IT is his first game in Scotland, but Hristo Stoichkov is determined to leave behind more than memories. The Bulgarian superstar, nicknamed ‘The Boss’ in the original Barcelona Dream Team, will play at Celtic Park next Saturday, September 8, in ‘A Match for Cancer’, sponsored by Dafabet and Laduma.
But he brings more than his substantial presence. He has both a message and an opportunity for fans.
“First, this is not a big deal for me in the sense of giving up time and travelling. It is my duty,” Stoichkov said. “I have won a Ballon D’Or (1994), the Golden Shoe as the top scorer in the World Cup in 1994, a European Cup, but people are more important. Supporting your friends and others is important.
“Second, I have no idea how much money Celtic FC Foundation will raise, but I tell you this, I am going to present my boots and jersey from 1992 and my national jersey from 1994 to raise funds for this cause.”
The gift from 1992 comes from his appearance in the European Cup final where he played for Barcelona in the victory over Sampdoria at Wembley. The national jersey comes from a World Cup tournament where Bulgaria reached the semi-finals.
They are significant signs of the regard that he holds for Stiliyan Petrov and of his belief that it is the duty of footballers to help charity.
“This is very important for me. It is an important game too,” he said. “Stiliyan is not only one of my players, he is one my friends. I call him one of my players because he played under me when I was coach at the national team.”
Stoichkov was shocked by his fellow countryman’s diagnosis of leukaemia, and is convinced that ‘the family of football’ can help sufferers and their families.
“The difficulties Stiliyan had impacted on him and his family but also on his friends,” he said. “It is my obligation to be at this game and also the fundraising dinner the night before. It is a duty. It is very important for everyone to bring these issues to light.
“When Stiliyan calls and asks me to play, it is simple. The answer is short. I am coming. I live in Miami, but no big deal. I have to be there.
“I have never played in Scotland. I have never played at Celtic Park but I know the history, I know it is one of the biggest teams in the world. I know the reputation of the fans and I have watched them against Barcelona. My presence is to show support to someone I have known for more than 20 years.”
Stiliyan Petrov was coming to the fore in Bulgaria as Hristo Stoichkov was finishing his career.
“He was one of some great talents who left the country for big clubs at that time – Dimitar Berbatov, Stiliyan, Martin Petrov,” said Stoichkov. “I am very happy that I played a small part in these young players coming through. Stiliyan had such great moments in his career, such great success. He had character as a player and a man. Stiliyan knows he was privileged to play for Celtic – a club with such a history. But he was a big man for them.
“I don’t like to speak of my career. I never spoke soccer, I played soccer.” Stoichkov continued. “Yes, I played for Bulgaria and Barcelona and won trophies but that was not just down to me. It was because of other players and the coaches. I don’t like this stuff where players say ‘I scored this goal, scored this free-kick, I won this’. There were always others.”
And he picked out Johan Cruyff as the greatest influence on his career.
“I was very happy to play under him for the Dream Team.” he said of the Barcelona side that won the European Cup and four La Liga titles under the Dutchman. “I left Bulgaria when I was young. I went to a different culture, different system.
“Under Cruyff it was very hard work. He trained us to the limit. He was the best coach in history because of his mentality and the way he gave you responsibility.
But he shies away from any comparison of that Barca team with the 1990s and Messi-led one of recent times. “It is not fair. It is enough to say I love Barca.” he said.
But he says of a team that included Romario, Pep Guardiola, Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup and Gheorge Hagi: “They were true greats. From Monday to Friday, we worked on the training field. But on match day it was a big party on the pitch.”
And Stoichkov promises a similar party on Saturday, September 8. At 52, he will be leading the celebrations.
“I could play for three days never mind 90 minutes. It is no big deal.” he says.
It will be for those privileged to watch the Scottish debut of an all-time world great.
Tickets for A Match for Cancer are now on general sale, priced at £14 for adults and £6 for concessions*.
Tickets are available to purchase online at www.celticfc.net, by calling 0871 226 1888** or by visiting the Celtic Ticket Office. The lower tier will be on sale in the first instance and Rail Seating does not apply to this match.
Premium tickets (£30) and corporate packages (£135) are also available by calling 0871 226 1888** (Option 4) or emailing [email protected]
There is now limited availability for an ‘An Evening with Petrov and Milner’ on Friday, September 7. For further details, email [email protected] or call 0141 551 4321.
* Concessions 65+/Under 16s.
** Calls cost 13p per minute, plus your phone company’s access charge. Booking fees apply online and via our sales line.