It was the first match since being comprehensively beaten 4-0 by Fabio Capello’s Milan side in the Champions League final. A star-studded Barcelona showed up at Oosterpark Stadion in Groningen to face the locals in a pre-season friendly, but already before half-time there were flashbacks of that night in Athens as Groningen took a 4-0 lead.

Barça eventually managed to claw back and secure a comical 5-5 draw, but the most noteworthy event of that match was a debut double by a new signing Gheorghe Hagi. His first, a header, was particularly significant, not just because of the Romanian’s short frame, but that the cross came from another Eastern European, Hristo Stoichkov.

It is incredible that these two footballers were team-mates, albeit only for a short time, especially considering the similarity of their impact on world football. In 1994 Stoichkov and Hagi had opened up the world’s eyes to Balkan football as Bulgaria and Romania achieved extraordinary success at that year’s FIFA World Cup. The two have, therefore, often been put in the same bracket, much like this article attempts to do, due to the undeniable similarity of their stories, but the truth is that they travelled along two different paths on and off the pitch.

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Hristo Stoichkov, full name Христо Стоичков Стоичков (yes, Stoichkov Stoichkov), began his professional career at two small clubs in south-eastern Bulgaria, impressing at an early age, before being noticed and picked up by CSKA Sofia, Bulgaria’s most accomplished club at 18.

Gheorghe Hagi, no localisation required, started along a similar road, although he was almost 22 before joining Romanian giants Steaua Bucharest. He had already inspired FC Sportul Studenţesc to a record runners-up finish in the league and scored ten goals along the way.

Both players burst onto the scene with an inevitable bang. Stoichkov’s first season at CSKA was almost his last after the irascible forward was given a lifetime ban by the Bulgarian FA. This was after CSKA faced their local rivals Levski Sofia in a farcical cup final, marred by severe violence and leading to the disbandment of both clubs. The punishments were subsequently abated and Stoichkov, nicknamed ‘The Dagger’, returned to the pitch only a few months later.

Hagi’s path was slightly more traditional in a footballing sense, but no less remarkable. After establishing himself as a standout player in the Romanian leagues, especially with Sportul Studenţesc, Steaua Bucharest came calling with a strange request. The European Cup champions were about to face Dynamo Kyiv in the European Super Cup and thus ‘borrowed’ the 21-year-old Hagi on a single match contract; a common practice by Steaua at the time. The pint-sized playmaker did not disappoint, scoring the only goal of the match from a free-kick, securing Steaua their second European trophy.

Understandably, Steaua were keen to hold on to this precocious footballer and informed Sportul that he would now be plying his trade at the Ghencea, much to the distress of their neighbours. Any suggestions of a transfer fee were reportedly dismissed out of hand. Such was the power – and autocracy – of the state supported club in Romania in the Nicolae Ceaușescu era that Steaua could allow themselves to disregard the needs of “lesser” clubs in the league.

Unfortunately for the stars of the team like Hagi, the going was not quite as easy. Having proved his qualities with Sportul and now Steaua, the playmaker was justifiably being linked to some of Europe’s more traditional powerhouses. Hagi, now known as ‘The King’ in Romania, was, according to reports, blocked from a move to AC Milan on several occasions, as the powers that be in Romania at the time were reluctant to let him out of their grasp. The story goes that Juventus president Gianni Agnelli even offered to construct a FIAT factory in Romania in exchange for the Steaua star.

Stoichkov’s foreign exploits were similarly delayed by Bulgaria’s draconian system during communist rule in the country. Indeed, footballers were banned from moving abroad before the age of 28, blocking the careers of many players in the country. Two international players were poised to join Porto in 1985 but the Bulgarian FA unceremoniously tore up their pre-contractual agreements.

Both players, therefore, continued playing at CSKA Sofia and Steaua Bucharest respectively, and both continued to dominate their corresponding leagues. Hagi was a linchpin in the Steaua side which went an astounding 104 matches unbeaten in domestic competitions, as well as reaching the 1989 European Cup final, losing out to Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan.

Stoichkov, meanwhile, tortured Bulgarian goalkeepers with his increasingly deadly finishing. He amassed three league titles and four cup triumphs during his stay in the Bulgarian capital, also inspiring CSKA (or CFKA Sredetz as they were known at the time) to a European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final, before being eliminated by Barcelona. His career in Sofia then culminated in him sharing the European Golden Boot with Real Madrid legend Hugo Sánchez in 1990.

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Read  |  Gheorghe Hagi: the master of fantasy

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The year 1990 represented a watershed for both Stoichkov and Hagi. Indeed, it was the beginning of fairly large transformation of football in Europe. Romania qualified for the World Cup in Italy at the expense of Bulgaria, but only managed a run to the round of 16. Hagi was lauded for his performances, but the side ultimately came up short against the solid defence of the Irish. This wasn’t to be either players’ World Cup.

More importantly, however, was that this was the year when both finally had moves abroad sanctioned by their respective clubs. Transfers for players of such quality and calibre were always going to be massive ones, and thus both players moved to the two giants of Spanish football.

Characteristically, Stoichkov’s spell with the Blaugrana was thick with controversy and goals. The Bulgarian’s career in Barcelona started off slowly, and when he was suspended for two months early on for stamping on a referee’s foot, the signing was criticised on several fronts. Despite the suspension, he still managed an impressive 14 goals in the league, as well as another six in European competitions.

He would go on and become one of Barcelona’s – and Europe’s – best players; especially after the arrival of Romário, with whom he combined to make a Godly partnership.

During his reign in Catalonia, Stoichkov was instrumental in Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team, winning four La Liga titles and one Champions League title. It proved to be Stoichkov’s peak in football, but there was trouble in paradise. Barcelona were forced to rotate between their four foreigners and Stoichkov occasionally found himself on the bench, something which infuriated him. Journalist Sid Lowe revealed a quote from a team-mate at the time: “When Hristo was on the bench he could start a fight with his own shadow and when Hristo’s angry, he’s dangerous.”

Hagi, on the other hand, did not adapt as well to life abroad on the pitch. After the World Cup showing, Real Madrid were more than happy to splurge over $4 million on the Romanian magician. The move, unfortunately, did not work out for him and he publicly clashed with his manager John Toshack.

Real Madrid were going through a tumultuous period and employed four managers during Hagi’s stay in the Spanish capital, winning only one Supercopa. Although he improved in the second season under Radomir Antić and Leo Beenhakker, scoring 12 goals, Real Madrid lost out on the title on the final day of the season, and Hagi bid farewell. “It’s hard to lose like that, but it made me understand that my destiny was not with Real,” he remarked at the end of a two-year spell.

Surprisingly, Hagi chose to continue his career in Italy with Brescia, with Romanian manager Mircea Lucescu being a decisive factor in his decision. Despite the Romanian contingent, Hagi again failed to find his feet and even suffered the indignation of relegation in his debut season in Italian football.

Right before the World Cup in 1994 his manager, fed up with his off-field antics and flaccid performances, commented that: “Hagi could have been the best player in the world after Maradona, but he is a great player without a work ethic,” adding that “this World Cup is the last chance for him to be seen as a great player.”

Right before the World Cup in the United States, both players were at an impasse, having spent most of their reputational capital through their on and off field antics, but still at the peak of their powers.

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Read  |  When God was Bulgarian

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Romania, having shown glimpses of brilliance back in 1990, were feeling confident going into the tournament. Having been almost exclusively made up of domestic players four years earlier, the core of the team had moved on to a much bigger stage at clubs including Valencia, Milan, PSV and Bayer Leverkusen. Hagi was, of course, buoyant ahead of the tournament: “We have played extremely well for the past two years,” he told reporters. “The atmosphere is like that of a family.”

Bulgaria, however, had not participated in a World Cup since 1986 and were ready to make an impression. Their squad was equally diversified with their star players now plying their trade in Porto, Barcelona, Hamburg and Rennes. They also came into the tournament with confidence after famously eliminating France on the final match-day of qualifying.

While neither team would win silverware, they won the hearts of millions. Hagi started early with a ridiculous cross-cum-shot (his intentions are still debated to this day) against Colombia, as well as setting up Romania’s other two goals. He scored would score two more that summer as Romania played scintillating football. They managed to beat Argentina in the knockout rounds, before finally being eliminated on penalties by Sweden in the quarter-finals.

In typical magnanimous fashion, Hagi later claimed: “I think we were unlucky to lose when we did, as at that moment, I was the best player in the tournament. After we left, I lost that position.”

A strong call to Hagi’s self-proclaimed throne was Stoichkov. Many would have been forgiven for writing Bulgaria off right at the beginning of the tournament, however, when they were thrashed by a strong Nigerian side 3-0. A Stoichkov-inspired 4-0 stuffing of Greece reignited the hope, and a magnificent win over Argentina secured Bulgaria second place in the group, with Stoichkov scoring the first goal. Knocking out Mexico soon after, courtesy of a left-footed rocket from the Barça forward, was a clear signal that this Bulgarian team was here to take on the big boys.

The best was yet to come. Over 71,000 fans had come to see world champions Germany take on the Bulgarians in a real David versus Goliath battle. Having never secured a win in their previous World Cup exploits, Stoichkov’s Bulgaria had reached unfathomable heights in the United States, but were now up against one of the football’s most feared national sides. And when Lothar Matthäus put the Germans ahead early in the second half, the fairy-tale seemed to be over.

Not to be outdone, Stoichkov created a free-kick situation for himself outside the Germany box and levelled the game with a beautiful strike, sending the footballing world into chaos. An historic diving header from Yordan Letchkov just minutes later proved to be the winner as Bulgaria achieved the unthinkable and sauntered into the semi-finals. Stoichkov subsequently called it “a pretty easy win” and proclaimed that “God is Bulgarian”.

Stoichkov’s penalty in the semis wasn’t enough to secure a win against Italy and they were finally overcome, although the Bulgarians felt aggrieved over not being awarded a second penalty. The angry forward added to his previous statement saying, “God was still on our side, but remember the referee was French.” The subsequent loss to Sweden in the bronze match felt inevitable.

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Read  |  The unlikely success story of Gheorghe Hagi at Brescia

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The World Cup heralded a new age. For one, it was awarded to footballing minnows America, sparking worldwide outrage. One journalist compared the decision to “holding a major skiing competition in an African country”. It was also a massive boost in the evolution televised football. More than 30 billion cumulative viewers watched the tournament, and around two billion watched the final. With major national leagues such as the English Premier League, Serie A and La Liga exploding onto the international stage, people could now watch all international football from their living rooms.

While some had been introduced to Hagi and Stoichkov during their domestic campaigns and subsequent European exploits with Steaua and CSKA, most Western European fans will have been pleasantly surprised to see two mercurial playmakers emerge from the rubble of communism in the east. During the early 1990s, European fans will have been enthralled by Stoichkov and intrigued by Hagi, but the World Cup would bring these volatile geniuses to a whole new spotlight.

Stoichkov ended the tournament with six goals and shared the Golden Boot with Oleg Salenko of Russia. Hagi, despite being knocked out earlier, still managed three, as well as showing incredible skill to vow the worldwide audience. This form was enough to convince Barcelona to bring the Romanian captain to Spain, uniting him with Stoichkov for, on paper at least, what should have been the most dynamic duo of their time.

Unfortunately, Hagi never managed to consistently show his World Cup form in the Catalan capital. Stoichkov, despite winning the Ballon d’Or in 1994, had caused enough friction between himself and the management to convince Cruyff to offload him to Parma in 1995. Hagi only lasted one more season.

Their paths diverged yet again – and quite considerably. The Bulgarian had mixed success at Parma and returned to Barcelona after just one year, but it wasn’t to be. Stoichkov, over the last years of his career, joined clubs in Saudi Arabia, Japan and America, but never achieved the dizzying heights of his Dream Team days.

Hagi, on the other hand, finally found a home outside of Bucharest. In another surprising move, he joined Istanbul side Galatasaray and continued to become a club legend. During a five-year career in Turkey he won four league titles, finding his goal-scoring touch again as well as commanding the pitch.

At the ripe-old age of 35, he guided Galatasaray to every title available, including a UEFA Cup win. Hagi, not having lost any of his fire, was sent off in the final for punching Tony Adams. The man nicknamed the ‘Maradona of the Carpathians’ then deservedly finished off his career with an extraordinary European Super Cup win over his old team Real Madrid.

While both players had very different careers, they tend to be bunched up together. This is for the simple reason that these wonderful talents opened up an entirely new world to football fans everywhere. They were the first, and arguably the greatest, players to emerge from the other side of the Iron Curtain, with such a furore that forced everyone to sit up and take notice.

Their genius was only matched by their polemic natures, with many bridges burnt throughout their careers. The debates rage on far past their retirement, over which one was the best, over which goals they meant, and regarding their various outbursts. What matters most, however, is that their impact is without question, at home and abroad.

By Tryggvi Kristjánsson. Follow @DrHahntastic