There could not have been a more marked contrast between the two players who shared last season's Premier League Golden Espadrille. As Carlos Tevez stropped on the sideline of the Allianz Arena, bringing the whole Abu Dhabi project into question/causing some journalists to completely lose the run of themselves/offering a terrible indictment of modern football/being a massive, godforsaken tit [pick your favourite], Dimitar Berbatov sat calmly on the bench at Old Trafford. Later, when asked to go on, he graciously complied, playing as well as could reasonably expected given an almost complete lack of game-time and a palpable lack of managerial faith.
The persistent exclusion of the Bulgarian is one of the more vexing subplots to an unusually pell-mell beginning to the season at Old Trafford. Gone is the European solidity and habitual cautiousness; gone, too, the traditional slow start in the league. With goals piling up at both ends, and a new, young, free-wheeling United side beginning to take shape, it is hard to escape the sense that Berbatov is very much yesterday's man, however recent and excellent that yesterday might have been.
Alex Ferguson does this from time to time. Players find themselves frozen out of the first team for what can sometimes appear, to an external observer, to be little or no reason. Wes Brown, for example, spent much of last season training outside the first team. Whether this is motivational genius (sacrificing one player as an example to the rest of the team), petty caprice (for some perceived slight or offence) or both isn't really the point, and in Berbatov's case there is at least something of a footballing excuse. The preternatural understanding of Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney, along with the emergence of "Welbz"*, means that the beetle-browed genius is probably Manchester United's fourth-choice striker.
* He has this embossed on his boots. Sigh.
As an aside, might it be fair to say that Ferguson and maverick genius have never been truly comfortable bedfellows? Cantona blossomed, of course, but was only purchased after a bid for David Hirst had failed*. Veron diminished through misuse and mistrust. And those players that achieved greatness under the Scot - Van Nistelrooy, Keane, Scholes, Ronaldo - are or were, to a certain extent, extraordinary by virtue of their capacity to do the ordinary things of football almost as well as they could possibly be done. This is not a criticism, or an attempt to denigrate these players, simply an assertion that they weren't great in the way that Berbatov is. More effective, certainly, but we'll get to that later. Anyway, just a thought.
* Yes, David Hirst was great, and bloody unlucky with injuries. But he wasn't Cantona, now, was he? No. Simmer down.
Looking back a couple of seasons, it seems astonishing that there were - and maybe still are, football being football and people being idiots - elements of the Manchester United support that at the time of his departure would have preferred the self-aggrandising Tevez to the selfless Bulgar. But then Berbatov violates the great unwritten commandment of English football - RUN, FOREIGNER, RUN!!! - instead realising, correctly, that it doesn't matter how busy you look, as long as you're in the right place at the right time. (To invoke a great, Johan Cruyff once pointed out that any player who was sprinting had probably set off too late.) More than most, Berbatov has been victim of the tyranny of the visual that dogs so much of English public life.
That all changed last season, of course, when he joint top-scored, finally laying to rest the tiresome complaints that he was an ineffective striker. Yet the toppling of this canard, while pleasing, rather misses the purpose of the man. Pranay Sanklecha, writing for Surreal Football, points out that attacking or defending Berbatov on the grounds of effectiveness is to promulgate the fallacy that only effectiveness matters, whereas one of the great things about being a football fan (as opposed to a manager) is that you are able to look for and take more from the game than simple, brute efficacy. You can look for the beautiful.
And Berbatov is beautiful. Every game that he spends sat on the bench, beanie hat low over saturnine gaze, is another game in which we don't get to see him pull stars from the sky with his instep. The world is a better place if Dimitar Berbatov is playing football in it. And given how utterly tedious, corrupt, venal, and savagely distressing most football is, to deprive the world of such rare and precious joy is an act of cultural vandalism akin to sticking the Mona Lisa in the loft because it clashes with the curtains. It's also the right thing to do, from Ferguson's point of view, but that's not all that matters.
The (at the time) wide-spread preference for Tevez to which I referred earlier is a sad condemnation of the extent to which English football fandom has been brought into line with English football business. To choose Tevez over Berbatov - to prefer the insistently effective to the evidently beautiful - is to embrace the kind of mindset that fills lakes with concrete, grinds trees into mulch, and crushes rare birds under the tracks of bulldozers. It is a prioritisation of the ends over the means, an acknowledgement that it is better to win than to smile. It is purely and poisonously corporate. In a world as results-obsessed as modern football, the appreciation of the beautiful is one of the few avenues left for a fan to express a simple and innocent humanity. It's a break from the usual subjugation of herself (and her self) to the grind.
That the supposedly indulgent choice happens to be a man of infinitely greater dignity and class is merely a bonus. Let my Berba go.