Few footballers in world football have an aura and a degree of class about them that brings a level of excellence which clubs around the world so desperately crave. Dimitar Berbatov falls in that exact category. A man who oozes calmness, composure, and confidence, the Bulgarian represents exactly what a forward should be like in the modern day. In a career spanning 16 years, and still ongoing, the forward has come a long way from his town of Blagoevgrad in Bulgaria.
Born to a family which has sport in its DNA, Dimitar was raised by Ivan and Margarita Berbatov both of who were professional athletes in their day. Ivan, represented CSKA Sofia, Bulgaria’s most prominent football team, and a side his son would go on to play for himself.
CSKA Sofia is the most successful team in Bulgarian football history. With 31 league titles and 19 domestic cups to date, they are on a different level as compared to other Bulgarian clubs. On the continental stage, they’ve gone where no other Bulgarian team has ever gone, with two semi-final appearances in 1967 and 1982. Apart from a World Cup semi-final appearance in 1994, Bulgarian football as a whole hasn’t been too special. Players like Hristo Stoichkov and Krassimir Balakov were part of the country’s “golden era” in the mid-90s, but there hasn’t been much to cheer for since.
Berbatov started his career at local side AFC Pirin, the same as his father, where he made an immense name for himself as he went from strength to strength in his youth career. 77 goals in nearly 100 games for his youth side earned him a move to CSKA Sofia, and it was this sort of brilliance that took him to the greatest stages in Germany, England, and France.
He was, and still is, a calm figure in front of goal. Standing at 6 feet 2 inches tall, he provided an immense aerial threat that was a massive asset to have for the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United in the Premier League in England. A deadly right foot made him a cunning figure in front of goal and a threat to any backline in the world. Often regarded as “lazy” and “lacklustre” by professionals and the media alike, some of his performances exhibited his genuine class, contrary to claims.
In the red of Manchester United, he displayed his genius in a game against fierce rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford. This was in September of 2010 where the Bulgarian scored a famous hat-trick. The first that afternoon was a fine diving header from a Ryan Giggs‘ corner from the left side. His second, and probably the best goal that day was a stunning overhead kick after a deft first touch from a Nani cross. The third, after Roy Hodgson‘s side had replied to get the scores level, was another header, this time from the right side to seal all three points in a 3-2 win.
Just a couple of months later, he showed his mettle in a 5-goal blitz against Blackburn Rovers. With Manchester United cruising to the title that season, the game at Old Trafford seemed a certain win, and Berbatov was at his ultimate best that evening. His third goal that day was the pick of the bunch. After combining well with Patrice Evra deep in midfield, he played a sumptuous pass out wide to Nani using the outside of his boot and ran straight into the box. Some sweet work on the wing and a cross from the Portuguese gave Berbatov the simple task of thumping the ball into the net to seal a beautiful move.
Berbatov scored winning goals in seven games that season as he was the league’s joint top scorer alongside ex-team mate Carlos Tevez, but that form still wasn’t enough to earn him a spot in Manchester United’s 18 man squad for the Champions League final defeat to Barcelona at Wembley. Despite his indubitable talent, his form that season divided opinion, regardless of the fact that he played a crucial role in a title-winning campaign.
One of the most technically gifted players in modern football, it wasn’t just at Old Trafford where he gave the fans the opportunity to witness his magic. At Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, his second professional side, he scored a magnificent goal in a Group B UEFA Champions League game against AS Roma at the Olimpico. With three adept touches, the first to loop a low pass, the second to take the ball over a charging defender and the third to lob the ball over a bamboozled goalkeeper, he scored one of the finest goals in the competition.
Tottenham Hotspur, too, got to see the sorcery of this man. He regards a volley from outside the box against Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium, a fine finish after a wonderful piece of skill against Charlton Athletic and a sweetly-struck free-kick against London rivals West Ham United as three of the finest goals he scored for the Lilywhites. His 46 goals in 102 games put him in the same bracket as Gareth Bale, Ledley King, and Luka Modrić as Tottenham’s best players of the modern era.
He wasn’t just about the goals as some of his highlights show. Back at Old Trafford, in a game against West Ham United, he set up Cristiano Ronaldo for a simple tap-in after a seemingly complex skill that he completed with such ease. After collecting a relatively overhit pass from Anderson, he allowed defender James Collins to run towards him and performed a beautiful spin on the byline to go past him and lay up the Portuguese. The move is now called by many as the “Berba Spin” in homage to the Bulgarian’s fantastic efforts.
Despite having never won the Champions League after two failed final attempts, or participating in the World Cup, Berbatov has enough on his CV to show that he’s had a glittering career. 48 goals in 78 games for his country sees him as the country’s greatest ever goal getter, ahead of the aforementioned legends who did indeed manage to represent the country at the highest level.
His glory days fall at Manchester United where he won his greatest honours. Premier League titles in 2009 and 2011, as well as the League Cup in 2010, the Club World Cup in 2008 and the Community Shield in 2008 and 2011 makes his Red Devils’ stint the most successful of his career. His Tottenham stint saw him win just the League Cup in 2008, and, to this day, it’s the last trophy Spurs won.
It’s his individual glory that makes a large part of his career. A record seven-time Bulgarian footballer of the year including 4 consecutive times between 2007 and 2010, combined with being AS Monaco, Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham‘s player of the season in different stints proves his worth. Furthermore, he’s also a stunning artist off the pitch, displaying some of his work to his social media followers and bringing further credibility to his talents.
Love him or hate him Dimitar Berbatov is a footballer who’s always going to be talked about. Whether he’s scoring, assisting or just being on the pitch, he’s always got an opinion going on and he’s one of the most cultured forwards of this generation. A hero to many, and an absolute genius of a footballer, Berbatov’s career has been a pleasure to witness and could continue even further.