The incredible adventures of Romario and Stoichkov in Barcelona
It appeared a recipe for disaster. And yet, oddly, Romario and Stoichkov became the best of friends. “Romario basically never spoke to anyone in the squad,” one team-mate recalls, “he did his own thing on his own terms all the time.” The one person he did speak to was Stoichkov. “It seems bizarre and I ask myself even now how it was possible,” Stoichkov says. “He was introverted and I was the reverse. He likes to sleep, I like to live. We were night and day. But we became good friends right from the start. We were inseparable.”
Their kids attended the same school, their wives, Monica and Mariana, became best friends. They protected each other; when Romario got a red card for punching Diego Simeone, Stoichkov admiringly remarked: “It was worthy of Mike Tyson.”
And Stoichkov knew a thing or two about punching people. He even did so in defence of Romario’s honour. The Brazilian was in Rio on international duty when his wife gave birth to a baby boy imaginatively named Romarinho. He was determined not catch a first glimpse of his son through the media and appealed for journalists not to get too near. Stoichkov played Romarinho’s bouncer to make sure of it - and one photographer at the hospital got a Bulgarian right hook for his trouble.
When Romario arrived – “two flights late, which was typical Romi”, as Stoichkov recalls – it was the Bulgarian who collected him from the airport and took him to the hospital. When Romario found out his father had been kidnapped, it was Stoichkov he was with and who offered support. When he found out that his father had been liberated it was Stoichkov he smothered in relieved kisses. And when it came to chose a Godfather for his son, it was Stoichkov who was the obvious choice.
Together, they were a devastating partnership on the pitch too: “Hristo enjoyed that year with Romario more than any other,” says Minguella. The goals are a testament to that. So too the league title and some of the most glorious nights in Barcelona’s history, none more so than a 5-0 win over Real Madrid in which Romario scored a hat-trick and produced a play that, Stoichkov insisted afterwards, “would go down in history”.
He was right. Turning almost a full circle, Romario dragged the ball with him, his foot never losing contact with the leather, pulling it across the floor, gliding like a bowling ball on a varnished lane, before finishing. No one had ever seen it before; it became known as the cola de vaca – the cow’s tail, forever associated with the Brazilian.
“I have never known a player able to do the things in the area that he did,” Stoichkov recalls. From that day on, Barcelona were unstoppable. They collected 28 of their final 30 points to win the league after Miroslav Djukic missed a last-minute penalty for challengers Deportivo de La Coruna on the final day. Barcelona’s cracks had done it again. “We silenced those who said the Dream Team was dead,” Stoichkov declared.
Not so fast
In fact, the critics were right. Other cracks were appearing – both for the club and their dynamic duo. Defeat in Athens was humiliating and unexpected but it was not an accident.
Cruyff’s rotation policy had angered men as mild-mannered as Michael Laudrup and Ronald Koeman, even if the results were often spectacular. Stoichkov missed four Champions League games and was subbed in 15 of his 30 league games. The fact that it is Stoichkov himself who points that out says it all. Laudrup missed the European Cup final.
Worse were Cruyff’s public attacks on them. “When we win it’s down to Cruyff, when we lose it’s the players’ fault,” Stoichkov snapped. Goalkeeper Zubizarreta was told he wouldn’t continue; Laudrup decided he couldn’t continue.
Meanwhile, Stoichkov was growing increasingly concerned by Romario’s lifestyle and the company he kept. “People came between us and I tried to warn him,” Stoichkov says. Romario resented the intrusion. He had ignored Stoichkov’s advice and decided to stay in a suite on the 17th floor of the Hotel Reina Sofia rather than move into a house next door. Later, he moved to a hotel in Sitges but kept his room at the Princesa Sofia (for, said the gossips, his mistresses). The wives remained close friends but the footballers drifted apart; Stoichkov sided with Mrs Romario more than Mr.
People came between us and I tried to warn him
“Romario’s lifestyle, his constant coming and going caused problems with his wife,” Stoichkov recalls, rather euphemistically. The Brazilian was teetotal but had other vices. A team-mate puts it bluntly: “Romario was only interested in two things: football and fucking.” A few years later, Romario insisted: “If I don’t go out at night, I don’t score goals.”
Increasingly, he appeared not to be that interested in the football. One former Barcelona player recalls training sessions when the Brazilian “could hardly move” and was “practically falling asleep” after the previous night’s exertions. Cruyff sent him home from one session and had another confrontation with the Brazilian after he overslept and arrived an hour late to a team meeting. Cruyff had warned that Romario’s attitude in Holland used to be one of “If I don’t want to train, I won’t train”.
Used to be? Still was. “He lacked discipline,” a resigned Cruyff later admitted. Romario didn’t care. “It’s not the first time I’ve had an argument with Cruyff and it won’t be the last: I say what I think and no one will ever change me,” he said.
One night Romario was caught with a girl. A week later she was on the front cover of the magazine Interviu. A charitable soul pushed a copy under his hotel room door. The first person to see it was Romario’s wife. “Romario’s skill on the pitch was in lying with his body,” Valdano says, “in the end it was his undoing off it too: he lied to his president to go off with two blondes.” For Stoichkov the magazine under the door summed it up: “Someone had,” the Bulgarian insists, “taken advantage of their ‘friendship’ with Romi and sold him out.”