Very rarely has a player divided opinion quite like Dimitar Berbatov. Many consider him to be a lazy and overrated luxury player with minimal work-rate, but at the same time just as many consider the Bulgarian to be one of the most technically gifted players of his generation with an unrivalled football intelligence. What is evident is that Berbatov is a fascinating individual, but to understand Berbatov the player you first have to understand Berbatov the person.
Berbatov’s dad, Ivan, was a professional footballer himself and had played for Bulgaria’s most famous club, CSKA Sofia. When the big club came to the Berbatov family’s home town Blagoevgrad for a cup game, Ivan used all his contacts to organize a meeting between his nine-year-old son Dimitar and the superstar Hristo Stoitjkov. From that moment on, Dimitar’s dream was to play for CSKA.
That dream would come true eight years later when the 17-year-old made the move from Blagoevgrad to Sofia. Still, this wasn’t your everyday youngster with a phenomenal ability to play football. He had just achieved his dream, but still didn’t seem happy to the rest of the world. In fact though, he was. His mother Margarita visited during a break, only to find him completely alone.
“It was one of the saddest things I’ve seen in my entire life. The entire neighborhood seemed empty – only a few dogs were left – and there he lay on his bed, listening to music and drawing. I thought it must be some girl, but when I looked closer I saw that he drew the CSKA Sofia club badge. And then I understood how much he loved the club. “
This is why what happened to Berbatov at CSKA is almost tragic. Even though he scored 26 goals in 49 league games for the club, a very good return for such a young player, he was heavily criticized by the club’s fans who blamed him for the team’s failings for a few years. Berbatov’s dream was crushed, and his initial love affair with the club turned sour. Around this time, when Berbatov was only 18-years-old, he was kidnapped by gangster boss Georgi Iliev who wanted him to sign for his own club FC Levski Kjustendil. In the end, he didn’t, and he was released from Iliev, but the emotional scars are still with him. Imagine then, going through this as an 18-year-old. According to his mother, he was devastated, and didn’t even answer his phone around this time. As Berbatov would say later:
“It was a difficult period. The kidnapping, the booing … When fans turn against you – your fans – it’s hard to accept. You start thinking about your future, and in my case it was everything that made me decide to leave my country. These are things that build you as a person.”
Berbatov left Bulgaria, instead joining Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga. On the pitch, he quickly made an impression and proved an important piece of the squad that reached the 2002 Champions League final, where he came on as a first-half substitute. As you might guess, his success on the pitch was the total opposite to life off it. The people around Leverkusen struggled to understand their new striker. Klaus Toppmöller, Berbatov’s first coach at the club, described the situation like this:
“Those few seconds when he had the ball it was as if no problems existed, but the rest of the time it was like he was carrying the world on his shoulders.”
Berbatov had been forced out of his beloved home country and has said that he felt like he was in exile, and during this time his love for Bulgaria grew even more. There is a fantastic story of him setting up his TV in order for him to get around twenty Bulgarian channels into his apartment. Considering his love for his country, it comes as no surprise that becoming Bulgaria’s highest ever goalscorer represented one of the biggest highlights of his career. His 48 goals in 78 caps for such a small country highlights his undeniable class and quality. His record-haul of seven Bulgarian footballer of the year is strong evidence in naming Berbatov the best Bulgarian player of all time.
“We are a small country – only eight million people – and every time any of us accomplished something so we would get international attention, I was happy.”
In the end, Berbatov spent five years in Germany, scoring 91 goals in 201 appearances for the club meaning he had again reached impressive figures in terms of his goalscoring. Europe’s football elite now started to take notice of the brilliant Bulgarian, who consistently shone with his technical and intellectual ability. Therefore it came as a bit of a surprise when Tottenham Hotspur managed to land the 25-year-old. In England, he quickly found his feet too. He only spent two seasons at White Hart Lane, but scored 46 goals in his 102 appearances, again producing stats of almost a goal in two games.
In the summer of 2008, Manchester United were champions of Europe after beating Chelsea in an all-English Champions League final. Sir Alex Ferguson always said that you should buy when you are strong, and when he looked to elevate his team to an even higher level he decided that the player to help him reach that level was a Bulgarian striker called Dimitar Berbatov. The whole transfer saga is well-documented, but it showed Ferguson’s determination to sign Berbatov, further underlining the high regard in which he was held. His time at United probably won’t count as a success to most United fans who thinks he never quite lived up to his £30.75m fee, but there were undeniable highs.
Berbatov won two league titles at United and was the top scorer in the second of those, 2010/11, sharing the Premier League Golden Boot with former team-mate Carlos Tevez. In that season, he scored a brilliant hat-trick against Liverpool at Old Trafford in a 3-2 win, including a stunning bicycle kick. In November 2010 he scored five goals at home to Blackburn, becoming only the second United player in Premier League history to do that. In total he scored 56 goals in 149 games, not spectacular in any way, but still a good figure.
However, to only judge Berbatov on titles won and goals scored would be to completely misunderstand the player. Berbatov of course cared about how many goals he scored, but was just as interested in how many “beautiful” goals he scored, how many “beautiful” passes he provided for team-mates to score or how many jaw-dropping moments of skill and class he produced for the fans to marvel at. He once claimed to enjoy scoring goals, but felt more pleasure when finding the difficult pass, the one nobody else could see.
“I read a book recently and the book starts: ‘Unless they have beauty and grace in them, they’re powerless to win a heart’, so that stuck in my mind because I like to play like this, with beauty and grace.”
The beginning of the end of his United career was the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley against Barcelona. Berbatov had made a substitute appearance for United in the 2009 final, but this time, as the Premier League’s top goalscorer, he probably expected to make a bigger contribution. Imagine then, the shock of finding a United line-up without the Bulgarian even on the bench. Ferguson claimed Michael Owen, heavily in decline here, was more likely to get United a goal off the bench than his top-scoring striker. Following the show Barcelona put on in the final, Ferguson decided to try and change the look of his team, placing a further emphasis on speed and pressing. Players like Danny Welbeck, Nani, Tom Cleverley, Ashley Young and Anderson was backed to be integral for the team going into the following season, but Berbatov remained. After a season where he mostly came off the bench or played the less important fixtures, but still scored seven goals in his 12 Premier League games, Berbatov left United to join Fulham in the summer of 2012.
“I do not fit enough into the concept of the new team of Manchester who play with more speed. No time for intellectual football, for thinking of combinations and the nice pass. It’s a quicker style. Maybe I don’t fit the speed of the team as I was never one of the fastest players. I keep more the ball, this is my style of playing. And I don’t fit the team.”
Concludingly, Dimitar Berbatov is a fascinating person, unlike most other footballers. His pleasure was making the people of his home-country proud with his beautiful playing style and high quality performances. Representing his country was the highlight of an impressive career, so Berbatov’s pleasure of ending his career as the country’s highest ever goalscorer as well as the record holder of most Bulgarian footballer of the year titles, seven, must be huge. To the rest of the football world he divided opinion like no one else. He’s been questioned for his work-rate, his attitude and has been called overrated. He’s also been called a genius and a top, top striker. Whichever regard you might hold him in, what can’t be questioned is his consistent goalscoring, an unrivalled technical brilliance and a genius-like football intelligence. Dimitar Berbatov was a striker who didn’t ‘just’ care about the amount of goals he scored, but for whom football should be played a certain way. HIS way. Thanks for the show Dimi, it’s been an absolute pleasure.