Football has become all about athleticism and too little about artistry. Get Dimitar Berbatov back in.
Who’s this then?
Dimitar Ivanov Berbatov is a 39-year-old Bulgarian striker from Blagoevgrad, who remains the most expensive Bulgarian footballer ever. He’s also his country’s top goalscorer, and captained the national side between 2006 and 2010. And he’s won Bulgarian Footballer of the Year a record seven times
He started out at CSKA Sofia in 1998, scoring 38 times in 65 games before moving to Bayer Leverkusen in 2001. There, he scored 91 times in 201 games. He was part of their fabulous 2001/02 team, runners-up in the Bundesliga, Champions League and German Cup.
In 2006, a £10.9 million transfer to Spurs in 2006 followed. He played 70 times in north London, netting 46 in 102, won the League Cup and was their 2008/09 Player of the Year. This brought him to the attention of Manchester United who, in a controversial transfer, paid just over £30million for his signature on deadline day. In four years he was to score 56 times in 149 games, winning two Premier League titles, a League Cup, two Community Shields, a FIFA Club World Cup and a second Champions League runners-up medal.
There followed two years at Fulham and another 20 goals to his tally in 54 games, winning their 2012/13 Player of The Year. He played his career out at AS Monaco for two seasons, winning their 2014 Player of the Year – spot the pattern – then at PAOK for one campaign and Kerala Blasters in India for nine games under new manager David James, whose tactics he later described – somewhat unsurprisingly – as “absurd”.
He called it a day in 2019 after 665 games and 281 goals.
He is a sponsor of children’s charities in his native Bulgaria, supporting five care homes, and he’s just written his autobiography which revealed he was once kidnapped by Bulgarian mafia types.
In a recent 5 Live interview he came across as a thoughtful, sensitive fella, revealing that much of his quiet reticence was geared by being shy, which was often misinterpreted as arrogance.
In his time, he was a unique player with a unique style for which he was both admired and feted.
Why the love?
An almost unbelievably cool and very good-looking guy, he has the sort of dark eyelashes that makes it look as though he’s wearing mascara. At 6′ 2″ he was a tall, elegant and unhurried player, blessed with magic feet and an almost supernatural ability to slow down the space-time continuum. He seemed to operate on a different plane of existence, where there was always plenty of time to do whatever he wanted to do. Quite how he did this remains a mystery but time and again, he found acres of space, so there was no-one around him as he received a ball and laid it off with instant control and perfect weighting.
This is how easy the game was for him:
It’s not as though he’s showing off. He’s not one for ‘look at my tekkers,’ rather it is all just instinctive for him. He can’t actually help control the ball with consummate ease. Indeed, it looks as though it would be harder for him to lose control of it. His first touch, time and again, is magnetic. Somehow, the ball becomes a slave to his feet in an instant.
Though tall, his game was rarely overtly physical. This wasn’t a beast pounding up and down the pitch, sweating his bollocks off. He glided, quick when he absolutely needed to be; he preferred to use his intellect to find the right position. And when he found that position, he could score any sort of goal. A back heel, a volley, a free-kick curler, a header, a one-on-one dink, a 25-yard belter, a nerveless penalty. There really was nothing he couldn’t do – except track back and sweat those hard defensive yards. That wasn’t his gig. Leave such things to the grunt labour. His ‘keep calm and pass me the ball’ mantra wasn’t just wilful hipness, it was probably his side’s best tactic.
In his day he was always the footballer most likely to be called ‘languid’ and it wasn’t hard to see why, but when at the peak of his form this would just lull the opposition into a false sense of security.
Naturally, in the English game, which has for too long valued graft over artistry, some just accused him of being lazy and of drifting out of games for long periods of time. In that 5 Live interview he defended himself against such misconceptions:
“Everybody is different in the way they see the game and play. My difference was that sometimes you would see I might not be into the game, but at the same time I was scanning the pitch to see where to position myself at the right moment, at the right time in a pocket of space – and you can give me the ball so that I have more time to myself and not have someone on my back. When I have that time and space I have more time to think about where to put the ball. Some people don’t understand it, but if you are clever in your head, even if you are slow in speed, you can still be quick. You can position yourself better and be of even more use to your team.”
Thinking about the game? What sort of madness is this? He is the absolute antidote to the poison that now runs through the football body which asserts the game is better today because players are fitter and can run 14km.
Also liked a crafty fag which, as we know, is illegal for footballers today.
What the people love
A bulging sack of beautiful Berbs love this week. Because everybody loves someone who plays football with the grace of a ballroom dancer and the mystery of an illusionist. When he left the stage, there really wasn’t – and still isn’t – anyone to replace him. There is no new Berba. He remains on his own lofty peak.
We start with our traditional 4_4_haiku:
That can kill anything dead
— 4_4_haiku (@4_4_haiku) May 7, 2020
‘I’ve always enjoyed his refusing to play for Spurs and hiding under a blanket to get a move to Man Utd.’
‘Incredibly gifted with the first touch of an angel, I always enjoyed watching him play.’
‘A supremely talented and elegant player. Watching him warm up was mesmerising in itself. His partnership with Robbie Keane was one of the best we’ve had at Spurs – and we’ve had a few!’
‘He just always made the game look so easy. Amount of goals he scored with either his back to goal or hitting the ball side on a half volley. I have a vague memory of him scoring v Fulham where he controlled the ball with his head and casually dispatched it. Loved him at Spurs.’
‘Pure silk, could play in a smoking jacket with a pipe, it would have no effect on him.’
‘We were 3-0 up heading towards H/T against a tough Bolton side at the Lane. Then a handball pen and Keano was sent off, disaster beckoned. Berba took over with the greatest one man striker role I’ve seen – hold up, chasing, assist for fourth. Magnificent if uncharacteristic workrate.’
‘If he played in the snow, he wouldn’t leave footprints.’
A photo I took at an open training session at Fulham. He always seemed to have more time and space than anyone else. pic.twitter.com/Eu9eUia1by
— jameswatson (@jamesnwatson) May 7, 2020
‘Once played centre back in a League Cup game against Leeds. Looked like he had been playing there all his career.’
‘I’m sure his boots were made of velvet.’
‘There was an imaginative goal he struck for Bayer Leverkusen against AS Roma in the Uefa Champions League, it was pure genius.’
‘A game of minimum effort, played with a flourish. Oozed style, bordering on arrogance. The personification of liquid football.’
‘His part in the third of his five goals for Man Utd v Blackburn. Some lazy passes to/from Evra (one a backheel, obvs) before playing an outside of the boot, first-time cross-field ball on the deck to feet before ambling onto the return cross to roof it from 6 yards. Summed him up.’
‘2008 League Cup Final. Typically 1-0 down v Chelsea despite being the better team. We win a penalty. Everyone full of nerves in the Spurs end. Zokora cannot watch. Berbatov steps up, the coolest man in Wembley, nonchalantly sends Cech the wrong way and strokes it in. We win 2-1.’
His first touch was a gift from god. He didn’t just bring the ball down, he caressed it, tucked it in at night and fluffed the pillows.
— McBride (@papalmate) May 7, 2020
‘The hat trick against ‘pool. Probably his defining moment in his United career. It was glorious.’
‘Scored a goal for us against Reading in the 6-4 @ WHL. Really soft volley from a high ball that was just absolute filth.’
‘That first touch for Fulham at Craven Cottage. Single coolest thing in the history of football.’
‘The way Alex Ferguson treated him was absolutely criminal and the entire world shouldn’t ever, ever, ever refer to him as “Sir” because of it.’
‘His assist against West Ham, that spin move, pure class, he makes everything look so effortless.’
‘My son met him, he was about 6 at the time. He thought for many years his name was Digitar Burgertov.’
– on that same Soccerbox programme, complaining that one of his goals from outside the box was too ugly to be included in his highlights. "Look! I don't know what to do! So I shoot! No, no."
An unparalleled aesthete and a genius.
— Rob Brown (@robbro7) May 7, 2020
‘Learned to speak English by watching The Godfather, excellent international goals return in a struggling national team and some of that effortless brilliance towards the end of his career at Monaco.’
‘One of those few players for who time seemed to slow down when he was on the ball. An island of calm in a sea of excitement.’
‘Some Spurs fans were a bit disappointed about how he upped and left and refused to play in that game we lost vs Boro…. him and Modric got about 15 mins on the pitch together. A travesty.’
‘Went to Fulham from United seemingly as a broken man, like leaving Man United as a squad player was proof his career was over, bizarre move, but almost needed that little interim to rediscover himself. Among enigmatic Premier League elite.’
‘If James Dean played football. Berba oozed grace and class with a phenomenal ability to glide through a game and in a split second perform a Houdini style trick to leave fans in awe.’
‘Not since Cantona has a United player just oozed class. He was as close to a football Italia player we’ve had in the league. Just beautiful.’
My favourite football photo of all time. Imagine this was what most of his time at Monaco looked like. pic.twitter.com/9cMmTn7fby
— Scott (@Sco11t) May 7, 2020
Three great moments
At 1:00. Such control and then a killer overhead kick, bang into the top corner.
Now you see it, now you don’t. Berba leaves West Ham in his wake.
Berbatov ➡️ Ronaldo
Man Utd vs. West Ham
Premier League, 2008pic.twitter.com/EJPt1c4Ck3
— GoalScorer Challenge (@GoalscorerC) October 29, 2019
At 0:59. Score with a back heel? Yeah, that’s easy enough.
With a net worth estimated to be around $19.5million, he’s not in any hurry to do anything other than live for pleasure. Maybe he’ll go into coaching, maybe he won’t.
“All football players think we are going to be great coaches, which is of course far from the truth. I have my A licence already and am going to go for my pro licence later this year hopefully. You never know. I would at least like to be prepared for the future, whatever that may be. If that is as a coach, I know I will be prepared. At the moment, though, I am spending more time with my kids and family.”
With at least 50 years ahead of him, it would be nice to think that his style might yet provide inspiration and influence on a game that has become all about athleticism and too little about artistry. Nobody goes to watch football to see a middle-distance runner; we go to see players with an air of the infinite who rise above the white noise and clutter of ordinariness. Berbatov was a heavenly player and one whose brilliance gave sparkle many lives. Long may he smile at us with those lovely eyes.
We could not keep away from the camera for long so we made a Football365 Isolation Show. Watch it, subscribe and share until we get back in the studio/pub and produce something a little slicker…