I know what you’re thinking. Who (or what) the hell is Димитър Бербатов? Well, before you rush to Google Translator, allow me to intervene. Apparently, this is the correct, Bulgarian spelling, of Dimitar Berbatov. Like his cryptic-style name, there is a certain mystique attached to him as a player, one which has bedazzled and intrigued me ever since he joined Manchester United.
Transfer Deadline Day saw Berbatov’s four-year stint at the club come to an end as he sealed his move to Premier League rivals Fulham for £4m. An absolute steal, might I add. I’m happy he has left, but not on a personal level. In fact, it is quite the opposite, I’m actually sad to see him go. But I’m happy for him.
It’s fair to say he has never been everyone’s cup of tea. Manchester United fans and neutrals alike have long been divided in their opinion and a few will always be sat on the fence. Whilst people could argue about what he does (or doesn’t do) on the pitch until the cows come home, nobody can deny the man’s class off it. Last season, he played just twelve times in the league. Following the previous seasons European Cup final defeat to Barcelona, where he didn’t even make the bench, it seemed the Bulgarians time at the club was coming to an end. It was a matter of when and not if, he would leave. But, rather than throw his toys out of the pram and kick-start a media frenzy, he quietly got on with things and accepted that nobody is bigger than the club. In fact, he paid tribute to the club at numerous times during his time there. For somebody who supposedly acts arrogantly on the field of play, he is certainly not an arrogant person. On the contrary, he comes across as very humble.
“I am lucky. I have loved my time here. I was disappointed with myself that I could not please all the supporters. I have said before the people of Manchester United are the judges and that is the way it should be. It is their team…”
It is things like this that make you warm to a player most and it’s such a rarity to find a player who has such respect for the games integrity. Cynics though, are quick to point out his deficiencies on the field. ‘He’s lazy’, ‘He’s slow’, ‘He doesn’t try.’ It’s typical of the British-Bulldog mentality of football fans in this country.
When the armchair fan or pub-goer watches football, a little switch is flicked in their heads which makes them believe they are somehow in control of what is happening on the pitch. Or at least that their actions can have some kind of meaningful influence. I say ‘they’ as though I’m not equally as culpable…
Nothing we shout at the TV though is going to make the slightest bit of difference and we know it. We can’t help it though. Guilty as charged.
Here are a few popular exclamations:
“Close him down!”
“Get stuck in!”
“Get up the pitch!”
“Give it! GIVE IT!!!”
“F*** OFF REF!!!”
You get the idea. We’re an angry breed, football fans. My personal favourite though, is when a player seemingly responds to a command bellowed out by an infuriated fan. It’s amusing enough to see a team play the ball to their winger after hearing the guy at the bar shout “Out wide!” But it’s when this is followed by the wannabe-gaffer murmuring “well-played” or “good lad” under his breath, as though the player who made the pass actually heard him and took his advice, that really tops it off. Brilliant.
Notice that none of the examples I’ve used though, in any way encourage a player to express themselves creatively or in a skilful manner. It’s because it simply doesn’t happen. You never hear someone shouting “Pirouette you c***!” or “What’s he doing playing it safe?! He could have delicately flicked a perfectly weighted pass over the defence with the outside of his boot into the path of the striker whilst looking the other way! USELESS T***!” Apologies for the colourful choice of language, but the vocabulary of someone watching football is often grotesque – I should know. Unfortunately for Berbatov, he’s been subject to more angry men shouting at him from behind a screen than most, and the feelings expressed in the pub and at home, ultimately found their way to the stands of Old Trafford too. You see, Dimitar Berbatov is a different kind of player. He’s never been one to rush things, to play directly when it isn’t needed, or to always do the obvious things that we expect players to do. He’s far from your average footballer. He has that special quality that only a handful of players posses. Indeed, if the last two examples were actually common-place pleas, he’d satisfy many a fan. The problem is, that it’s not until the thrill of live football has died down, that people can appreciate the artistry of some players.
It’s fair to say, that upon his arrival from Spurs in 2008, the £30m price-tag did him no favours. Nor did the comparisons to Eric Cantona. People were expecting things of him that he simply wasn’t going to provide. The number 9 shirt didn’t help much either. The media and fans alike have more often than not referred to him as a ‘striker’, but it’s never really been the case. ‘Striker’ in itself is a very broad term, especially nowadays. It’s a slightly far-fetched theory, but I often said that had Sir Alex Ferguson told the masses that he would be deploying the Bulgarian in Midfield, he could have continued to play in exactly the same way, but without the added burdens that come with being labelled a centre-forward. I honestly believe he would have gained far more praise for his performances had this been the case, but, unsurprisingly, it was never to be.
At the end of the day, ‘Strikers’ tend to get judged by their goalscoring exploits. Anything else is seen as an unnecessary luxury. It’s a narrow-minded view, but it is a startling reflection of modern society in general. Just look at how popular Javier Hernández has become in his short time at the club. His uncanny knack for scoring goals disguises the fact that he is one of the worst natural footballers to have ever donned the red shirt. But he gets the job done. He serves his purpose and so escapes criticism. To coin a popular football phrase, Berbatov is not a ‘great-goalscorer’, but a ‘scorer of great goals’. In his own words, “I always tend to think my goals are beautiful goals. That is what I want to score; beautiful goals, and create beautiful chances.” It’s the main reason he has been criticised, but is also the reason he is praised in the eyes of purists. His approach to the game can be seen as substituting quantity for quality and is met with equal doses of approval and displeasure. Hernández scores goals. That’s why he’s there and that’s what he does. No thrills attached. If the little Mexican is the no-nonsense, fast-food fix that the modern fan craves, Berbatov is very much the gourmet alternative. People just don’t have time for fine-dining nowadays.
Despite flashes of brilliance, he was subject to much scrutiny regarding his goalscoring form during the first two seasons he had with the club. He answered some critics in the 2010/2011 season though, finishing the campaign as the leagues joint highest scorer, thus earning himself the coveted Golden Boot award. But yet there were, and still remain, those who turn their noses up at this achievement. His virtuoso performance against Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford that year will live long in the memory, but is often held up as an excuse to devalue his overall return. In the game, he replicated something only his boyhood hero Alan Shearer and three others had ever achieved. It was a fine display of the man’s talent. Only a Manchester United player would be criticised for scoring five goals in a league game though. People point towards the five-goal haul as though it somehow affects the credibility of his end of season tally. Apparently, you’re not allowed to score that many in one game, you have to spread them out over multiple. Sorry, I wasn’t aware of this rule. For a player who isn’t even an out-and-out striker, to score that many in one game is phenomenal, never-mind bagging twenty in a league season. His hat-trick goal that day was a thing of true beauty. If you’re not familiar with it, find it. It’s sublime. Effortless. Speaking of hat-tricks, the three he bagged against Liverpool that year weren’t bad either. And they say he doesn’t perform in the big games. Oh, and for the record, the number of games he scored in that season was 11. Carlos Tévez, whom he shared the Golden Boot with, scored his goals across 13 games. It’s hardly a monumental difference, really.
Effortless, is a word that sums Dimitar Berbatov up and it takes me nicely back to one of the common criticisms of him that I mentioned near the start of this piece. ‘He doesn’t try.’
If a footballer is ‘trying’ particularly hard, then that means they are lacking in some department. If you’re not that good at dribbling, for instance, you’re going to try hard to make up for it by applying yourself in other areas or by focusing all your efforts on improving something that ultimately, you’re still going to be poor at. When you’re blessed with true, genuine ability however, you don’t need to ‘try’, things just come, naturally. A player like that should be allowed to blossom, rather than be subject to criticism or indeed restricted by tactical disciplines. My appreciation for Berbatov isn’t born out of any kind of football snobbery though. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to play the game. I’m as much an advocate of the long-ball as I am for keeping it on the deck and if I was asked to name my all-time favourite players, there’d be as many midfield-destroyers as dynamic forwards. I appreciate all forms of the game (that’s not so say I like all of them). Football is a results business and it is the job of a Manager to find a system and style which best suits their team and it’s ambitions. Berbatov never really fit in with the way Manchester United play the game though. It often felt as though Sir Alex Ferguson struggled to accommodate him in the side. It’s neither party’s fault, it’s just the way things turn out sometimes. That’s football. For many years, Manchester Untied have become famed for their high-tempo counter-attacking brand. They’ve always had players with pace and you could argue that there is an aesthetically pleasing directness to their play. His style however demands that a team play directly to his strengths and that the whole system revolves around him. That’s not to say in any way that he’s ‘superior’ to other players or that he is more ‘important’ to a sides functionality, it’s just the way it is. Berbatov is a player that links the play, he creates opportunities for others but he can also finish them off. Ultimately, he can bring out the best in others. He’s the glue that holds a team together, but he’s never really been able to show it. The way Luciano Spalletti used Francesco Totti during his time as manager of Roma – making him not only the main creative hub, but also the loan forward, is perhaps the kind of role Berbatov would thrive in. At United, he would often be paired up-front with another player and was part of a system. You need to give him space to work his craft.
He has at times, showcased moves reminiscent of Zinedine Zidane, but before you get too worked up over the comparison, let me explain. I’m not suggesting in any way that Berbatov will ever be worthy of rubbing shoulders with the Frenchman in terms of stature in the game, but that’s not to say that there is nothing there at all. Like the three-time World Player of the Year, there’s a certain, slow-motion like quality to Berbatov’s performances. He see’s things others don’t because he allows himself the time to do so. He might not have eyes in the back of his head, knowing exactly what will happen on the pitch and at what point (though he’s not without his moments), but his amazing touch, guile and awareness of space, mean he is never hurried. Leonardo da Vinci didn’t rush the Mona Lisa – he took his time and ultimately, produced a masterpiece. But then I guess you wouldn’t hire him as a Courtroom sketch-artist either. Swings and roundabouts.
Italy therefore, would be, in my opinion at least, the country most suited to the qualities Berbatov can bring to the game. The pace is notoriously slower and so I have no doubt that he would revel in a side which afforded him the role of Trequartista-come-Striker. The sophisticated, stylish bravado of the Italian culture too, is one that would appreciate Berbatov for what he is, although I don’t want to get into national stereotypes too much. West London though, has turned out to be his destination of choice. In a way I guess I’m glad he’s stayed on these shores. It means I’ll be fortunate enough to see a five-minute highlights-reel of him with his new team-mates once a week and occasionally catch a full game. He should also be more than comfortable in the surroundings of England’s capital having spent two years with Tottenham. Fulham also play some very attractive football, having had players at the club recently of a similar ilk to Berbatov. Don’t get me wrong though, as for all the praise I heap on him, there have been moments where I, like many others, have cursed his name. For instance, I don’t think I’ll ever forgive him for the penalty he missed against Everton in the FA Cup semi-final shoot-out in 2009. It was overly nonchalant, even by his standards, and so I can understand where some peoples negative views on him come from. I really do get it. This isn’t me trying to force people to reconsider their thoughts on him as a footballer in general though – after-all, nobody is perfect, but to encourage people to see the qualities he does have. A similar thought process can be applied to any player (well, maybe not Bébé. He’s pretty much useless at everything). Whether he can rekindle his career on the banks of the Thames having fallen out of favour at Old Trafford remains to be seen. That said, I don’t think he’ll ever be universally accepted no matter what he does (or doesn’t do).
On his time with Manchester United “… I am a guest. A privileged guest.”
Needless to say, as much as you look a bit like Dracula, the privilege was all mine.