My arm had begun to ache. It wasn’t too bad but it was paining after I had gone mental and had ended up pumping it in the air, almost wildly. And the reason was more justified than it could’ve been.
Man United had beaten Liverpool in a thriller of a contest. I had an important Mathematics exam to do the very next day, but a United fan can never dare missing a clash against the Scousers at Old Trafford. And apart from the win, someone had registered his name into the annals of time. United’s Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov had become the first player to score a hat-trick in the fiercely contested fixture after long 63 years.
The game of football, they say, is made for the powerhouses, grafters and those who are gifted with unerring stamina, such that they have the ability to toil on the pitch and break sweat for the team. And it requires effort, the kind of effort that often tends to differentiate footballers from the cricketers, basketball players and wrestlers, giving them their own unique identity in the world of sport.
But people aren’t wrong, they’re different, aren’t they? Not every football player in the world has to adhere to such a cliched style and there’s nothing wrong in being a tad different than the mainstream footballer. And despite that, some players combine style with a languid nature. And one of them has been Dimitar Berbatov.
The Bulgarian was one of the most elegant players I’ve ever seen take to a football pitch, or at least in the Premier League. The swagger that he carried to the pitch was unlike many others in the footballing universe, and it separated him from many others. Someone who unknowingly invented the term ‘lethargic excellence’, the former Tottenham and Manchester United star hardly seemed to exhibit any additional amount of energy or extra zeal, even during his younger days.
The effortless approach to the game was something that gave an impression that the Bulgarian could make the ‘beautiful game’ more elegant, but in his own, unique manner.
Often described as a ‘moody character’, whose mood tended to determine how he would play on a given day, doing the so called ‘dirty work’ was ostensibly too much for ‘Berba’. It was if the game was too easy for him to make an impact in. All it needed was an elegant flick of a right foot, a subtle shift in body balance or a strike of a boot. And with the help of all his abilities, he could bring to even the dullest of games a brilliant strike of lightning. Such was the effortlessness with which he played.
Former Fulham and Tottenham manager Martin Jol is known to be one of Berbatov’s greatest admirers. He was that individual who saw flashes of brilliance in his play, or perhaps a stark resemblance to someone like Marco van Basten or Denis Bergkamp. His next to flawless first touch, control and vision was suggestive of how much he resembles the two aforementioned Dutch heroes.
Jol was the first to realize that Berbatov wasn’t wrong, he was different but just as effective on his day. Jol was arguably the first personality who worked with him and it was sheer nonchalance that made him what he actually was. He once went as far as admitting that “he would rather die than sell Berbatov”, when the then Spurs star sealed a move to Old Trafford in a deal worth €30million.
And he ended up re-signing the then 31-year-old at Craven Cottage during his stint at the relegation threatened Fulham. Still, he wanted more of him, much like us!
Hardly bothering to break into a sprint, Berbatov was was just as casual on the pitch, as much as he was off it. Usually attired in a tight fitting kit, full sleeved and black gloved, Berbatov was inch perfect for being a box office star, who’s being handed the role of a villain with a knack for harming his victims discreetly, without anyone having the slightest idea about it.
Even on the pitch, he could pull off outrageous things that he, and only he, can pull of in the modern day…
“On one occasion I went sliding in to Dimitar Berbatov (I honestly thought I could win the ball) and afterwards the look on his face was one of total pity for me. He seemed saddened by the fact I had to resort to this, either because I wasn’t as good as him or my football education was so flawed. Actually I think it was both.” – The Secret Footballer
As if running around for the ball was for headless chickens, Berbatov wasn’t just an individual overflowing with grace, he had laid his hands on trophies too. Premier League triumphs, League Cups and the Champions Leagues may have been just materialistic evidences but it was his idle swagger and ball control that lured people into adoring him.
Berbatov was often accused of not working hard enough and never performing the dirty work that most players do. But it was natural, he’d have been in tatters if he would’ve dropped in deeper areas to defend and tackle. It was like asking Chris Gayle to defend, and asking a drunk not to drink.
He was very good at holding the ball up and bringing players around him into the play. He racked up his fair share of detractors due to him missing the odd chance to score here and there, but there’s no striker in the world who doesn’t do that.
It may be due to his lack of completeness that he was dropped by Sir Alex Ferguson a tad regularly, remarkably during United’s 2011 Champions League final against Barcelona. And it was a reason for his sale, too, apart from not getting enough time on the pitch due to the presences of the likes of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Javier Hernandez.
I won’t criticize Sir Alex for doing it, but it was a very wise decision indeed. A decision that was made for the good of the club, and even for Berbatov’s good, who was slowly nearing his mid 30s.
His manner of trotting upon the pitch gives an impression of him being a lackadaisical character, away from the hustle, bustle and physical nature of the English game. It made us think that he’s deficient when it comes to playing, or least interested in stepping out on the pitch. But it’s all a mistake. He is someone who doesn’t want all the light on him every time. He’s more reserved and demure in his approach.
Misunderstanding his intentions was common and monotonous for detractors. But all he did was silence them rather soundly with his flashes of sheer and utter brilliance on the ball. And no matter how much you watch him play and weave his magic with feet firmly on the ground, you will never feel satisfied.
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