Hristo Stoichkov is number 38 in 90min's Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time series.


It was a career that almost never got off the ground.


Aged 19, Hristo Stoichkov was involved in a six-man fight during the Bulgarian Cup final, during his playing days at CSKA Sofia. It might seem draconian to us, but he was given a lifetime ban, a fairly standard punishment under the Soviet Union.


Even as a teenager, Stoichkov showed all the feistiness that would eventually see him earn the nickname The Dagger. His lifetime ban was overturned, and five years later he moved to Barcelona for £2.7m.


On the other side of Europe on Spain's east coast, Stoitchkov had caught the eye Johan Cruyff, who wanted to add a sprinkling of star power - not to mention someone with a short temper - to his Barcelona team.

Europa Cup 1 final - "FC Barcelona v Sampdoria"

He hit the ground running in Catalonia too. Although only after another ban. In his first Clásico against Real Madrid, Stoichkov stamped on a linesman’s foot and was forced to sit out with a lengthy suspension.


"Before Stoichkov came, we had a team of very nice people. But you can’t just have a team of very nice people," Cruyff said, quoted in Jimmy Burns' Barca: A People's Passion. "You need someone like Stoichkov who is aggressive in a positive way, and who can pass this aggressiveness on to other players."


His ban eventually ended and 20 goals in 33 appearances later, Barcelona won La Liga. He also helped book their place in the final of the European Cup Winners' Cup, but Stoitchkov was forced to miss final, where Barcelona lost 2-1 to Manchester United.


Things only got better for Stoitchkov, scoring 21 goals the following season as Barcelona went on to reclaim the league title. On top of that, they also got their hands on the Champions League, Cup Winners' Cup, Spanish Supercup and UEFA Supercup.

The Bulgarian was the at the spearhead of Cruyff's Dream Team, which included stars like Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman and even a young Pep Guardiola.


It wasn't just Stoichkov's ability on the pitch that was so vital for Barcelona at the time. Even to this day, his ability to play in a variety of positions, something which Cruyff helped to establish as a player in the 1970s, is still very much part of the club's DNA. 


Things didn't go downhill from their either. More goals and trophies came Stoichkov's way over the following years, but it was in 1994 where the short-tempered, versatile forward took the term 'legend status' to a whole new level.


It didn't come in Europe though. Stoichkov's crossed the Atlantic Ocean with a country's hopes resting on his shoulders. At the 1994 World Cup in the United States, Stoichkov immortalised himself as Bulgaria's greatest of all time.

GERMANY V BULGARIA

They were able to find their way out of the group stages ahead of pre-tournament favourites Argentina, who had the likes of Diego Maradona, Gabriel Batistuta and Diego Simeone pushing for their third World Cup trophy.


Stoichkov has scored two penalties in their 4-0 win over Greece and also got on the scoresheet against La Albiceleste, but it was in the knockout stages where the Barcelona striker really started to shine, with Bulgaria's hopes and dreams on his shoulders.


He scored just six minutes into their knockout stage match against Mexico, which was quickly cancelled out by Alberto García Aspe. After seeing both sides reduced to 10 men, Bulgaria won the match thanks to a penalty shootout.


But it was in the quarter-finals where Bulgaria really upset the odds. 

They were drawn up against Germany, who were looking to defend the World Cup after winning the trophy in 1990. Die Mannschaft had a squad that was littered with household names. But that still wasn't enough because Bulgaria, well, they had Stoichkov.


Lothar Matthäus put Germany into the lead, but Stoichkov levelled the scoreline and Yordan Letchkov completed the comeback. For Bulgaria, their fairytale, which truly is one of the greatest World Cup stories of all time, continued.


Roberto Baggio-inspired Italy proved to be one hurdle too many in the semi-finals. Stoichkov again scored, but Baggio's two earlier goals ended Bulgaria's hopes of reaching a final and they eventually finished fourth at the World Cup, losing to Sweden in the third-place match.


Stoichkov's Barcelona teammate Romário spent that summer celebrating after winning the World Cup with Brazil. Yet still, the 1994 competition belonged to Bulgaria and Stoichkov.

ITALY V BULGARIA

That showed when it came round to the Ballon d'Or later in the year too. Baggio and his Italy teammate Paolo Maldini finished second and third respectively. Surely, one of Brazil's World Cup winners won the coveted individual award?


No. And it wasn't even close. Stoichkov became the first Bulgarian player to ever win the Ballon d'Or. And it wasn't just thanks to Bulgaria's World Cup either


That year, 1994, belonged to Stoichkov.


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90min's 'Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time' can be found here


Number 50: Luka Modric

Number 49: John Charles

Number 48: Hugo Sanchez

Number 47: Jairzinho

Number 46: Omar Sivori

Number 45: Paolo Rossi

Number 44: Paul Breitner

Number 43: George Weah

Number 42: Kaka

Number 41: Lev Yashin

Number 40: Gunnar Nordahl

Number 39: Kevin Keegan