THROUGHOUT his battle with leukaemia, Stiliyan Petrov has kept a tight rein on his emotions. He will have trouble doing so on Sunday, however, when he returns to Celtic Park.
Some 55,000 fans will be there for a charity match between a Celtic XI and a Petrov XI, and some of the most celebrated names in football have offered their services. There are those with a strong Celtic connection, of course, including most of the team from the 2003 Uefa Cup final in Seville, but also others, such as John Terry, who have played against Petrov in England.
The Bulgarian, now 34, has always had fond memories of the place that was his home ground for seven years from 1999. This time he will be the centre of so much affection and attention that he knows he may be overcome.
“It’s emotional knowing how many people will be there,” Petrov said yesterday. “I’ve been asked how I’m going to react and I don’t really want to think about that.
“I hope I don’t cry. I haven’t cried all through these hard times, so if I start crying I might not stop – so I’d better not start.
“It will be emotional being out there playing again. I’m not going to lie, I’ve missed it here – I had a great seven years here and so many great nights. I enjoyed playing in front of those fans so much in this stadium and with those team-mates.
“It’s hard to say whether the best memories were what happened on the pitch or off it. My family had a really great time in Glasgow with the people. We got such a warm welcome. Then also on the pitch – we enjoyed success and I played with such great players and characters. We had a great time.
“There are so many things that make me laugh. The other day I saw Chris Sutton commentating on the Celtic game wearing the same shoes he had on 12 years ago.
“We had some big, big characters here and good fun. We knew when there was business to be done everyone had to be up for it. You didn’t want to mess up in the dressing room and on the training pitch with those guys.”
There will not be quite the same pressure to perform on Sunday, but there has certainly been a real eagerness to take part. “The players that are on the list are just incredible. I’m really looking forward to the game, he added. “I’ve been overwhelmed by the players who have been desperate to run out. Every person who I asked to play said yes straight away.
“Patrik Berger pulled his hamstring while training for the game and Roy Keane has struggled with his hip. Those are the only problems.”
Petrov, who was diagnosed with acute leukaemia in March 2012 and has now been in remission for over a year, explained that his friendship with Terry began when they were captains of Aston Villa and Chelsea respectively. “He’s been a great support to me throughout my treatment. He’s been
brilliant for me.
“When I called him and asked him to play he said he’d be there and just to let him know when it was. That was his reaction. He said that every player would love to play at Celtic Park in front of that crowd.
“Every year in the Premier League there’s a meeting with the club captains to talk about things with referees and all that. So I’ve known John from that.
“He didn’t come and see me when I was having my treatment, but he called and texted me a lot to see how I was doing. I wasn’t the best at getting back to people, to be honest. They’d send me a message and I’d get back to them about a month later. I was drained and there was a lot going on, so I wasn’t that great at replying. Most of the boys were good with it as they knew I couldn’t talk most of the time as I was in the
“We’ve got a Rangers man coming as well in Carlos Cuellar. I spoke with him and asked him to play as we’re very close. I said, ‘You might get booed a bit’, and he said, ‘That’s fine, I’ll boo them back!’”
Petrov himself is heavier than he was in his playing days, largely as a result of the steroids he has to take as part of his treatment. Nonetheless, he hopes to be able to play part of the match for his own team, which will be managed by Kenny Dalglish, and part for the Celtic XI under the command of Martin O’Neill.
“I’ll have to see if my match kit will fit me or whether we’re going to have to order an XXL one. I’d love to play a bit of the game for both teams, although I’ll have to see how long I can play for.
“They told me I’d have to do a warm-up and I told them I might be finished after that.”
• Celtic XI - Manager: Martin O’Neill, Backroom: John Robertson, Steve Walford. Players:Louis Tomlinson, Tom Boyd, Momo Sylla, Jackie McNamara, Joos Valgaeren, Bobo Balde, Henrik Larsson, Morten Wieghorst, Chris Sutton, Pierre van Hooijdonk, Jorge Cadete, Tommy Johnson, Brian McClair, Bobby Petta, Martin Compston, Didier Agathe, Neil Lennon, Rab Douglas, Stevie Graham, Warren Brown, Tosh McKinlay, Jordan Sailsman, Lubo Moravcik, Johan Mjallby.
• Stiliyan Petrov XI - Manager: Kenny Dalglish, Backroom: Danny McGrain, Players: Shay Given, Radostin Kishishev, Freddie Bouma, Marian Hristov, Chris Kamara, Nicky Byrne, Robert Pires, Dimitar Berbatov, Jamie Redknapp, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Hristo Yovov, Paul Lambert, James Allan, Martin Petrov, Gareth Barry, Stiliyan Petrov, John Bishop, Habib Beye, Carlos Cuellar, John Terry