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Exactly 30 years ago, 3 May 1990, I put pen to paper on my contract which made me an FC Barcelona player and the happiest man on the planet. However, let's start at the beginning...
My arrival at FC Barcelona really began a year or so earlier. In April 1989, my club at the time, CSKA Sofia, met Barça in the semi final of the European Cup Winners Cup. I was lucky enough to score three goals in the tie - two at Camp Nou and one in Bulgaria - even though Barça made it through to the final in Berne, Switzerland. Surely enough, those three goals would have a great impact on my subsequent career as a footballer.
The smartest of the them all was Josep Maria Miguella, the agent and go-between for Barça, who was in charge of my transfer to Barça along with the late Paco Ventura, the Club's vice president at that time. After the games against Barça and watching my development, both of them recommended me to Johan Cruyff who then gave the go ahead for my signing.
It was an uncertain few months. At the end of 1989 I had signed a precontract with Barça...but I had not told neither my wife nor my parents! I didn't want anything to go wrong and so I kept quiet about it until it was made official in May 1990. Can you imagine that...?
At the end of 1989 I had signed a precontract with Barça...but I had not told neither my wife nor my parents“ HRISTO STOICHKOV
Were there other teams looking to sign me? I won't lie: there were a few. That season, 1989/90, I won the Golden Shoe award, jointly with Hugo Sánchez, and there certain team who had already knocked on the door. Others had called before. Who were they? I'll mention the first only: Panathinaikos, one of the biggest teams in Europe at the end of the 1980s. They offered me a lot of money but I was still really young, twenty and a bit and I thought that staying in Bulgaria another season would help me learn more. You have to remember that CSKA was the army team and discipline was very important, and they had some great players:Ivanov, Penev, Kostadinov...
When I finally arrived in Barcelona, I settled in quickly at the Club. I got a lot of advice from Minguella and his people. I used to go with them almost every day to the Pompeia Tennis Club, close to Montjuïc where asides from playing tennis, we played other sports, we went swimming and I was able to meet a whole lot of people.
Well, and what can I say about the food! White beans, botifarra, paella, rice dishes, bread with tomatoe...All those local dishes I loved as they were similar to dishes in Bulgaria.
In my first spell in Barcelona when I had a day off I would explore Catalonia. I would take the car and visit little villages in the country. I remember one of my first trips was to the beach at Calonge and Guimerà, a small town close to Lleida. Everyone was really nice to me, it was marvellous! I felt part of it right from the start. I have to say that people still stop me in the street and thank me for being the way I am, not just in Catalonia but also when I was in Málaga, Salamanca, Mallorca and León, for example, people stopped me and thanked me.
It's for that reason that whenever I have the chance I try to return that affection. For example, after winning the Copa del Rey in 1997, we were celebrating at Plaça Sant Jaume and I managed to get the then president of the Generalitat, Jordi Pujol, and the then president of Barça, Josep Lluís Nuñez, jumping up and down in celebration. It was an iconic image and even today many people remember it. They were happy moments and I tried to give back to the people the affection they showed me over the years.
Hristo Stoichkov, at the Palace of the Catalan Government
It is for the same reason, some years before in 1994, when my team mates helped me to win the Ballon d'Or, I wanted to give them replicas of the award for the all the support they had given me. I ordered four replicas of the Ballon d'Or; one for FC Barcelona (it is on display at the Club's Museum), another for CSKA Sofia, one for President Pujol and one for the Bulgarian president, Zheliu Zhelev. It might seem odd, but the last two were the heads of the Catalan and Bulgarian people respectively and so for me it seemed only normal to thank them for the magnificent reception I had from the two sets of people they represented.
Another person I owe a lot to, or everything, is Johan Cruyff. The first thing that I have to be thankful is that he had confidence in me and that he backed me. When I had just touched down in Barcelona, I remember he said to me, "Listen, I will work with you until you win the Ballon d'Or." At that time, I was just a little known kid and for Cruyff to say that to me was great motivation. Later, on innumerable occasions, he used to say things to rub me up the wrong way, and at the end of the day, fuelled my desire to go out and win. Johan was a great motivator and he did a lot of things for me and my family and I will be eternally grateful.
On the pitch, initially it was not easy. I had to get used to the position of the ball and I found it hard to not run after it. When I understood and took in the footballing concepts behind the way the team played, it all started to work. The excellent atmosphere within the team was key.
I remember the day that the boss, Cruyff, could not make the trip to Bilbao, as he had not long had an operation for his heart problems. The squad wanted to dedicate the win to him and we won 6-0 in San Mamés. That day I scored one of my best goals for Barça.
Like I said, they were great people, great team mates and we all got on like a house on fire. That explains how on the field we understood each other with just a look. Now, three decades later, we still congratulate each other for birthdays and we maintain our friendship.
Who was the leader of that team?
Obviously Johan Cruyff was the leader of the whole project, but the leader in the dressing room when I arrived was José Ramón Alexanko, the great captain. After there was Bakero, Zubizarreta, Koeman.. All of them were experienced and were listened to. There were other leaders as well: 'Txiki' Begiristain was the leader for laughs. Eusebio was the leader in arriving later, Julio Salinas was the leader when it came to losing bets, Laudrup the leader for wine tasting...I remember that after trying them, he always said to the waiter, "This one is no good, bring another."
Alexanko was the leader in the dressing room... but Begiristain was the leader for laughs, Eusebio the leader in being late...“ HRISTO STOICHKOV
There were more: Goikoetxea was the leader of bringing lettuces, asparagus and red pepers, Nadal had the job of bringing sobrassada ensaïmades and the younger players brought bread and tomato. We never needed for anything.
Everybody, all of them helped me in my time in Barcelona, and not just them.
For example, I remember that after standing on the referee's foot in the Clásico, the team worked hard to calm me down. I was very young and Cruyff and Rexach talked to me to relax me. I have always been somebody with character and you have to work on that too, one thing does not change the other. I am proud of my personality and you can't get it at the chemist, you either have it or you don't.
From that incident with the stamp, I learnt how to play in a more relaxed fashion. He always said the same thing to me: "Don't do this, don't do that." I have to say, as the years have gone by, I have a great relationship with that referee, Urízar Azpitarte. I want to visit his house in Bilbao and he was also there in Bulgaria for the launch of my biography. At the end of the day, he is also part of my history as a footballer.
There are a lot of people who helped me to be a success at Barça. As well as Cruyff, Rexach and Bruins Slot, there were the delegates Carles Naval and Rodolfo Peris, the fitness coaches Àngel Vilda and Joan Malgosa, masseurs Àngel Mur and Jaume Langa, medical staff Carles Bestit, Josep Borrell and Fernando Baños, and above all the physios Ferran Arnedo and Salva Hellín, amongst many others who were key to helping me perform.
Also, Josep Lluís Núñez and his wife who were key in me coming back to Barça after signing for Parma. Without doubt, leaving Barça in 1996 was the worst decision I have made in my whole career. If I had a magic wand and could change just one thing it would be that. Fortunately, a year later I came back. I don't want to forget Joan Gaspart, Anton Parera, Nicolau Casaus, Amador Bernabéu or the already mentioned Josep Maria Minguella and Paco Ventura, all of whom were really important for ma and my family.
Hristo Stoichkov, with his granddaughter Mía.
I am really grateful to everyone and of course to the fans. There were many when I missed chances that were impossible to miss and seconds later Camp Nou would be on its feet to encourage me. Not just me, all the team. Without them those years would not have been possible.
From Miami, I send you all my best, above all at this difficult time for everyone.
Visca el Barça! ¡100%!
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