Dimitar Berbatov – The Magic Player From Bulgaria
Now at the peak of his career, The Godfather fan Dimitar Berbatov opted to remain at Tottenham Hotspur during the January transfer window. But how long will it be before the Bulgarian, who is determined to reach the very pinnacle of the game, receives “an offer he can’t refuse”?
The first transfer fee for Berbatov was not paid in cash: instead CSKA Sofia handed over 20 pairs of football boots to his local team, Pirin. Today, it would probably need the entire annual output of one of the leading boot manufacturers to come close to affording the Bulgarian striker, who has established himself as one of the most sought-after forwards in the game.
The original deal did not turn out to be such a bad move for Pirin, the club based in Berbatov’s home town of Blagoevgrad in the south west of the country, as they picked up handsome percentages from sell-on clauses when he was sold to Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga for GBP 1.56 million and then later to Tottenham for GBP 10.8 million.
By that time, Berbatov had become the pin-up of Bulgarian football, with film-star looks (he is the image of Andy Garcia and an avid fan of The Godfather trilogy of films, but is more a fan of Robert de Niro) and blessed with a combination of skill and level-headedness that has propelled him into the very top level of his profession.
Indeed, the 27-year-old is one of the very few players who can have his pick of the biggest clubs in the world — even if for the time being at least he insists he is more than happy playing for Tottenham in the English Premier League.
Berbatov’s sporting prowess was in his genes. His father Ivan played on the left wing and in defence for CSKA while his mother Margarita was a renowned athlete and handball player. The boy Dimitar excelled at many sports including long jump and running, but by the age often he had shown enough promise at football to be enrolled in Pirin’s football school.
He modelled himself on another tall, slim and skilful striker: Marco van Basten, then at AC Milan, though the young Berbatov was also enthralled by Alan Shearer’s exploits for England at EURO ’96. Aged 17, he was spotted by Bulgaria’s legendary coach Dimitar Penev and signed for CSKA; the fee of 20 pairs of boots has also become legendary.
There were good and bad times in Sofia, however. Although just a teenager, Berbatov established himself as an excellent goalscorer, yet he also bore the brunt of the criticism in 2001 when the club were narrowly beaten to the title by city rivals Levski. As a result, he received threats on his mobile phone, while angry fans shouted abuse at both him and his mother.
CRUCIAL ROLE AT BAYER
Berbatov, known as “Mitko” to his family, considered giving up the game; instead, Bayer Leverkusen made their interest known and he jumped at the chance to move to Germany. In his first full season, still only aged 21, Berbatov was rewarded with an appearance as a substitute in the 2002 Champions League final against Real Madrid. He had played a crucial role in the German side reaching the final too, having scored against Liverpool in the quarter-final.
By 2003-04, Berbatov had cemented his position as first-choice striker and in the following two seasons scored 46 goals. When the big-money move to Tottenham came, many wondered how he would adapt to the more physical game in England. The answer was swift in coming. Seven minutes into his first match at White Hart Lane, he scored against Sheffield United and a further 22 goals followed in his first season. But with his success came die interest of other clubs, many of them regulars in the Champions League whose coaches remembered his qualities in Europe with Leverkusen.
Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United was among those reported to have tried to make The Godfather fan “an offer he can’t refuse” and for much of the most recent January transfer window speculation swirled around Berbatov constantly. But the striker decided to remain at Tottenham, persuaded that under new Spanish coach Juande Ramos the untapped potential in the club could finally be released.
A LEADING ROLE
After the transfer window closed, the Tottenham fans sung his name in joy and relief, causing Berbatov a mixture of pride and embarrassment. He admits: “Those songs often make me feel a bit uncomfortable. After all, it’s the team that deserves the credit, I cannot do anything without them. I feel great at the club. I am respected. We have lots of fun on the pitch. I’ve always done right by the teams I’ve played for. Who knows what the future holds; I’m happy at Tottenham and I’m glad the speculation is over as all these talks and rumours start messing with your head. I like the Premier League and the fact that every team can beat every other one – I like the games being unpredictable.”
It took less than a month for Berbatov’s decision to pay off as he helped Tottenham land their first trophy since 1999, beating Chelsea 2-1 in the final of the Carling Cup. Berbatov played a leading role too, scoring the penalty that hauled Tottenham back on level terms. It was a classic Berbatov moment, keeping his cool superbly and waiting for Petr Cech to commit himself before sliding the ball into the opposite corner and, “back bing!”, as Sonny Corleone put it, Chelsea’s hopes were soon swimming with the fishes.
BETTER THAN STOICHKOV
“It was an indescribable feeling when the final whistle blew,” said a smiling Berbatov in the players’ tunnel at Wembley afterwards. “Everyone was happy and it was great to see so many smiles. It’s a major trophy and we wanted European football again. The manager is a winner and he knows how to win things. This is his first trophy and I hope it’s the first of many.”
If club football has been an enduring tale of success for Berbatov, there have been mixed fortunes for him with the national side. From a personal point of view, Berbatov can point to the fact that he is now the second-highest scorer of all time for Bulgaria, having recently overtaken the legendary Hristo Stoichkov with 39 goals in 62 internationals, and Hristo Bonev’s tally of 47 looks well within his grasp.
Yet from a team perspective, Bulgaria failed to qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ and did not make this year’s UEFA European Championship finals. That is viewed as unacceptable in a country that as recently as 1994 made the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup™ thanks to the golden generation coached by Penev and inspired by Stoichkov.
Berbatov, who is captain of the national side, has felt that failure personally, and the qualification tournament for the 2010 finals in South Africa is of huge significance. There is fresh hope now. Penev, that mighty influence of the mid-1990s, is back as coach of Bulgaria once more and there another chance awaits for Dimitar Berbatov to parade his talents on the world stage.