Krassimir Balakov, who opened the score with a screamer. Eventually Team Stoichkov managed to claim a 4-1 victory over the All-Star Team with Dimitar Berbatov, Martin Petrov, Ludovic Giuly and Stoichkov himself also getting their names on the scoresheet. The 1994 Ballon d’Or winner scored from the penalty spot in the 67th minute and the referee Atanas Uzunov, who was also the best man at Stoichkov’s wedding, blew the final whistle.
“This was a gift from me to you. Thank you!”, Stoichkov said and the crowd broke into applause. And while Bulgarian fans will miss yet another chance to support their team at a major tournament, this night evoked the glory days that they will never forget.