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The fútbol world gathered in Barcelona last weekend for former D.C. United forward Hristo Stoitchkov’s retirement celebration. The party’s centerpiece was an exhibition match featuring the Bulgarian great and dozens of his ex-teammates and opponents.
While that game was going on, Freddy Llerena was in Germantown, in the middle of a six-hour workout, trying to get his right leg back in playing shape. Since the 4-inch steel plate was removed from below his knee around Christmastime, he’s been spending about that much time every day working with weights and running.
He hopes that someday the leg will be as good as it was before Stoitchkov broke it.
“I don’t have time to get a real job this summer,” says Llerena. “I need to work to get my leg better.”
Llerena’s disastrous run-in with Stoitchkov came last year, when Freddy was an 18-year-old freshman midfielder for the American University soccer team. AU was scrimmaging D.C. United, as part of the pro club’s community-outreach efforts. The most notable point of United’s 2003 preseason had been the signing of Stoitchkov.
Though his acquisition by United went largely unnoticed by the local sporting public, Stoitchkov was in fact one of the more decorated athletes ever to don a uniform in this town. Now 38, he began his career with Maritza, a club in his Bulgarian hometown of Plovdiv. He went on to star for the Spanish power Barcelona from 1990 to 1995, and in 1992, he led the club to its first and only Champions League title, the grandest title in all of European soccer. In 1994, he was awarded the Golden Ball, which goes annually to the top player in Europe.
His brightest moments on the global stage came that same year, when he was the unquestioned star of the World Cup, played in the United States. Stoitchkov scored six goals while leading his native Bulgaria to its first-ever semifinal appearance in the most watched sports event on the planet.
Stoitchkov became the latest in a long line of all-galaxy athletes (Johan Cruyff, Michael Jordan, Jaromir Jagr, and so) who came to D.C. far past their prime and with deteriorated skills. But although Stoitchkov’s game had fallen by the time United got him, he remained a legend to soccer players everywhere—even in Germantown.
The chance to share a field with Stoitchkov was what juiced Llerena the most when he learned that AU had booked the exhibition match with United.
“Oh, he was a hero of mine, for sure,” says Llerena, whose family moved to the Washington area from Ecuador in 1993. “I remember watching the World Cup on TV, watching him make an amazing goal on a free kick, and I’m a 9-year-old kid dreaming to be like him one day. And having the opportunity to play against this person, I thought it was going to be an amazing experience. It turned out to be the opposite.”
In soccer, a scrimmage game is known as a “friendly.” From the opening kickoff at Reeves Field on the AU campus, however, there was nothing about the contest that would warrant that description.
United took a quick 1-0 lead over its collegiate opponent, but at the 10-minute mark American’s Peter Philipakos took a pass in United’s end and began what would be a goal-scoring move. While Philipakos was on his way toward tying the game, Stoitchkov started screaming at the referee to call the play offside, but got no whistle. Stoitchkov, who throughout his career was known as a hothead, continued his tirade with a linesman after the score.
As soon as play was restarted, American intercepted a pass from Stoitchkov, and Llerena got the ball near midfield. That’s when the veteran took a high-speed run at the teenager from behind.
“I saw him coming at me, and I wanted to lift the ball over his head,” says Llerena. “But he jumped into my leg and planted it for me with all his body weight, and kept following through.”
Llerena’s fibia and tibia, two of the biggest bones in the human body, snapped during the tackle and popped through his skin. The referee immediately got out his red card and ejected Stoitchkov from the field.
Like everybody else at the game, Llerena figured he was seriously injured just from the sound of the collision. “When I tried picking up my leg it just flopped, like I had two knees,” he says. “I wish I had gone into shock, not so much because of the pain, but because of the memory of seeing my own bones sticking out.”
When the referee saw the catastrophic wound Stoitchkov had inflicted upon the youngster, he abandoned the match. Todd West, the AU coach, told reporters at the game that the incident was “criminal.” He stands by that assessment.
“It was the worst foul I ever saw at a soccer match,” West says. “I was maybe 15 yards away, so I saw it and heard it. It was criminal.”
Major League Soccer officials didn’t share West’s view. The league’s disciplinary committee began an investigation almost immediately after the incident. After two weeks of reviewing game tapes and interviewing officials and AU and United coaches, the league concluded in its report that Stoitchkov was visibly and audibly upset before taking his dangerous run at Llerena. But they also said they were unable “to determine with any certainty that there was any intent to injure or a reckless disregard for Llerena’s safety.” In a rather contradictory move, Stoitchkov was fined $2,000 and suspended for two games.
Llerena declined to talk to league investigators. He says he has not yet considered taking any legal action against United or Stoitchkov. “I just want to concentrate on recovering,” he says
He had to sit out last season. The plate in his leg made running impossible. He’s recovered most of his speed and stamina since its removal, but not his game.
“I had to give him the ‘tough love’ talk last year,” says West. “The guy I recruited, the guy I had, he was an impact player. He’s not that player now. As a coach, that kills me; as a human being, that kills me.”
Llerena says he used to be a regular at RFK Stadium for D.C. United games, but he hasn’t been to any since the break. Several months after his injury, however, he went to the Maryland Soccer Plex near his Germantown home when he heard that United was scrimmaging there. He now says he’s not sure why he drove over to the practice, but he figures that subconsciously he wanted to confront Stoitchkov and perhaps get an apology from the superstar in person. Stoitchkov didn’t cooperate.
“I walked up to him, but I didn’t say anything,” says Llerena. “I could tell he didn’t even recognize me, and he was confused as to why I was approaching him. I pulled up my pants, and showed him my leg and [he] said, ‘Ohhh!’ like he was saying, So you’re the guy whose leg I broke! I just stayed quiet the whole time. It was very strange. He didn’t say he was sorry.”
Stoitchkov was not re-signed by United for the 2004 season. In February, Stoitchkov joined Barcelona as an assistant coach. He’ll be in charge of the team’s junior players.
West says he’s irked that Stoitchkov didn’t use his big send-off in Spain to mend fences with the player he injured.
“He invited people from all over the world to attend his testimonial,” says West. “I wonder why there was no invitation to Freddy. It wouldn’t have made up for everything, but he could have made a goodwill gesture. That’s very frustrating to me.”
Stoitchkov scored two goals during the friendly in his honor. He didn’t hurt anybody. —Dave McKenna