Dimitar Berbatov was one of those players who could do whatever they wanted.
As has been mentioned in every paragraph ever written about the player, the thing he didn’t like to do was put himself about like so many of his anarchic, blood-and-thunder peers. Running was too gauche for him.
“I am a relaxed guy,” he said in 2009, with typical understatement. “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.”
Sometimes. He knew what he wanted to do and that want to do was luxuriate; blessing the pitch with his ethereal calm, his charming insouciance, his ability to do amazing things on the absolute regular.
Here, a supporter from each of his three English clubs tells us what made him so special.
I’d never heard of Dimitar Berbatov until I saw his name going along the Sky Sports News ticker back in the summer of 2006; he was on his way to Tottenham. I still remember the exact figure, £10.9million. Back then that seemed like quite a lot of money for a punt on a striker who’d never played in England, but all I knew was that Grzegorz Rasiak was shit. And this lad couldn’t possibly be any worse.
We lost in his first proper game for us, a 2–0 defeat to Sam Allardyce’s Bolton. I can’t remember who scored but I bet it was Kevin Davies. Berbatov took a while to settle at Spurs, and it wasn’t until Martin Jol decided to pair him with Robbie Keane that things really started to fall into place.
Keane did all the running, while Berba glided around the pitch like he was on one of those swegway hoverboard things that the Supreme heads go the shops on.
He’d pluck Paul Robinson goal kicks that had gone into orbit out the sky like the ball was a balloon, he’d be on Showboat on Soccer AM *every* Saturday, sending a jobbing Charlton centre half for breakfast or lobbing a keeper from an angle that didn’t exist.
The ball seemed attracted to his feet, like he had it on a piece of string. A bit like when you tied those Star Kick Trainer things around your waist as a kid, with the ball on an elastic band so you could twat it in the garden as hard as you wanted. It’s rare that a player earns legendary status at a club after two years, but Berbatov did exactly that. He made Spurs fun again. He scored the coolest fucking penalty you’ve ever seen in the Carling Cup final against Chelsea and helped us to our first trophy in a decade. He was our Dennis Bergkamp.
We knew he was too good for us, really. We knew he’d grow tired of bailing us out after Ricardo Rocha and Pascal Chimbonda shat the bed time after time.
I still vividly remember the grainy Sky Sports News footage of him arriving at Old Trafford on deadline day in 2008. To lose a player who brought such joy was hard to take. To see Frazier fucking Campbell arrive on a season-long loan as part of the deal was even harder.
My love for Dimitar Berbatov boils down to one single moment (or, in fact, two touches of a football). There’s no real need for context—everyone knows what he was and how he did things—this is just the absolute peak of Dimitar Berbatov. The Ben Nevis, nay, The Mount Everest of Dimitar Berbatov. I didn’t see live. I mean, I was watching the game, but I don’t think anybody saw it live. You have to watch the replays back six or seven times back to realise what he actually did. I reckon you already know what I’m talking about, to be honest. The fact that it lead to an actual football goal just cemented this moment as Great.
Okay. So, it’s United v West Ham at Old Trafford. United, totally in control, on their way to the title (as usual, at that time *sob*), are 1–0 up and Anderson has the ball in midfield. He plays a fairly average ball into the left hand channel, and Berba has nowhere to go, James Collins closely in-tow. The ball reaches the goal line, and suddenly, he’s spun 180, touched it once, and while spinning 90 more, he’s scooped it over poor James’ dangly leg and hopped off towards the goal. Hang about—what’s he done there? How’s he…? What…? EH?
Maybe Zidane might’ve tried it. Possibly Maradona? It’s just all graceful and swan-like and the barely-there celebration when Ronaldo taps his cross in is so nonchalant and maybe a bit smug. Even Ronaldo doesn’t celebrate—he’s just pissed off he didn’t do it.
We’ve all done something a bit good on the football pitch and immediately acted like you did that all the time and it was nothing really. This was that, but like, several hundred levels up. But that was just him, wasn’t it? Always a bit too good for everyone else around him, and really fucking cool about it.
By Jack Collins
It’s a bright, cold afternoon at the Cottage and John Arne Riise has the ball. He slips as he tries the crossfield diag and the ball spoons up in the air. There’s a groan, and then a gasp, as Dimitar Berbatov, in one majestic, impossible motion, cushions the ball and kills it dead. There’s a moment of stunned silence. You’ve seen it. We’ve all seen it. But it never gets old.
I remember sitting in the Hammersmith End the day that Berbatov made his Fulham home debut. Remember watching him warm up, my mind coldly refusing to fully believe it until I’d seen him in the flesh—floating about, languid as ever—on the Cottage turf. He scored twice that day, two stroked finishes that screamed quality. Fulham won 3–0. A new era was dawning and Berba was the Messiah.
It always had the feel, though, of a fling with someone far out of your league. Overpowering emotion—soaring highs, desperate lows. Those first goals, the lust and desire, that screaming volley against Stoke. Thwack. I’d wake up and remember that Fulham had Dimitar Berbatov and sing it all the way to school. Conversations about playing the big six always ended with ‘we’ve got Berba though, so who knows?’
Fulham were sponsored by Kappa that year, and the shirt was lovely, but impossibly tight. Gold and white sash across black. It didn’t look good on me—it didn’t really look good on anyone apart from Berba. I bought it anyway and wore it playing football.
But when the going got tough, the questions arose—was he interested? Why was he with us? Would he break our heart?
In the end, he did. Berba was never one for a relegation scrap. He went to Monaco on loan in January 2014, scored that outrageous chip where he barely moved his foot, and Fulham were relegated from the Premier League. I never really blamed him though—Berbatov was sex on the green carpet and there’s nothing sexy about a survival battle. He came, we fell in love, he went.
And we’ll always have that touch.
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