Few footballers possess the skill to make the game look easy. The high intensity of the modern-day game, coupled with the abundance of quality that is rife within the world’s top leagues, means that it is just a select few who have the capability to make the game seem effortless. Dimitar Berbatov was one of these players.
Now at the ripe old age of 37, Berbatov career has seen him travel from his native Bulgaria to India, with a handful of European pit-stops along the way. Far from a well-established career path, his journey through Germany, England, France and finally the Asian sub-continent epitomises the unique personality of Bulgaria’s most prodigal son.
Berbatov began his career with CSKA Sofia, Bulgaria’s most successful team of the past fifty years. He had grown up watching football from all over the world on TV, however, his favourite team was not the most mainstream one. Whilst his childhood friends all yearned for the success of Europe’s elite, Berbatov instead chose Newcastle United as the team he would support. Incidentally, his first game in European competition came in a 2-0 defeat against the Magpies.
In his first full season, a total of 14 goals in 27 league games began to turn the heads of clubs in Western Europe. A reported move to Italian side Lecce fell through before the Bulgarian eventually signed for German Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen for a modest fee of just over £1 million.
Whilst he initially found it difficult in his debut season in Germany, the following season was something of a ‘coming of age’. Berbatov was pivotally important in Leverkusen’s Champions League run, which eventually saw them beaten by Real Madrid in the final, courtesy of a certain Zinedine Zidane volley. Defeat in the final saw Leverkusen complete a treble of runners-up finishes, also finishing second in the Bundesliga and the German Cup.
The following season, the Bulgarian became the club’s established striker, netting 16 times in 24 appearances. However, it was the 2003-04 season where Berbatov began to show glimpses of his true ability. By the culmination of the following season, Berbatov had registered an impressive 46 league goals in two seasons.
A move to one of Europe’s elite soon followed, namely Tottenham Hotspurs. When Berbatov first arrived at White Hart Lane, he was the epitome of smart. Suave, smartly dressed and with a certain swagger almost reminiscent of that of a 70s rockstar, his move to England and the Premier League presented him with the perfect opportunity to impress on the world stage.
Whilst his debut was a result to forget as Spurs succumbed to a 2-0 defeat against struggling Bolton Wanderers, Berbatov’s ability was plain for all to see. The grace with which he played, from the subtlety of his first touch to his calmness and composure in front of goal, was something that few possessed.
It was in Tottenham’s UEFA Cup campaign that Berbatov showed his finest form, scoring seven goals in eight appearances before the Lilywhites were eventually knocked out 4-3 on aggregates by Sevilla.
The Bulgarian struggled domestically during his first few months in North London, often starting games on the bench. In December 2007, he scored his first hat-trick in English football, in a 6-4 victory over Reading. His first season at Spurs ended with him notching up 12 goals in 33 league appearances.
The following year Berbatov had his first taste of real success in England, scoring the equaliser in the League Cup final against Chelsea, with Spurs ultimately going on to beat the Blues 2-1 after extra-time. Berbatov’s rich run of form soon drew the attention of other clubs, both in England and abroad. Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson revealed in an interview that he was ‘confident’ of singing the Bulgarian, which led to Spurs launching an official complaint. A month later, he signed for the Reds.
Berbatov’s price had nearly doubled in his three years at White Hart Lane, with United splashing out over £30 million to take the Bulgarian to Old Trafford. Reminiscent of his goal scoring form at Tottenham, Berbatov’s first goals for United came in the Champions League against Danish side Aalborg. He then scored twice in a 4-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion, registering his first league goals for his new side. Berbatov’s most notable goal of his debut season came in April, as he scored United’s fifth in a 5-2 victory over former team Tottenham.
He was instrumental in United’s march towards an 11th Premier League title, picking up his first league winner’s medal since his time in his homeland. In doing so, he became the first Bulgarian ever to win the English Premier League.
A difficult season followed, both individually and for United, as Chelsea, bankrolled by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, eased to a third Premier League title. However, even through periods of struggle, Berbatov enchanted crowds with his seamless ball control, cushioned first touch and calculated finishing.
His third season at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ began well, as he scored United’s third in a 3-1 Community Shield victory over Chelsea, before scoring his side’s first goal of the season against his boyhood club, Newcastle, a week later. A month later, Berbatov endeared himself to the Old Trafford faithful as he scored a hat-trick in a 3-2 victory over rivals Liverpool.
During his time in Manchester, Berbatov equalled a Premier League record by scoring five times in a 7-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. He also won the Golden Boot in 2011, but was left out of Ferguson’s squad as his side succumbed to a 3-1 defeat by Barcelona.
Berbatov was eventually moved on, to a Martin Jol Fulham side who found themselves flirting with the prospect of a relegation fight. Something of a marquee-signing, Berbatov continued to enthral supporters with his grace and skill. The Bulgarian ended up with a total of 19 goals in 51 games for the Cottagers.
However, throughout his time in England, he did receive criticism from some. Many slammed his laid back attitude and demeanour, labelling it a lack of effort. In truth, Berbatov was probably guilty of the odd lapse on focus and desire. His body language, that of a distinct lack of urgency, was less a tell-tale sign of a lack of interest, and more a homage to his skill and ability.
Berbatov was unique, one of football’s few interesting personalities that seem to become rarer by the season. During his time at Craven Cottage, the Bulgarian took his shirt off after scoring a goal, revealing a t-shirt which read ‘keep calm and pass me the ball’. However, he managed somehow to remain on the right side of the thin line between confidence and arrogance.
The swagger with which he carried himself, both on and off the pitch, means that he is remembered as a different type of forward. Far from a rampant number 9, Berbatov’s strength was his ability to do things that other players wouldn’t even try. Despite his lethargic approach, he had a healthy goal return throughout his career. Whilst later spells at Monaco, PAOK and Kerala Blasters reaped less success, wherever he went he carried with him not only the promise of slick, stylish football but also a guarantee of goals.
Ultimately, Dimitar Berbatov was a breath of fresh air from the conveyor belt of seemingly characterless Premier League footballers. Epitomising swagger in every sense of the word, he will go down not only as one of the most gifted to have played the game, but also, thanks to his goal scoring record, a true great.