Unravelling the persona of Dimitar Berbatov

Dimitar Berbatov

Author: Thore Haugstad

Like many artists, Dimitar Berbatov can appear to be full of curiosities and contradictions. Unlike several footballers subjected to fame and fortune, he has remained faithful to himself and his work—from the time he painted a mural of his footballing heroes on his bedroom ceiling in Bulgaria, to his majestic peak at Tottenham, where his genius excused his aversion to labour. (Which is no small a tribute.) Catapulted into a culture that values industry and demonstrative leadership, he became a polarising non-conformist. When others braved the cold, he wore tights. When crowds craved blood and thunder, he shrugged, saying he was not in the business of chasing lost balls. If some perceived his nonchalance as arrogance, his talent was seldom questioned. Jamie O’Hara, his former team-mate, recalls Berbatov being in possession in training, some forty yards away, with his back to him. “I was yelling for the ball,” he told David Hytner of the Guardian. “Berba dropped his shoulder and, without looking, he played a pinpoint pass right to my feet. After training, he said to me: ‘I know where you are. You don’t have to shout.’”

In London, Berbatov became known as a complex melancholic. He never did press. When forced to speak, he seemed shy and reluctant. In public, he could hide behind dark shades; once, he was pictured sucking on a cigarette. According to Hytner, one Tottenham employee said he only ever saw him eat in the canteen with a plastic knife and fork. A satirical article described him as a “performance artist” and a “serious man” who “makes Eric Cantona look like Michael McIntyre”. His coolness in possession denoted an awareness of his gifts, and not a few noted that his flamboyance could well have been dressed up in smoking as opposed to a football shirt. Off the pitch, team-mates portrayed him as diffident. At times he felt depressed, but his mood was never easy to read. Martin Jol, his manager at Tottenham and Fulham, and one of the few who ever appeared to understand him, said: “The thing you’ve got to understand is; even when he’s happy, he doesn’t always look it.”

The metaphor of Berbatov as an artist is not new. It has even been used by himself. One of his enduring interests is to create visual beauty; a notion that started when he got into art at school. Drawing became one of his favourite hobbies, and still is.

“I always tend to think my goals are beautiful goals,” he said on Manchester United’s US pre-season tour in 2011. “That is what I want to score; beautiful goals, and create beautiful chances for my team-mates. The things that every player will tell you if they ask you that question.”

Reporter: “But not every player does say that. Not every player says they want to do beautiful things.”

Berbatov: “Every player is different, probably. You are not going to see me puffing around the pitch.”

Reporter: “That is not your way?”

Berbatov: “No.”

Such an appreciation for the artistic has facilitated a mindset that differs from the typical poacher. In October 2010, when Berbatov had become the first United player in sixty-four years to score a hat-trick against Liverpool, he said: “I didn’t know scoring three goals against Liverpool would mean so much to so many people. It was just a game for me. Even if it had finished 1-0 and I had scored the goal, it would have been fine.” Someone quizzed him on the five goals he had scored against Blackburn. “When I scored my second I thought: ‘Probably here is another hat-trick for me.’ But five? Probably after the fourth, I was thinking about five. Surprisingly, people ask me why I didn’t get a sixth. I would have been the only one to do that. First of all, I never thought about it. I never think about things like this. I just try to enjoy.”

Later at United, he said: “I will have a game where you stand around doing nothing, and then in the end, the ball hits you in the knee and goes into the net. But that doesn’t make me feel happy. I need to play with the ball and feel it with my feet, to organise and make things happen. That is what make me feel like a player.”

That comment might evoke an assist Berbatov made at home to West Ham in October 2008. Collecting a pass by the touchline, he spun on a sixpence to stroke it with him towards goal, in a situation where others would be content to concede a throw-in. The pirouette outplayed James Collins and set up a tap-in for Cristiano Ronaldo. It was one of his artistic highlights in Manchester. “I was watching it back at home afterwards and rewinding it in my head, and I was the luckiest guy in the world,” Berbatov said later. “This is what gives me pleasure.”

Berbatov was born in 1981 in Blagoevgrad, a provincial town in south-western Bulgaria, at a time when communism reigned. His father, Ivan, was a former footballer with Pirin Blagoevgrad. His mother, Margarita, was a handball player turned senior nurse at a hospital. The upbringing was not luxurious. Money was scarce. The flat was small and overcrowded. Berbatov slept on a sofa. “I know what a crisis is,” he would later say, according to The Mirror. “I appreciate life and I never take anything for granted.”

Painting was not his only interest. According to biographer Chris Davies, Berbatov was involved in athletics, and did particularly well at long jump and—some might say ironically—running. But football took centre stage. He adored AC Milan because of Marco van Basten, whom he has said remains his all-time favourite player. Another role model was Alan Shearer, and when he got a Newcastle shirt with ‘Shearer 9’ on the back, he liked it so much that he slept in it. The domestic inspiration was Hristo Stoichkov, who led Bulgaria to a sensational semi-final place at the 1994 World Cup in USA. By that time, Berbatov had started his own career. He was to become reasonably tall, but other sports never appealed as greatly. “When Dimitar was very small he broke the cabinet by accident because he used to kick a basketball around the apartment,” his mother told The Mirror. “We couldn’t afford to buy him a football.”

As a kid, Berbatov enrolled at the academy of Pirin Blagoevgrad. At seventeen, he was spotted by the legendary Dimitar Penev, a former defender, who had coached Bulgaria at the 1994 World Cup. Penev brought him to CSKA Sofia. The transfer fee involved twenty pairs of football boots. After debuting at eighteen, Berbatov delivered an eye-catching first full season, and in the summer of 2000 nearly joined Lecce, only for the deal to collapse. More dubious parties were also interested. At one point, three men kidnapped him from training in an effort to recruit him for Levski Kyustendil, the club owned by notorious gangster Georgi Iliev. Luckily, the situation was resolved. But Berbatov was never going to stay in Sofia for long, and in January 2001 he signed for Bayer Leverkusen. Leaving his country, his reticence remained. “He didn’t like giving interviews,” said Ulrich Dost, Leverkusen’s chief of press, according to Davies. “You virtually had to force him to do it. And when he did, he only talked about football. He never discussed his private life.”

Berbatov’s family stayed in Bulgaria. He flew home often. “I’ve done many stupid things because of my stubbornness, only because I didn’t want to listen to my parents’ advice,” he would later tell the Sun. “And then it always turned out that they were right.” Particularly Ivan has guided his career. “My father always told me not to be swell-headed,” he said. “He repeated that so often that it still helps me. When I realise I give myself airs, the red light in my head flashes. Many times I was ashamed because of some of the things I had done. I have paraded the fact that I’m Dimitar Berbatov. Then I always heard my dad’s voice in my head.” Margarita told the Mirror: “I am very proud of him. What makes me really happy is we always talk after every game. I text him during the match, maybe when he’s scored a great goal. That way my message is waiting for him when he finishes. He tells me I am the world’s greatest mum.”

At Leverkusen, Berbatov recorded just six appearances before summer, scoring none. But the side came fourth and qualified for the Champions League, laying the groundwork for one of the most agonising seasons in recent European football history. Under Klaus Toppmöller—and with a squad of Hans-Jörg Butt, Ze Roberto, Ulf Kirsten, Lúcio, Oliver Neuville, Carsten Ramelow and Michael Ballack—Leverkusen came second in all competitions. They were nicknamed ‘Neverkusen’. Dortmund won the Bundesliga by one point; Schalke 04 won the cup final 4-2. In the Champions League, Zinédine Zidane’s volley inflicted a 2-1 loss. For that game, despite scoring eight league goals that season, Berbatov was omitted from the line-up, but entered on thirty-nine minutes. “I was so young that I didn’t give a damn,” he later said, according to Davies. “I was sitting on the bench and thinking nothing. Then the coach said ‘you are in’, and I was like: ‘OK, whatever’. Maybe when time goes by I will appreciate that it might never happen again.”

Gradually, Berbatov grew in stature. He struck just thrice in twenty-four league appearances in 2002/03, but his Bundesliga tally rose to sixteen in 2003/04, and twenty the following year. In 2005/06, his final campaign in Germany, he notched up twenty-one. Interested clubs had long noticed his slick footwork, his composure; his aerial presence, balance and vision. But not all of his goals denoted his creativity. There were tap-ins, solid headers, rifled finishes; goals of a classic centre-forward. Hints of Shearer. The greatest exception to this was a goal at Roma in November 2004 where, inside the box, he flicked the ball over Traianos Dellas, catching it on the other side, before lifting an angled lob over Carlo Zotti. No wonder he had suitors. “He was so shy, I spoke three sentences to him in five years,” Butt would recall, according to ESPN FC. “But he was superb, one of the best players I ever played with.”

In the summer of 2006, Jol brought Berbatov to Tottenham for £10.9m. The side had just finished fifth, two points behind Arsenal, thanks to a 2-1 defeat at West Ham prior to which the squad had suffered from food poisoning. In a 2008 interview with Maxim magazine republished on his official website, Berbatov was asked whether he’s on good terms with Jol. “Absolutely,” he said. “You know, he’s a bit like the Godfather—he’s got the harsh-sounding voice, very deep, and just like the fictional hero, you can tell he means business just from hearing him speak. And he’s the guy who can motivate you like no one else, to go out there and crush the opposition. He’s a great guy, and I’m lucky to have him as my boss at Spurs. He’s a very big, strong guy.” Berbatov laughed. “Sometimes I feel that if he punched me, it’d be a straight knockout.”

Berbatov learnt English by watching gangster movies. As a youngster he loved the Godfather trilogy, James Bond. In an adidas video conducted on the training ground while at United, Berbatov leaves his shell when encouraged to imitate Vito Corleone. The clip gives the impression of a film geek removed by force from his basement lair to portray his favourite character and, as Berbatov sticks out his jaw and lowers his voice, the resemblance lies further away from Cantona—to whom he had been compared upon his arrival—than from Sheldon Cooper.

“So you come to me, and you ask me a favour…”

The life led by Berbatov off the pitch is ordinary. When Maxim asked him to describe a typical day in London, he replied: “First you go to training—from 11am to about 1-2pm. Then you work out a bit, maybe have a massage. Then you go home and that’s it, more or less. Watching DVDs, surf the internet, that type of thing.” He likes R&B: Tupac, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent. He loves fashion, and says that “I try to do everything with style—not only in football”. But there is nothing ostentatious. “Dimitar has no interest in a fancy lifestyle,” his mother told the Mirror. “His life is football, family and friends. He can travel anywhere in the world, but he tells me he prefers Bulgaria to Barbados.”

At White Hart Lane, Berbatov became a hit. After a tap-in at home to Sheffield United, he showed his elegance at Beşiktaş, rounding a defender and the goalkeeper to slot home. Following were a masterful volley and a downward header; a curled free-kick at West Ham; technical brilliance that rivalled the finest players to have set foot in England. He finished the season with twelve goals in thirty-three league appearances, and a spot in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year.

But Tottenham came fifth again and, in summer, United showed interest. Berbatov stayed, but as the new season commenced, his mood darkened. When Jol took him off in the 1-0 opening-day defeat at Sunderland, he was clearly unhappy. In October, when sitting on the bench at Newcastle, he ignored three requests to warm up. Critics condemned his attitude, though Jol later defended him. “He never said he didn’t want to come on, but that’s how it’s been perceived,” he said. “But that’s Berbatov. He always seems reluctant to do anything. Gifted? Yes. But he is not a fighter.”

The caricature of Berbatov as lazy and indifferent had long existed. His modest work rate had been contentious enough; now he couldn’t even be bothered to enter the pitch. That he ignored the press facilitated few insights into his mind. Perhaps contributory was the fact that his family and best friends were in Bulgaria; Berbatov did say he felt foreign in London. Later, at United, he would say: “If people don’t know me, they think I am a strange guy—and I am a strange guy, you know. I’m shy, and the people who don’t know me don’t realise that. I don’t like to socialise too much and that’s because I am a shy person and have always been like this. I keep my close friends with me whenever I can, and that’s it. I have difficulty letting anyone else into my inner circle.” A year later, he said: “I am a very proud person. I don’t like to show my weaknesses in public… That is why people probably sometimes misjudge me. But that is OK.”

When Jol later managed him at Fulham, comparable issues reappeared, at least internally. “I have to cheer him up sometimes,” Jol said, according to the Guardian. “We talk about nice things and try to be funny.” Did Berbatov talk a lot on the pitch? “He tries to. But don’t forget, he is leading by example if things are going well, and that helps. One or two sentences and that is a lot for him because if you know him, he doesn’t speak that much.” One day, Berbatov had come in and apologised because he was a bit depressed the day before. “Nothing is what it seems,” Jol said. “And depressed people, they can be very cheerful but people don’t notice. But I think there is nothing wrong with him. Sometimes it’s a pose as well. He doesn’t want to work his socks off because that’s not him.”

In late October, Jol was sacked by Tottenham and replaced by Juande Ramos. The Spaniard benched Berbatov for his first league game, while links to United kept appearing. On the morning of a UEFA Cup game against Hapoel Tel Aviv, his younger brother, Asen, offered his take. “He doesn’t feel very good emotionally,” he told the Sun. “This is the reason that the games are not going well. My brother is like this. When the team has bad form, he goes into standby mode. He shares his secrets about everything, yet still we don’t talk about the new coach. Sometimes he finds it better to withdraw from things and collect his thoughts.”

He added: “His skill comes from his mental approach. When my brother is grumpy, his form is bad. I do not know why he is grumpy to everybody. I know him very well and I can see when he is playing now he is grumpy. On the pitch I can see he has lost the desire to perform. When team-mates close him from the game and don’t pass to him, he switches off. I saw the Newcastle game and Spurs were abysmal. Even considering that my brother loves Newcastle but plays for Tottenham, when he is not the centre of attention and main man, he is grumpy.”

Berbatov’s displays improved in December. He hammered home an angled volley against Arsenal, and scored four against Reading. In total, he notched up fifteen goals in thirty-six league appearances, of which many were magnificent. But Tottenham ended eleventh, and after a bitter transfer saga that lasted until September, he joined United for £30.75m.

Sir Alex Ferguson felt Berbatov’s composure could add a missing element to his forward line, which already had Ronaldo, Carlos Tévez and Wayne Rooney. Prior to his arrival, his capacity to play as a second striker triggered comparisons with Cantona and Teddy Sheringham. But familiar reservations about his work rate soon appeared. “I am a relaxed guy,” Berbatov said during his debut season. “I play that way and I can’t change my style. I watch games and see guys who panic on the ball—they look so nervous. I can be calm, because I sometimes know what I want to do before the ball comes to me.”

The argument that Berbatov never succeeded at Old Trafford can be defended. The 2008/09 campaign saw him strike nine times in thirty-one league fixtures; in October 2009, he admitted to the Sun that those figures had disappointed him. “I don’t know what I am doing wrong sometimes,” he said. “Maybe it’s luck, maybe it’s me … who knows? At nights I have stayed awake thinking: ‘You could have done this instead.’ My nerves were too much and that is my responsibility.” A similar notion of self-doubt resurfaced in September 2010, on the back of a season of twelve goals in thirty-three league appearances, at which point Berbatov said he worried whether he was worthy of being the club’s most expensive player in history.

“You try not to think about it but sometimes you just can’t help it,” he said. “You start thinking it’s a lot of money and what’s going to happen if you don’t prove you’re good enough for that amount of money, and if you don’t score enough goals… You start to underestimate your skill, which is not good because I know what I can do, but every player has periods like this in their careers. The main thing to learn is to stay strong, because you are going to have these dark moments and you need to be strong to get through them.”

The 2010/11 season proved to be his best. He scored twenty goals in thirty-two league games, which included his hat-trick against Liverpool and five against Blackburn. That earned him another place in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year, and a shared top scorer prize with Tévez, who had moved to Manchester City. But the season had an unhappy ending. Again, it centred on the Champions League final. Ferguson dropped him from the match squad against Barcelona at Wembley—in favour of Michael Owen. It was a hammer blow. Ferguson reasoned that Berbatov was a poor impact player, but admitted that “he took it badly, and I felt rotten”. A few months later, on United’s pre-season tour, Berbatov refused to talk about it. “I don’t want to go back to that,” he said. “What it is, it was. Does that make any sense?”

Berbatov’s influence would wane. He spent the next season on the fringes, scoring seven goals in just twelve league fixtures. By summer an exit appeared likely, though when he left, Ferguson defended him. “I don’t think Dimitar was a failure here,” he told the press. “Some people like to see players run through brick walls all the time. Dimitar is not that type of player, but he is very talented and he had a decent goalscoring record here.”

Later, in his 2013 autobiography, Ferguson touched upon the dark moments Berbatov had referred to earlier. “Berbatov was surprisingly lacking in self-assurance,” he wrote. “He never had the Cantona or Andy Cole peacock quality, or the confidence of Teddy Sheringham… Berbatov was not short of belief in his ability, but it was based on his way of playing. Because we functioned at a certain speed, he was not really tuned into it.” In training, they had worked on getting the ball to him quickly. “But when the play broke down he was inclined to walk,” Ferguson wrote. “You couldn’t do that at our place.”

That summer, Berbatov was linked to several clubs. He appeared set to sign for Fiorentina, but had a last-minute change of heart. The Italians were furious and demanded reimbursement for flights booked for Berbatov and his agent. “The player embarked, in the company of his agent and with tickets paid by Fiorentina, on a direct flight to Florence,” a club statement read. “But the player never arrived in Florence. [This was] owing to the reckless and arrogant actions of other clubs which have nothing to do with the values of decency, fair play and ethics of the sport and which go beyond the limits of fairness. As for the player, notwithstanding his characteristics and technical merit, at this point we are happy that he did not come to Fiorentina. He did not deserve our city and our shirt and the values it represents.”

Berbatov admitted there had been confusion, but said he never accepted any offers. As for the reaction, he told World Soccer: “What people say about me in Italy is of no interest to me.”

What had turned his head? A late call from Jol, who later remembered: “The only thing he said was: ‘Do you think they will like me?’”

The move represented more progress for Fulham than it did for Berbatov. Jol declared it “probably the biggest signing in the history of Fulham”. Berbatov did concede he would miss the chase for big titles and Champions League football. “But I am happy because I am playing football again,” he told World Soccer. “Maybe I will be nervous if we lose a few matches, but this is normal. I have played for a big team, and I know what I can offer and what I need to learn. I want to enjoy playing football, to feel alive.” His character had not changed. When he arrived, the medical department requested that he take a personality test. “With Berba, I said: ‘Don’t let him fill it in!’” Jol recalled. “But, OK, he did it. They came back saying: ‘He’s an extrovert, a leader.’ I said: ‘What are you bloody talking about?’ He wasn’t being serious when he filled in his answers.”

Jol’s fondness of Berbatov might be linked to other aspects than football. The Dutchman collects art. At one point, he estimated to possess three hundred and fifty paintings, with works from New York, Canada and Vienna. At Tottenham, he visited the National Gallery. (“They have a great selection of Dutch painters there,” he told the Guardian. “I like walking around looking at the Rembrandts. It’s a nice way to spend my time.”) While at Fulham, he entertained dreams of opening his own gallery. To what extent such a taste is interlinked with his adoration for Berbatov can be left to speculation, but it would surprise if the couple’s devotion to art was merely coincidental, and it might well have underpinned Jol’s understanding and appreciation of Berbatov as a player.

At Craven Cottage, Berbatov partnered Bryan Ruiz, the Costa Rican, who had a similar profile as far as technique and industry were concerned. The duo formed a classy couple in which freewheeling individualism transcended tactical instructions. On Boxing Day, after scoring at Southampton, Berbatov got booked for revealing a t-shirt that said ‘Keep calm and pass me the ball’. (Jol: “It was a bit stupid.”) Earlier, in November, Jonathan Northcroft, of the Sunday Times, observed that the Fulham website was offering free printing if you bought a ‘Berbatov 9’ shirt, plus the latest issue of the club magazine, which had Ruiz on the cover. “You feel there should also be ads for velvet smoking jackets, Fabergé eggs, Aston Martins and rare parakeets,” he noted.

How such aesthetics must have pleased Jol. Not to mention the fact that it worked; Berbatov struck fifteen league goals, equalling his second-best season in England, and Fulham finished twelfth. “It is about good footballers and I even feel, if you look at Ruiz and Berbatov, maybe it’s not the best combination,” Jol said, according to the Sunday Times. “But nothing in football is what it seems.”

The Jol regime suited Berbatov. The forward appears to have become more relaxed with age, and his list of interests has grown. In October 2009 he became a father for the first time, to a baby daughter; in November 2012, a second daughter arrived. Before that, in 2006, he became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador for children in Bulgaria. In 2008, he set up his own foundation, with the aim to “support comprehensive young people to educate themselves, develop their gifts and talents and give them a chance to share them with the world”. Even when managing his own career, his devotion to youth has surfaced. In 2010, when voted Bulgaria’s footballer of the year for a seventh time, he said: “I prefer to see some of the younger lads winning the award. Please, don’t vote for me anymore.”

In Berbatov’s second season at Fulham, Jol was sacked in December. The following month, he left as well. He joined Monaco as stand-in for the injured Radamel Falcao, and by summer he had six goals in twelve league appearances. The most memorable was a strike at home to Nice in April that seemed to encapsulate everything about him. He collected a ball inside the box on the left, six yards from the byline, but from a difficult angle. As it bounced, his body stopped completely, except for a leg that sent the ball into an elusive arch over the keeper, nestling into the far corner. It was delightfully casual, a masterpiece even by Berbatov’s standards.

The next summer, Monaco extended his contract by a year. He would find the net on seven occasions in twenty-six league games, though that figure did not include his strike in the 3-1 win at Arsenal in the Champions League. After the memorable display came a memorable pitchside interview, in which Berbatov spoke to Geoff Shreeves.

Shreeves: “Why do you think you were able to make Arsenal look so ordinary, and you so good tonight?”

Berbatov: “Because we are good.”

Yet at thirty-four, Berbatov might have realised his chances of staying at Monaco were unlikely. In one interview, he reflected on his career. “I want to be remember as a good player, you know? Like, as a special player. The player who just plays in his own way, scores his own goals and… you know… just has fun on the pitch.”

Since 2008, Berbatov has had a Facebook page. The posts were initially newspaper articles or video highlights, but in the last three years, it has opened a window into his everyday life. The tone is lighthearted and personal. There is a video of an ice-bucket challenge; selfies with Prince Albert, El Fenómeno, Snoop Dogg. In one image, he is on the PlayStation trying to recreate what he did in a game the day before. Others show his drawings, which, to an untrained eye at least, hold a respectable level. One is a painting of Don Corleone having his hand kissed; in the background, Berbatov is doing the pose himself, lower jaw sticking out, with a pencil behind his ear.

There are also links to his charity work. There is support for Stiliyan Petrov, his old team-mate at CSKA and the national team, who was diagnosed with acute leukaemia in 2012. Yet the stars of the show are his two daughters. Together they play around in the house, dress up in oversized football shirts, go for walks in the countryside. In one, one of the girls is on the laptop:

Berbatov: “So i’m telling her, how i score a goal in the last game, how we won the game, and she told me – Dad, be quiet, i’m watching Finding Nemo..:))))))”

In another, he is lying on the couch with his daughters in his arms. “What more, can a man want..:)))”

In the end, Berbatov was released by Monaco. In September he signed for PAOK, the Greek side based in the costal town of Thessaloniki; a three-hour drive south of Blagoevgrad. At his presentation, he was welcomed by some ten thousand fans. “Thank you so much for the reception, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “I didn’t expect something like this. I’m just a simple person who plays football.”

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