WORLD CUP USA '94 / QUARTERFINALS : COMMENTARY : Stoitchkov Has His Act Together

TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

Soccer hero Hristo Stoitchkov of Bulgaria was destined to come to Hollywood. For a man whose first name translates to "Christ" in Bulgarian, it will be a match made in heaven.

Stoitchkov, you see, is not only a world-class player and a driving force behind his team's stunning march into the semifinals of the World Cup. He is also prime star material, with a face that could play nicely on the silver screen and an act that could do the same on the cocktail party circuit.

Stoitchkov will be arriving on the West Coast this week, after he and his band of Bulgarians settle the issue against Italy here Wednesday of who plays in the final Sunday and who is in the third-place game Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Whatever the outcome, Stoitchkov will be coming, and it's conceivable that the greeting party at LAX will include somebody from the William Morris Agency.

If Stoitchkov played tennis, he would be Andre Agassi. Right now, his image may not be everything, but it is heading toward matinee idol.

He is 28 years old, one of two star scorers for FC Barcelona of the Spanish League--the other is Brazil's Romario--and was runner-up in 1992 for European player of the year. Barcelona bought him four years ago for $4 million, and the price to acquire him now would be perhaps triple that.

Even with all that going for him, his role in Bulgaria's shocking success in the World Cup has elevated him to international sports superstar status. The Bulgarians seemed to be headed for a tidy 1-0 defeat at the hands of the powerful defending champion Germans here Sunday. As always, Germany played efficiently, if unspectacularly, and Bulgaria's runs up and down the field seemed to be merely the chase of an unrealistic dream.

But then Stoitchkov, awarded a direct free kick just outside the penalty area when Andreas Moeller fouled him, cranked a left-footed shot over Germany's wall and inside the near post in the 76th minute. Three minutes later, before the shocked Germans had recovered, Bulgaria's Yordan Letchkov took a perfect pass and headed in another goal. Suddenly, the biggest upset of the tournament, and one of the biggest ever, had been achieved.

And who was front and center on the stage afterward? Stoitchkov, of course.

He met the press in baseball cap and smile, dark eyes darting about, rugged unshaved look intact. He kidded about his quote after the Mexico game in which he had said that God was a Bulgarian, and he said that, even though the Germans were a very good team, that God still was a Bulgarian. And he said, sincerity oozing, that when things were going badly in the first half and the Germans were dominating, he thought about his daughter Mijaela's sixth birthday Sunday and remembered the good times with her and his family in Barcelona.

In victory, Stoitchkov was gracious.

When asked about the yellow card he received over a foul, he said, "The referee was right. I tried to argue, but I realized that he is the referee and he has the right to make that decision."

When asked about the game-long marking efforts of Germany's Juergen Kohler, he replied, "I think Kohler is one of the best defenders in all of football, and I would like to congratulate him because, in 90 minutes, he only made one small foul on me."

But with Stoitchkov, the image being presented and reality aren't always quite the same.

Banned for life by the Bulgarians at age 19 for his part in a brawl during the Bulgarian Cup final, Stoitchkov was paroled quickly and has had a long history of confrontations with referees ever since. Two years ago, he stomped so hard on a referee's foot that it brought on a two-month ban from the Spanish League.

In Sunday's game, Kohler actually did such a solid job of guarding Stoitchkov one-on-one that Stoitchkov's only three chances at the goal were on free kicks. The statistics sheet showed Stoitchkov with no other chances, inside or outside the penalty area. Kohler's defense was so effective that Stoitchkov jawed and yelled at him frequently and spent much of the game crabbing openly at his teammates for not getting him the ball more.

But when it was over, Stoitchkov led the team in hugs. When they somehow gathered up the delirious Bulgarians for an on-field group celebration shot, Stoitchkov was second-row center, arms raised in celebration. Finally, the Bulgarians marched off, and Stoitchkov led again, arm in arm with the same teammates he had spent three hours berating.

Hollywood will love this guy.

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