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A Piece of His Mind
Grant Wahl
April 16, 2001
Hristo Stoitchkov, a star from Bulgaria, holds nothing back from his Fire teammates
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April 16, 2001

A Piece Of His Mind

Hristo Stoitchkov, a star from Bulgaria, holds nothing back from his Fire teammates

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In MLS, foreign superstars typically fit one of two profiles. At one extreme are the churlish, unproductive tourists, players like Lothar Matth�us from Germany, who during his one disastrous U.S. season alienated his New York/New Jersey MetroStars teammates, milked the league for a $10,000-a-month Trump Tower apartment and rehabbed a back injury (as paparazzi discovered) by sunbathing with his girlfriend in St. Tropez.

The refreshing opposite is Chicago Fire forward Hristo Stoitchkov. Seriously? The same Stoitchkov who earned a lifetime ban in his native Bulgaria (later rescinded) for his role in a 1985 soccer brawl? Who in '90, while a star for Barcelona, was suspended for six months after stomping on a referee's foot? Who left his last club, Japan's Kashiwa Reysol, in the middle of his contract two years ago? Yep, that's the one.

It's not only that the left-footed Stoitchkov, 35, was MLS's most electrifying player last year, rekindling memories of his glorious performance in the 1994 World Cup, in which he shared the goal-scoring crown and led Bulgaria to the semifinals. Nor is it merely that he treats the other Fire players with a courtier's respect, shaking each teammate's hand before daily training and calling his coach, Bob Bradley, "Mister." What makes Stoitchkov the anti-Matth�us—and the primary reason Chicago is SI's pick to win MLS Cup 2001—is his willingness to teach.

Just as Sir Edmund Hillary builds schools in Nepal, the site of his greatest triumph, Stoitchkov shares his knowledge in the U.S. "I will always remember this country for the 1994 World Cup," Stoitchkov says in Spanish. "In Bulgaria many older players helped me when I was a teenager, so I want to teach young people. It gives you a great friendship, a friendship that obligates you, so I work with them every day. I'm not wrong often, and these boys are going to play in Europe, I'm very sure of that."

Two of Stoitchkov's top students on the Fire (striker Josh Wolff, 24, and midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, 18) have started for the U.S. team and are drawing interest from clubs in England, Holland and Spain. It's a source of pride for their mentor, the 1994 European Player of the Year. "Hristo takes working with players seriously," says Bradley, "and he knows every part of what it entails."

Stoitchkov doesn't give his disciples a convoluted master plan; he just insists they pay fanatical attention to a few sacred details. "Soccer is simple," he says. "It's playing with one touch, two touches, and not having so many complications. Your movement on the field is important, and you need to have the right mentality, fighting in every game, in every practice, for every ball."

Instruction takes many forms. Consider the case of Wolff, the blazing game-breaker who led the U.S. to the Olympic semifinals in Sydney. Bradley tells of the time Wolff wasn't giving full effort in warmups for a practice. "Hristo saw him going through the motions and whacked him with the back of his hand," Bradley says. "He didn't say anything, but Josh understood: This is not how a professional does things."

Stoitchkov also has shown Wolff how to create space for runs and to open his body to midfielders, the better to signal his forays to the goal. "Then Hristo knows how to pick you out," Wolff says, alluding to Stoitchkov's breathtaking 60-yard pinpoint passes. "It's all by eye contact."

With Beasley, the runner-up for the MVP at the last Under-17 World Cup, Stoitchkov has shared his intimate knowledge of the soccer chessboard. Against Guatemala in Under-20 World Cup qualifying last month, Beasley unspooled a low pass from the right wing, splitting the goalkeeper and back line and allowing the U.S.'s Bobby Convey to run onto the ball for a goal. "The best compliment I can give DaMarcus," says Bradley, "is that it was the same ball Hristo would have hit."

Even so, no Fire player is closer to Stoitchkov than forward Dema Kovalenko, 23, who idolized him while growing up in Ukraine as a ball boy for Dynamo Kiev. During World Cup '94 Kovalenko (who had emigrated to Rochester, N.Y.) watched from the Giants Stadium stands as Stoitchkov helped Bulgaria upset Germany 2-1 in the quarterfinals. "Now we're on the same team," Kovalenko says, shaking his head. "That's crazy."

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