The incredible adventures of Romario and Stoichkov in Barcelona

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Bad milk

In March 1995, Stoichkov went on Spanish radio and declared: “It’s Cruyff or me.” The tensions that simmered below the surface were laid bare; in a phrase, Stoichkov had revealed that he was preparing to leave.

The Real Madrid goalkeeper Paco Buyo was quick to try to capitalise. “If it’s true that Cruyff doesn’t want him, and I can’t for the life of me believe it can be, then I will talk to whoever I have to make him join us. I’ll do whatever it takes.” “Stoichkov,” insisted Jorge Valdano, now general director at Real Madrid, “is a predator – a beast who is only satiated by the flesh of his victims.”

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“He is the best forward in the world,” added Carrasco. “He can do everything. He has talent and class, he can run like Carl Lewis, play passes like Ronald Koeman, and finish every bit as well as, or better than, Gary Lineker – and on top of it all, he’s got mala leche.” Mala leche literally means bad milk; it is edge, a fearsome temper, aggression, competitiveness… and a touch of madness.

It is also exactly the point: Cruyff had focused on Stoichkov as much for his temperament as his talent. “I could talk about Stoichkov forever. He came to Barcelona because we needed him,” Cruyff recalled. “He had speed, finishing and character. We had too many nice guys, we needed someone with mala leche.”

Stoichkov had it in urn-loads. During his first ever game against Real Madrid, he was sent off for stamping on the ref, an act that earned him a six-month ban, later reduced to two. Another red card came for two yellow cards – just six minutes into a game. During a pre-season friendly, another ref approached the Barcelona bench to warn Cruyff: “Either calm that bull down or I’ll send him back to the corral.” Cruyff replied: “What am I supposed to do?”

He was, recalls the man who received the infamous stamp, “an angel off the pitch but the devil himself on it”. “If he’d been an actor, Stoichkov could have been Mel Gibson in Mad Max, Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven or Harrison Ford in Blade Runner,” noted one Catalan columnist – and the fans loved him for it.

It was his character that made him such a hit; the ability to embrace barcelonismo; the fact that he lived every match so intensely, that he boasted a hatred of Real Madrid so visceral, so public, that he kicked a seven-year-old boy out of training once when in charge of the Bulgarian national team because he turned up in a Madrid shirt. “Every game against Madrid was life and death for me,” he says, “the injustices of the past [against Barcelona] became mine, too.”

La Vanguardia hit the nail on the head when it declared: “We’re all Stoichkov; his story could be the story of the millions of Barcelona fans who are transformed when they come to the Camp Nou.”  

During a pre-season friendly, another ref approached the Barcelona bench to warn Cruyff: ‘Either calm that bull down or I’ll send him back to the corral’

Covered in Vaseline

Romario’s charms were different. With his wide hips, big, low-slung backside and powerful thighs, he was unique; electric, precise, utterly unpredictable. No one had ever seen a player like him. Technically impeccable, in small spaces he was unstoppable. He did things that appeared barely plausible and had never been seen before - from back-heels, to flicks, to incredibly delicate lobs known in Spain as vaselinas. Valdano famously described him as a “cartoon footballer”. “He is a juggler, a magician, a penalty area artist, a virtuoso,” cheered the Catalan daily Sport. “He does what others can’t – and does it with alarming ease.”

“I always regretted not wearing a hat so that I could take it off to him after he left the Osasuna goalkeeper covered in vaseline and solitude,” wrote the intellectual Manuel Vazquez Montalban. “He has feet as sensitive and soft as Dalí’s clocks. His finishing should provoke ridicule and hatred in goalkeepers but Romario inspires a kind of religious feeling instead. It would not surprise me if goalkeepers carried a notebook and pen around with them so that they could ask him for an autograph after every goal. He bends space and time. We have been lucky enough to see him out on the turf and unlucky enough not to have a poet like William Wordsworth around to describe him.”

Not that Stoichkov was overly impressed. When Barcelona signed Romario from PSV, the Bulgarian made his feelings perfectly clear in the media; league rules meant that only three foreigners could play at any one time and Barça already had Stoichkov, Koeman and Laudrup. “Signing a fourth foreigner is plain stupid,” Stoichkov snapped, “but if the board think it is absolutely necessary and they asked for my opinion I would tell them to sign [Bulgarian Lubo] Penev. How much does Romario cost? 600m Pesetas? I’d take 200m from my own pocket and sign Penev.”

Hristo Stoichkov, Diego Maradona

Hristo and Diego: image an argument between these two

It was classic Stoichkov; blustering, outspoken, emotional. It also threatened to cause problems - especially with Romario, a man who came with a reputation that he didn’t hide. “If saying things to people’s faces and saying what I think without holding my tongue, if having a strong character and not accepting impositions is controversial,” Romario told the Spanish media, “then yes I am controversial.”

It appeared set for a disaster. Romario and Stoichkov were contrasting personalities but, in Cruyff’s words, had the “same problem”: they both thought that the team was there to serve them, not the other way round. “They constantly battled to see who would get more goals,” remembers the former Barcelona director Josep María Minguella, who represented both players.

When Stoichkov was on the bench he could start a fight with his own shadow. And when Hristo’s angry, he’s dangerous

- Former team-mate

Neither could take being left out. “When Stoichkov was on the bench,” one team-mate recalls, “he could start a fight with his own shadow. And when Hristo’s angry, he’s dangerous.” “Hristo was peculiar,” says Minguella. Another team-mate describes him simply as “a bit dense”.

“I remember one time that Romario was left out and I couldn’t even talk to him, he was in such a funk,” remembers Stoichkov. The problem was that being left out was inevitable. With four foreigners in his squad – and four brilliant foreigners too – Cruyff adopted a rotation policy that satisfied no one, the front two least of all.