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An Entirely Different Game

A former Bulgarian soccer star has been making headlines for getting up on his soapbox about Catalonia’s independence. 

by Boyko Vassilev 27 October 2017

Somebody else’s crisis always looks like a crisis you have more or less already known. When trying to grasp Catalonia’s issues with Madrid over independence, Serbs think about Kosovo, Ukrainians about Crimea, and Bulgarians… they think about Hristo Stoichkov.


If Stoichkov’s name does not ring a bell, that shows that you know nothing about football (soccer), or at least that you missed its developments in the 1990s. Meet the famous number 8 of CSKA Sofia and FC Barcelona; a player on the team that won the Spain championship title four times in a row (1991-1994); winner of the prestigious football award Ballon d’Or (Golden Ball) in 1994 for the best player in Europe; the top European scorer in 1990 and at the 1994 World Championship that was held in the United States. At the latter event, he was instrumental in helping Bulgaria secure an unthinkable final ranking as fourth-best football team in the world – just like he had been instrumental in Barcelona’s climb to the top of the European football pantheon two years earlier.


Stoichkov was successful not just because of his bombarding left foot and his amazing velocity. He also had a thorny character, a secure path to media fame. Short-tempered, sharp-tongued, and even rude at times, he was often sent off pitch for being aggressive to the referee. Stoichkov would often argue with other players, sometimes even with those from his own team. He just took the game too literally, even off the field. While in Bulgaria, he ardently and publically expressed his dislike for everything that had to do with CSKA’s archenemy, Levski Sofia. When he was in Barcelona his wrath was reserved for Real Madrid.


Real versus Barcelona: this is not just a football feud. Real, the “King’s Club,” was Fascist dictator Francisco Franco’s darling – and now, in a democracy, it draws supporters that are mainly right-of-center and stand for Spanish nationalism. FC Barcelona is at the opposite pole, and its fans embrace a rather leftist ideology, along with a predominantly Catalan nationalism, often associated with Catalan independence. Take one of Barcelona’s biggest stars, Colombian singer Shakira’s boyfriend Gerard Pique. His pro-independence outbursts have earned him applause from Barcelona and whistles from Madrid.


Upon Stoichkov’s transfer to FC Barcelona in 1990, he was immediately immersed into that kind of atmosphere – and went to great lengths to fit in. The Bulgarian became an ardent Catalan patriot. On the field he turned the games against Real into a matter of life and death, with the zeal of a bullfighter. Out in public, he made vitriolic remarks about Real Madrid, some of them risking to degenerate into a scandal. The football player befriended Catalan politician Jordi Pujol, a former president of the Generalitat de Catalunya, the regional government, with a mixed reputation (Pujol later became embroiled in corruption scandals). One reinforced the other’s pro-independence vigor.


That’s why Catalans just loved Stoichkov, whom they called “Stoykov.” Barcelona has had many foreign stars, but few of them were so “catalonized” to align so well with the longings of the crowd. Twenty-two years after he left the club, he is still a personality here. If you mention his name to a Catalan, you can expect torrents of praise. Unsurprisingly, he still has a house and a business in Barcelona. And not coincidentally, the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed him honorary consul of Bulgaria in Barcelona back in 2011.


Enter the 2017 autumn crisis. Many could stay away from it, but not Hristo Stoichkov. Working for a Mexican television station, he used his screen time to make a statement denouncing the actions of the police in Barcelona during the banned independence referendum. The former star personally addressed Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamariia, in a way that was typical Stoichkov: “Her grandfather was a Franco supporter. Her father was a Franco supporter. She is a supporter as well, and her son is, too.”


The response was, as expected, swift. Saenz de Santamaria said she would sue him. Experts noted that the comments about her family were not entirely correct, and that her son was just six. Bulgaria released him from his duties as honorary consul because he had clearly overshot his goal this time. Stoichkov apologized for the things he said about the deputy prime minister’ son, and downplayed the consul thing, saying “My mandate has ended anyway” (though it should be noted that honorary consuls do not have mandates). Yet he was still defiant: “I have only one question for the deputy prime minister: Why were the people of Barcelona maltreated and beaten up?” 


All this fuss stirred up too many passions and too little understanding. If Bulgarians were to draw a moral from the story, it would be that politics should be equated with the mood in a stadium: “we” against “them.” Everything blends into a hangover-inducing cocktail of emotions, half-truths, and semi-facts. The only ones who seem to benefit are the separatists, along with Hristo Stoichkov’s popularity in Barcelona.


Once morning brings sobriety, Bulgarians should understand that Catalonia’s independence carries only negative consequences for them. It would weaken the EU, embolden Europe’s enemies, and strengthen would-be separatists elsewhere, including in the Balkans. To sum it up, Catalonia is neither Kosovo, nor Crimea, and least of all a football match.


The passion of Stoykov and his supporters should remain on the field field, where the scorer has made a fantastic contribution as an ambassador for modern Bulgaria. Politics is another game. 

Boyko Vassilev 
is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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