The Chicago History Museum's grand banquet hall is overflowing with nearly 500 Chicago Fire Soccer Club fans, bubbling with excitement at the club's supporter-organized 15th-anniversary celebration. The room's layout (long, narrow) is not ideal for speeches, but speeches certainly have to be made because of the occasion, a special one for the club and the city: October 8 marks the date of both the start of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, out of whose ashes the modern city was built, and the date in 1997 when Fire general manager Peter Wilt unveiled the club's name and identity on Navy Pier. Friends are catching up, glasses are clinking, the festivities are bubbling over.
Hristo Stoichkov strides up to the podium, and the room falls silent. He speaks slowly, deliberately, without expression but with intensity. He talks one sentence at a time in Spanish (he played in Spain for seven years), pausing to allow former Fire head coach Denis Hamlett to translate bit by bit, meaningful words drawn from his stony, stern countenance. "This is one of the best clubs I played for," the former Barcelona, Fire, CSKA Sofia, and World Cup star concludes, weighing his words appropriately for the audience.
Two days previously, I sat down for lunch with Stoichkov, 46, in a Bulgarian restaurant on Chicago's west side to watch the Fire defeat Red Bull New York 2-0. The Bulgarian legend had just flown in from Sofia and demanded to head out immediately from the airport to watch the Fire game he was informed was underway. His eyes almost never strayed from the screen, and he proffered no commentary, breaking into a smile only when my friend "Mad" Jeff Marinacci shouted "GET IN, BIG BOY!" and pumped his fists after Sherjill MacDonald stroked home the Fire's first goal. Hristo enjoyed the passion.
A steady stream of kids came up to Hristo after the game, middle-aged parents pushing them to get a photo and an autograph with perhaps the most famous Bulgarian of all time. Hristo is not unapproachable — the kids received a playful rub on the head — but as Fire winger Patrick Nyarko admitted following the celebration at the Museum two days later, "When I saw Stoichkov I was scared to go and say hello."
It's easy to understand that nervous apprehension when you see Hristo in the flesh. His eyes do not dart from person to person; his gaze instead sizes you up, and those prickles on your skin are his eyes piercing you.
Many people try to carry themselves like they are a big deal, ensuring everyone in the room knows just how important they are. Hristo Stoichkov is one of those rare people in the world who carries himself like this and it feels totally right.
He is, after all, Hristo Stoichkov: lethal left-footed assassin, plunderer of 83 goals in 177 appearances for Barcelona, 37 in 83 games for Bulgaria, joint top goal scorer at the 1994 World Cup, European Footballer of the Year in 1994, a member of eight league championship teams for Barcelona and CSKA Sofia, driving force of the Bulgarian team that reached the semifinals of the '94 World Cup, and, again, a man who simply murdered his opponents with that left foot, lashing in goals from improbable angles and distances over and over and over again.
These achievements and his rock-solid self-belief inform his being. If a movie were to be made about Hristo's life, a 1980s-era Robert De Niro would have to play him. He can get away with his bad behavior and retain respect because he is who he is. Impeccably dressed with slicked-back silver hair these days, Stoichkov has put on some weight since his playing days, but it's weight that only adds to the solidity of his presence.
It was with some surprise, then, when after a couple of hours at the Bulgarian restaurant Hristo is, all of a sudden, the one doing the honoring. In has walked a nondescript middle-aged Bulgarian man, and Hristo — who has barely made eye contact for more than a second with anyone all day — is enamored, sitting and chatting and smiling with the guy.
Explanation follows from the group of Bulgarian soccer fans present, the Chicago Reds, a CSKA Sofia fan club: This is Tzvetan Borislavov Yonchev, whom you probably haven't heard of but whom they revere as one of their club's and their country's greatest players. My iPhone's YouTube app is soon playing Yonchev's greatest moments — his goal at Anfield against Liverpool, his sublime strike against Bayern Munich, his role in CSKA's defeat of defending European champions Nottingham Forest in the first round of the 1980-81 European Cup (CSKA would go on to reach the semifinals).
Yonchev is one of Hristo Stoichkov's idols; he now runs a couple of pizza restaurants in the Chicago suburbs, but here he is being paid tribute to by his country's greatest player.
The next day, October 7, Hristo is playing soccer again in Chicago. Much has changed since his tenure with the Fire from 2000 to 2002: Instead of playing at Soldier Field in Chicago or Cardinal Stadium in Naperville — as the homeless Fire did during Hristo's era — they now play at Toyota Park in south suburban Bridgeview, a soccer-specific stadium with a turf practice field Hristo that is playing on today. "No more Lake Forest, huh?" Hristo grunts, referring to the Fire's former practice home out at Lake Forest College.
He's on the field again with many of his teammates from that era: Peter Nowak, the Fire's inspirational first captain; Lubos Kubik, silky-skilled sweeper; Diego Gutierrez, hustling creator; Ante Razov, an athletic scorer. They're taking part in a reunion game prompted by current Fire head coach Frank Klopas, who played for the Fire himself with the same group of guys just before Hristo's arrival.
Hristo is charging across the field again, a decade older but with the same bull-headed determination that he will find the back of the net. And he soon does, opening the scoring as he fakes out two defenders by feinting to shoot, instead driving into the box and drilling home a left-footed shot into the bottom corner. He scores again a few minutes later, and his touch is still an immediate standout even alongside Nowak.
Nowak and Stoichkov appear to be trying to outdo each other, just as they had done on the field for the Fire: Nowak, the Fire's inspiration for its double-winning team (1998 MLS Cup and Open Cup victors), and Stoichkov, one of the all-time greats, taking turns dominating the show. Today, there is a clear mutual respect as Nowak chases down a flick from Stoichkov that runs out of bounds, and Stoichkov looks to find Nowak with the ball whenever he can.
The friendly reunion game ends in penalty kicks; the Fire legends win after Nowak strokes his kick home, and Stoichkov — who had slotted away his — gives the former Polish national team star a giant bear hug.
One Bulgarian fan and his teenage son stop Hristo to sign some autographs, which he dutifully does. "My life is complete now," the fan says. "My son has seen Hristo play."
There was a trophy that seemed to be missing from the celebration the next evening. Neatly lined up on a table were the 1998 MLS Cup, the 1998 U.S. Open Cup, the 2000 U.S. Open Cup, the 2003 U.S. Open Cup, and the 2006 U.S. Open Cup, all won by the Fire after they joined MLS in the 1998 season.
Not on the table — the 2000 MLS Cup.
It wasn't there because Chicago didn't win it. Defeated 1-0 by Kansas City at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., in the MLS Cup final that season, the defeat still visibly rankles with Hristo. "Tony Meola" are the words he mutters darkly when asked about it, and he's right: The American goalkeeper's once-in-a-lifetime performance for Kansas City, with a little help from the woodwork and some poor finishing, kept MLS's highest-scoring team that season from registering a goal.
That defeat was all the more painful for Stoichkov as it came in the presence of his idol and former coach at Barcelona, Johan Cruyff. Peter Wilt, the Fire's general manager at the time, recalls that Hristo proudly escorted Cruyff into the locker room before kickoff to introduce him to head coach Bob Bradley. The Fire players, according to Stoichkov, were "in awe at the greatness of Cruyff."
When he ran suitably inspired onto the field at RFK as part of an attack that the rest of the league had hardly been able to keep at bay all season, he was leaping with energy. Stoichkov certainly did not expect to lose, just as the Cruyff “Dream Team” that Hristo had starred for in the 1990s had never expected to lose. “Unbelievable,” Hristo says again today, and suddenly it becomes bizarrely clear that Meola features in the nightmares of one of the greatest strikers of all time.
There was some bitter-sweet redemption for the Fire and Hristo six days after that defeat: At home at Soldier Field, in what should have been a double-winning clincher but wasn't, the Fire claimed a U.S. Open Cup win over the doomed Miami Fusion. Stoichkov scored the opening goal in a 2-1 win, but for all of Hristo's fist pumps after his goal, the season was defined by the double trophy that got away.
Despite the disappointment, Chicago's 2000 team was among the best in league history, and the Nowak-Stoichkov one-two punch was unstoppable until it ran into Meola's career day. Nowak, Stoichkov, and Chris Armas were all named to MLS's Best XI that season.
This proved to be a high point in Stoichkov's MLS career that he would not reach again. His 10 goals in 21 appearances in the 2000 season equaled the number he would score over his final two years in Chicago, failing to reach another title match in those seasons. After the 2002 season, 36-year-old Stoichkov was traded to DC United in January 2003. His tenure with the United was marred by an incident during a scrimmage when he broke the leg of college player Freddy Angel Llerena-Aspiazu with a wild and dangerous tackle that ended up in a lawsuit settled out of court three years later.
And in Chicago, Stoichkov was soon pelted with loaves of bread. When he returned to the city for the first time in the 2003 season with D.C. United for an MLS game, he was not welcomed with “loaves of bread” — a traditional Slavic greeting. While most Fire fans may have been unaware of this tradition, Stoichkov — in his typically combustible style — made a point of mentioning this to the press following the game. So when D.C. returned to play against his old club a second time, one of the Fire’s supporter groups — allegedly the Mike Ditka Street Crew — brought a duffel bag full of bread into the stadium, and pelted an enraged Stoichkov with the loaves as he left the field, requiring police intervention to prevent a riot from erupting.
Stoichkov then had knee surgery — there's no evidence it was a bread-related injury — and retired after D.C. was knocked out of the 2003 playoffs by the Fire in the first round.
That ignominious end to his career has been largely forgotten, outside of the few who keep the legend of the Great Breading of Aught Three alive.
At the Chicago History Museum, it's Stoichkov's electric 2000 season and all his other accomplishments worldwide that are recalled, and the television cameras flock to him. One Bulgarian journalist gets too close for Hristo's liking, and suddenly there is a melee, the media member soon leaving the building — and later on, filing a charge against Stoichkov with the local police.
Hristo soon had his own say about it in the press. "It was fantastic, one of the top events I have ever attended," Stoichkov told the Bulgarian media the next day. "People in the U.S. want to advance soccer; soccer fields are filling up. We were some of the pioneers and were proud to be honored in such a way. And amidst all this glamour and smiles, someone popped-out barging for an interview. I told him rules exist all over the world and must be obeyed."
"He is dreaming that I hit him," Stoichkov continued. "Some people are so pathetic; they want to use my name to rise to fame. But I will survive it yet one more time. I don't need any glory; I have plenty. And I earned it with such hard work, sweat, and pain that very few can even imagine."
There has been, and always will be, only one Hristo Stoichkov.