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Cannes Market Watch: Stoichkov

By Robert Koehler on May 27, 2012

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A man to match his sport, Bulgarian soccer superstar Hristo Stoichkov is a figure of big passions, and he comes across as reflective and richly engaging in Borislav Kolev’s loving docu-portrait, Stoichkov. A highly skilled and speedy scoring machine who won no less than two Golden Shoes—the most coveted trophy for individual achievement in world soccer—Stoichkov probably deserves a stronger, more artful film than this one. But Kolev’s will do for now, especially since its straight-ahead approach is able to deliver the basics about and essence of the man to fans and non-fans alike, and perhaps even those who wouldn't give soccer the time of day.

Being Bulgarian himself, Kolev is particularly sensitive to the factors at work in Stoichkov’s beginnings in a country that has produced few world-class players. “We dreamed of [soccer] fame as kids,” he notes, “but none of us thought we would make it.” The odds were against it, made even more unlikely given that Stoichkov didn’t come from anything like a privileged background in the communist Bulgaria of the 1960s and ’70s—the sport was the only career option for this avowedly lousy student. “There was no other plan,” he tells Kolev.

And then there’s this: while playing for the CSKA Sofia team, Stoichkov’s run-in with an opposing player caused Bulgarian officials to rule him ineligible for life. Without an eventual reversal of the decision, his name would have drifted into obscurity. But the episode also seemed to mark a turning point. Already the most emotional player you’d likely find in any match he played, Stoichkov doubled down on his determination to win, leading to a stretch from the mid-’80s to the end of the ’90s that is hardly surpassed by any player in soccer history. “He prepared for games,” says one teammate on the Bulgarian national team he played for from 1987 to 1999, “the way other people prepare for a wedding.”

This is when the real fun starts in Stoichkov: montage after montage of Stoichkov scoring against a formidable array of opponents, ranging from Germany and Russia in FIFA Cup matches and on to the glory years as the star of FC Barcelona. The generous array of clips shows his extraordinary ability to out-think opponents while rushing past them, finding holes in defenses near goals that most scorers would never see, and using his scoring foot to direct the ball into the net in an endless range of creative ways.

In one of those endless unresolvable arguments that make sports talk a reason to live, Stoichkov found himself in the ’90s leading what some will always view (though others will strongly disagree) as the greatest pro team in soccer history, as much a “dream team” as the Olympic hoops squad led by Michael Jordan. And as much as MJ still means to Chicago, Stoichkov’s meaning as a hero to fans of Barca, which won the Champions League in 1992, probably surpasses even Jordan’s. For one thing, his endorsement of Catalan independence carried considerable emotional and political weight, as testified here by the verbal pats on the back he receives on camera from former Catalan president Jordi Pujol and “Three Tenors” star José Carreras, whose “Nessun Dorma” becomes this documentary’s affecting musical motif.

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