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Perhaps the game’s last true maverick, and a kind of brooding philosopher of a striker, Dimitar Berbatov could be just as frustrating on a football pitch as he was breathtaking. In a sport that has become increasingly about athleticism as it is about pure ability, we may never see the likes of the Bulgarian number nine again.
Moments of Magic
His was a career littered with moments of sublime skill, and it can be hard to pinpoint one defining example of Dimitar Berbatov’s immense footballing talent. Many will cite the overhead kick and hat-trick against Liverpool during his under-appreciated time at Manchester United; others will hail that outrageous turn and assist for Cristiano Ronaldo. Tottenham fans might point toward his delicate free-kick versus West Ham, whilst Fulham fans will draw attention to a thunderous volley at home to Stoke in 2013.
It may come as a surprise that Berbatov’s defining act on a football pitch came not during his lengthy spell in England, or even during his early years at Bayer Leverkusen. Rather, the Bulgarian’s finest moment came in a part of the world that’s better known for its Formula 1 racing than for its football.
It was just five minutes into an otherwise humdrum encounter between AS Monaco and OGC Nice on a Sunday afternoon in April 2014. Floating around on the edge of the box in typically louche fashion, Berbatov tamed what seemed to be a hopeful lob over the backline with the outside of his boot. Allowing the ball to bounce once, then once more, he proceeded to tease the most feather-light of lobs over David Ospina and into the far corner of the net. Everything about this goal—the tight angle, the nonchalant manner, the complete audaciousness of it all—sang the name Dimitar Berbatov. In that situation, he is perhaps the only player of his generation who would even think about doing something so outrageous, let alone scoring with such an unlikely chance.
Soaring Highs, Crushing Lows
And yet, for all of his undoubted talent, there are still those who label Berbatov as a luxury player—a classic car in the NASCAR race that is modern football. His time at Manchester United, in particular, will go down as a spell marked by soaring highs and crushing lows.
After finishing the season as the team’s top goalscorer in the 2010-2011 season, Berbatov would be left out of the squad by Sir Alex Ferguson in that year’s Champions League final. It was felt at the time that the Bulgarian’s strolling style of play did not fit in with United’s game plan of high-pressing and harrying, with Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez preferred upfront instead. Reports circulated that the Bulgarian stormed out of Wembley upon hearing of the manager’s decision, refusing to even watch the game. With United going on to lose 3-1 to an incredible Barcelona side, Berbatov would later describe this moment as the worst of his career. For all of his heroics in a red shirt, Berbatov will probably be remembered by United fans in the same bracket as the likes of Diego Forlan and Giuseppe Rossi – a gifted striker who couldn’t quite fit into the system at Old Trafford.
A Footballing Anomaly
It was his propensity for sulking when he wasn’t the centre of attention—exhibiting an almost fragile sense of self-esteem—that makes Berbatov one of football’s last real mavericks. When confidence was low, he could tend to look completely out of his depth, like a depressed writer who has somehow found himself partaking in elite-level sport. On his good days, though, when he felt the adulation and respect of both the crowd and his teammates, the guy was close to unplayable. A slight frame and rangy limbs meant he was neither the quickest nor the strongest of strikers, but an uncanny ability to read the game, coupled with what is surely one of the greatest first touches of all time, made Berbatov truly world-class.
His finest spell was undoubtedly his two-year stint at Tottenham Hotspur when he charmed the White Hart Lane faithful on a weekly basis and helped the club to win their first silverware in many years with a League Cup victory over Chelsea. After this period of sustained excellence, he would go on to perform well amid stiff competition at Manchester United before showing flashes of brilliance at Fulham and Monaco. Forever maligned in England for a perceived lack of work rate, Dimitar Berbatov is nevertheless one of the most talented strikers in Premier League history. As the modern game continues to trend towards brawn, speed, and discipline, perhaps we will grow too long for the mercurial talents of this most gifted of footballing mavericks.