Stoichkov: Bulgaria's blessing
There are some World Cup legends that made an impact in many different tournaments. Some only needed one to elevate themselves to a similar status and Bulgaria's Hristo Stoichkov is one of them.
Stoichkov is now viewed in the same breath as Georgi Asparuhov in his homeland and few have come close to emulating his achievements since - with Manchester United's Dimitar Berbatov the closest of the current breed so far.
The forward started his career at CSKA Sofia, but soon drew the attention of Barcelona when he won the European Golden Boot and made the move to Spain in 1990 after the lifting of the rule that prevented Bulgarians leaving for foreign clubs before the age of 28.
With a reputation as a lethal attacker, but also a trouble-maker, preceding him, Stoichkov won four straight league championships and a European Cup (1992) during his time at Camp Nou as a part of Johan Cruyff's 'Dream Team'.
He achieved iconic status at Barca thanks, in part, to his explosive pace and cunning movement, but his explosive personality also earned him headlines and he was suspended for two months in his first season at the club for stamping on a referee's foot.
By the time the World Cup rolled around, Stoichkov's stock was at its highest and that year he would pick up the European Footballer of the Year award. After one of the most important moments in the history of Bulgarian football - when Emil Kostadinov scored two goals against France in Paris on November 17, 1993 to seal their progress to USA '94 - Stoichkov would get his chance to perform on the world stage for the first time.
Arriving on the scene after Bulgaria's success in progressing to the Second Round in Mexico '86 (despite not winning a game and being beaten by the hosts), Stoichkov had not been able to inspire his side to Italia '90, but four years later, his time would come.
Under the management of Dimitar Penev, Bulgaria rose to their greatest ever achievement in international football as they finished in fourth place - led by Stoichkov. The side were not given much of a chance before the tournament and a 3-0 drubbing by a Daniel Amokachi-inspired Nigeria on their opening day in Dallas appeared to confirm to their critics that they would not challenge the likes of Argentina or Greece in Group D.
However, with the ominous distinction of having never before won a World Cup match laid to rest in a 4-0 demolition of the Greeks in the following game, the country would turn to Stoichkov for further inspiration. His double in Chicago had laid the foundations for their debut victory before Yordan Letchkov and Daniel Borimirov sealed the win and his inspiration would also see them through a must-win game against Argentina.
Racing through to poke home a long through-ball, Stoichkov gave his side the lead and, against a side shorn of the talent of Diego Maradona (due to his failed drug test), Bulgaria dominated despite the dismissal of defender Tzanko Tzvetanov soon after and a 2-0 win was sealed with a last-minute goal by veteran striker Nasko Sirakov. Only a late Amokachi goal for Nigeria in their final game with Greece prevented Bulgaria from topping the group.
With progression to the second round assured, Bulgaria faced up against '86 tormentors Mexico in searing heat. Again it was Stoichkov who led the line and scored a thunderbolt breakaway goal after just six minutes from a great through ball by Borimirov. The Mexicans would hit back to force a penalty shoot-out, but Stoichkov wasn't even needed as his opponents missed their first three kicks to gift Penev's side a place in the quarter-finals.
Saving his best for the next match with Germany, Stoichkov delivered a trademark free kick from just outside the box, curled with perfection into the top left corner of the net past Bodo Illgner, to give his side an equaliser and they never looked back. The flashing bald head of Letchkov took the headlines as he powered the winner past the holders, but Stoichkov's influence was majestic and the fans' cries of 'BULGARI UNATZI' (roughly translated as Bulgaria united!) after the game were reportedly misconstrued by the Germans as an attack on their political past.
Before the semi-final with Italy, Azzurri boss Arrigo Sacchi was asked how he intended to combat the threat of the irrepressible Stoichkov. His reply was probably only half in jest, as he said: "I don't know, maybe with a pistol."
As it turned out, all he would need was a double from Roberto Baggio and the help of a French referee who missed a blatant penalty for the Bulgarians in the second half, once Stoichkov had netted an earlier spot-kick to get them back in the game. The penalty was enough to ensure Stoichkov's place in history as a Golden Boot winner - tied with Russian Oleg Salenko - but Bulgaria went out in the last four and were then humiliated by Sweden 4-0 in the third-place play-off.
Having left his indelible mark on the tournament, Stoichkov was unable to recreate the success of 'the Golden Generation' in the following years.
Despite arriving at the European Championships for the first time in their history in 1996, Stoichkov's three goals in three games failed to get the Bulgarians through the group stage and, at the 1998 World Cup in France their light had faded.
One goal, one point and finishing bottom of their group ensured that Bulgaria's last World Cup appearance was not a happy one. Stoichkov retired soon after with a record of 37 goals in 83 appearances, but he will go down in World Cup history as the man who lifted the underdogs to unprecedented levels in 1994 and held the hopes of a nation on his shoulders.