Berbatov used to be the stylist, the magician, a luxury that even Alex Ferguson, the master of the helter-skelter, could ill afford. Berbatov won two league titles at Manchester United and was the top scorer in the second of those — 2010/11. The cool and com-posed Bulgarian scored 56 goals in 149 appearances for the Red Devils including the mesmerising hat-trick against arch-rivals Liverpool. Recalling those heady days at Old Trafford, Berbatov often gets nostalgic. “Every goal you score, however ugly or beautiful, is precious for a striker. But now when I replay those moments, the bicycle kick goal against Liverpool comes to the top of my mind,” said Berbatov during an exclusive interaction with TOI as part of the United We Play initiative, which is supported by Apollo Tyres and Manchester United.
Obviously the comparison with ‘old’ United and the current one crops up and Berbatov is full of hope. “There has been a lot of change. Players are changing, coaches are changing all the time. I had the privilege of playing under one coach, Alex Ferguson. Obviously we haven’t won the Premier League after he left. I feel they will get back to their best very soon. They have the world’s best player in Cristiano Ronaldo and their German coach Ralf Rangnick is widely respected for his work and ideas. So hopefully, slowly and surely the team will regain it’s place at the top.”
Recalling his playing days with Ronaldo, the Bulgarian said, “I am pretty sure one thing will never change with Ronaldo. It is his professionalism and his approach during training and games. Each one of my colleagues in United can testify to the intensity with which he prepared himself. I am pretty sure he is the same now. Because you cannot be playing at 36 unless you are extremely professional. Of course, Ronaldo has changed his game. Now he is more of a centre-forward, waiting for the ball to come to him. Naturally his speed is not the same as it was.”
There will be time for the next gen to outshine Lionel Messi and Ronaldo, says the Bulgarian. “Well, first to name is Kylian Mbappe who will be a Ballon d’Or winner for sure. Erling Haaland is of course someone who is scoring goals for fun, Neymar is already an established name. They will have spotlight on them.”
Rather shy to talk about himself, it took a little coaxing to break the ice and make Berbatov speak about the distinct style of his that earned him admirers and detractors in equal measure. “I am very proud of my style. I started playing on grass-less pitches, throwing the ball and trying to control it throughout the day. Along the way, I saw football differently. For me, football was imagination and creativity. And when the crowd went “wow, wow” and applauded my game, it was my biggest reward.”
It is a rare but an unwelcome occasion that an 18-year old gets kidnapped by a rival team owner to play for his club. Berbatov’s initiation into top-flight football involved such a nightmare. He was picked up by gangster boss Georgi Iliev who wanted him to sign for his own club FC Levski Kjustendil. In the end, he didn’t, and he was released but the horrific memory stayed with him. He moved on to Bayer Leverkusen, switched to Tottenham Hotspur and played his best with Manchester United. He created beautiful goals and left with pleasant memories, a cerebral samurai on the football pitch.