Dimitar Berbatov: Artist. Genius. Failure?
How will football remember Dimitar Berbatov: as an artist, a genius, or a failure? Perhaps all three descriptions are required to sum up the brilliant, blasé Bulgarian.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
It's a balmy spring evening in the Stade Louis II. The sun is dipping low in the sky. Five minutes into the opening half of the Cote D'Azur derby, João Moutinho propels the ball forward, adroitly guiding it over the Nice defence. The ball finds Dimitar Berbatov near the byline; he cushions it, halting for a fleeting moment as if raising a glass of fine port to his own brilliance. Next, a collected stroll followed by a casual lob over an impotent David Ospina. Minimum effort, utmost poise. A goal to feed his standardised perception.
Criticising his application demands nothing more than consultation with your thesaurus. Indolent. Lethargic. Lackadaisical. Languid. Uninterested.
Berbatov's approach is what it is. Idle. He could never add labour to his love for nimble touches; it just wasn't his style. To do so would be taking away from his laid-back artistry. It defines him. Donkey work simply isn't elegant. "You are not going to see me puffing around the pitch. There is a saying in Bulgaria that great quality does not require much effort." That was Berbatov, as he puts it himself.
Few players divide opinion quite like Dimitar Berbatov. He feeds off contradiction, he promotes it.
He would saunter nonchalantly inside the opposition's half while others darted back, ravenously attempting to regain possession. He is a reticent, introverted character tightly wrapped in an assured, composed demeanour. Berbatov conveys tranquility, but don't make the mistake of trusting the flawed myth that he lacks passion. He deludes you into believing he carries no concern, deludes you into thinking he doesn't have that blazing fire his belly. It's his skill of deceit.
Dimitar Ivanov Berbatov was born in January 1981 in the cultural region of Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, 100km south of the national capital, Sofia. As a child, he idolised the great AC Milan striker Marco van Basten, subsequently making the decision to support the Lombardy-based club. The 1995-1996 Premier League season provided a 15-year-old Berbatov with another idol, another famed striker. "It was and still is Alan Shearer, it was him and Marco van Basten. Shearer was my hero, just about scoring goals from everywhere, hitting people with elbows, fighting for the ball, scoring from every angle possible. Of course, his celebration, raising his hand, it was just beautiful," he told the BBC. Berbatov received a Newcastle United shirt from his parents for his 18th birthday, a gift he cherished, even sleeping with it.
The metaphor of Berbatov being an artist is almost too strong to ignore. Art appealed to the Bulgarian at a young age, almost as much as football, spending substantial periods of time painting a mural of his footballing icons on the ceiling of his bedroom. Hobbies play an important role in one's life and the 35-year-old still retains enthusiasm for sketching and painting.
After showing promise in OFC Pirin Blagoevgrad's youth team – Berbatov's hometown club, famed for producing young talent – he was discovered and signed by CSKA Sofia coach Dimitar Penev, the iconic manager who guided Bulgaria to the 1994 World Cup semi-finals. As the legend goes, CSKA "paid" a few meagre footballs in exchange for the striker's services.
Berbatov's first taste of European football came against (one of) his boyhood club(s), Newcastle United, in 1999. He lost the game, but it proved to be a breakthrough season, bagging 16 goals in 34 appearances for club and country.
Berbatov was loyal to the club, and the emotional attachment was strong. But, after a single deplorable performance against their arch nemesis PFC Levski Sofia, a beautiful, magnificent relationship rapidly deteriorated and matters soon came to head. Berbatov became embroiled in an ineluctable dispute with the fans. When your own supporters revolt against you, circumstances can be difficult to tolerate. "He was devastated," his mother, Margarita, told the Financial Times. "His phone was ringing but he didn't want to talk to anybody. That was maybe the worst moment of his career."
One of the relatively untold, but phenomenal, stories of Berbatov's stint at CSKA was his traumatic experience of being snatched by the Bulgarian Mafia. The tale goes that Berbatov was kidnapped by several henchmen belonging to gangster Georgi Iliev as he attempted to coerce him into signing for his club, Levski Kyustendil. Somehow, Berbatov managed to get in touch with his father, Ivan, who hastily moved to intercede. "It was a horrific ordeal but a long time ago now. That was a time back then, you know," Berbatov told The Times.
Berbatov made the decision to move to a more elevated level in the January transfer window of 2001; Bayer Leverkusen acquired his services for a mere €2.5million. He made his first Champions League final appearance only 18 months later, concluding the most torturous season in the club's modern history. Leverkusen had to settle for second place in their domestic league and cup, as well as a traumatic loss to Real Madrid at Hampden Park courtesy of that Zinedine Zidane strike.
68 goals, 32 assists, 10,944 Bundesliga minutes. The goals were slow in coming, but when they did they gushed. Berbatov failed to collect any trophies throughout the duration of his stay in Germany but had quickly become one of the most coveted stars on the European scene. It was his arrogance and composure in front of goal, his pure technique, his deft footwork, garnished with an unteachable sense of spatial awareness, that drew the admiring glances of the continent's elite.
Rafa Benitez came calling in January 2005, but the Spaniard backed off in the wake of Leverkusen's draw with Liverpool in the round of 16 in the Champions League. "We knew about Berbatov before we played them in 2005, I'd been aware of him since I was in Valencia. He was a player we were looking at closely," Benitez explained to the Mirror. "Everybody can see the quality he has and we wanted him, but then the draw with Leverkusen came along and we couldn't get him. It is shame, but we had to move on."
Undeterred by this false-start move to England and the Premier League, he arrived in North London a year later. His two seasons at Tottenham proved to be a stepping stone on his path towards a more illustrious club; another rung on the ladder. From his first wander about the White Hart Lane turf, it was only a matter of time before he was granted what he truly desired. Berbatov was Spurs' top scorer in both his seasons there, but unfortunately for the club and chairman Daniel Levy, he was clearly unrestrainable.
It was at Old Trafford that Berbatov's exhilarating mastery ascended towards its pinnacle, adding an injection of the unpredictable to the Ronaldo-Rooney-Tevez attacking triumvirate. The new Cantona? No, not exactly. But both could leave you drooling; both were and are artists in their own right.
In 2010-11 – the 12 year of his senior career – Berbatov struck 20 league goals, splitting the Golden Boot Award with Carlos Tevez and earning a spot in the PFA Team of the Year. His contribution ushered United to their record-breaking 19th league title. But his ruthlessness was always complimented by an equal satisfaction from creating: he triggered an assuredness in the build-up, he controlled the ball in tight spaces, he lured defenders in to create space, he provided the killer pass.
Ultimately his time at the very top was short-lived, and things initially began to go south after his baffling exclusion from the 2010-11 Champions League final, ultimately leading to his career unravelling. The following season he endured a more reserved role, a regular seat on the United bench; a paltry 21 appearances, exactly half the amount of the previous campaign. A move away was inevitable and, like so many before him, he had a jittery relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson.
"Maybe I should have gone when he [Ferguson] left me out of the squad for the Champions League final. I know he's the boss, but he has lost, to some extent, my respect because of the way he treated me. I'll have no problems playing against United as this already happened in my career, but there's no point to look back again. I said goodbye to the people who deserve it, but I couldn't say goodbye to Ferguson."
One might wonder how much more Berbatov could have achieved, or perhaps how he, himself, marks his level of fulfilment. Of course, counting a player's trophies is not the only way to determine success. But someone as precise, as meticulous, as gifted as Berbatov should have more silverware to polish in his cabinet.
The Bulgarian's career path has been judged reasonably; consistently been rational. From humble beginnings in Pirin, to Leverkusen's kingpin. Or from Manchester United's non-conformist, to the big fish in the small pond at Fulham. And Monaco? No player seems more befitting of the glamourous narrative. And lastly, making what has the definite feel of the final curtain call at PAOK Thessaloniki.
Dimitar Berbatov; artist, fainéant, genius, failure. How will the beautiful game remember him? Sentenced to eternal underappreciation, the footballing world may never wholly cherish the unorthodox brilliance of Berbatov. But, when envisaging the Bulgarian, recall him as he would have liked: "I always tend to think my goals are beautiful goals. That is what I want to score; beautiful goals."
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