The friendship between football-mad Prime Minister Boiko Borissov and Hristo Stoichkov, Bulgaria's best football player of all times, appears to be a genuine macho bromance.
Stoichkov, who won five Spanish titles and a European Cup (along with a Ballon d'Or) at Barcelona, brought then-Barcelona president Joan Laporta to meet Borissov, mayor of Sofia at the time, in 2006. Borissov took Stoichkov along to meet Arnold Schwarzenegger, in Sofia to shoot a cameo for The Expendables 2, earlier this year.
At the news conference that followed ruling party GERB's victories in local and presidential elections in October, Stoichkov made his entrance together with Borissov, only one step behind Borissov's second-in-comand Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the Interior Minister, but closer to the limelight than even President-elect Rossen Plevneliev.
So when sports daily Tema Sport reported in November the rumour that Sports Minister Svilen Neikov was interested in stepping down in order to take over as president of the National Sports Academy (NSA), it was only natural that Stoichkov would be at the top of the list of names of potential successors to Neikov.
Speculation that Neikov was looking to switch jobs had been swirling for some weeks, according to reports in Bulgarian media, but he was yet to confirm whether he was interested in the job, which would become available in February, when the second term of current NSA president Luchezar Dimitrov expires.
NSA would hold a general meeting to elect a new president on February 17 and any of the academy's professors is eligible for the job. Neikov, who taught rowing at the academy before his Cabinet appointment in 2009, is eligible. (Incidentally, he is one of the few Bulgarian trainers with notable successes in recent years, coaching his wife Roumyana to a single-sculls gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, the sole gold medal won by a Bulgarian athlete at the Beijing Games).
Stoichkov, for his part, has not had a very busy time in recent years. After quitting as national football team manager in April 2007 to take over at relegation-threatened top division Spanish side Celta Vigo (which were relegated despite a good run of results following Stoichkov's appointment), the former football player still affectionately called "the dagger" by fans and the media has had a pretty dull time hopping from job to job.
He spent about nine months in 2009 and 2010 in charge of Mamelodi Sundowns, South Africa's richest club, failing to deliver the title and proving to be a very divisive figure for both fans and local media.
His latest job, as an adviser to the president of Russian club Rostov, ended with Stoichkov's four-month contract not being renewed in December. Allegedly, Stoichkov's ideas about how to improve operations and the playing staff were too costly for the relegation-threatened Rostov, according to reports.
The latest rumours have Stoichkov acting as a player scout for Bulgarian clubs in Spain. He was sighted on December 13 at the Copa del Rey match between Córdoba and Real Betis, where he allegedly displayed his usual haughty demeanour, refusing to pose for pictures with fans who recognised him, according to comments posted on the website of the Diario Córdoba newspaper.
If Stoichkov's appointment does indeed come to pass, one issue to keep an eye out for is the proposal for an all-new football-only national stadium in Sofia. Stoichkov, lest one forget, did play the part of the fixer in July, arranging a meeting between Cabinet officials and a group of Spanish construction companies, who offered to build three grounds in Bulgaria – the national stadium, another stadium in Sofia and one in Plovdiv – worth a total 450 million euro, in return for the right to build and sell property in the areas near the stadiums, all of them in prime locations in the two cities.
Asked to comment on the issue, Borissov said: "He's an icon of Bulgarian football. The ministerial title is too small for Stoichkov; I don't think he is tempted by it."
Co-operation and synergy between the police, sports organisations, regulatory agencies and the community in general is vital if we want to prevent sport from losing its true meaning and value, Ronald Noble said.
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