If you can imagine, for a second, what it would have been like to watch Beethoven work late in his life, when his hearing had gone and he was forced to pound out the notes on the piano, his head to the wooden box, straining, desperate to capture the vibrations, working himself into a fury, enraged at God himself for denying him what he needed to do what he was put on this Earth to do — to make beautiful, timeless, perfect music — you will know what it is like to watch Dimitar Berbatov play on a shitty soccer team.
Berbatov, who turns 37 today and made a name for himself playing professionally for such clubs as Manchester United, Bayer Leverkusen, and Tottenham, is my favorite soccer player of all time, narrowly edging out Zinedine Zidane and Lionel Messi. You may note that those two are two of the five best players to ever live, and Berbatov is a brooding, underachieving Bulgarian striker who pissed off (and I imagine continues to piss off; he’s still playing professionally in Italy) every manager he ever played for.
And yet I love him.
I fell in love with Berbatov while he was at Fulham, a small club in London he found himself playing for after he’d run himself out of the team at, in turn, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.
At that time, Fulham was a team built on pragmatism. Results. Damien Duff was a club hero at the time, he on the right wing, sprinting to the end line time and time again and firing in a cross, whether or not anyone was there to receive it. The scrappy Irishman did a job, god damnit, and he did it well. That was Fulham.
And then there was Berbatov.
Berbatov played with style. No. Berbatov played with elegance.
Here is a Berbatov first touch that, in the moment, made me scream. I remember where I was sitting the first time I saw this touch; it’s a moment that bears real importance in my life. This GIF has a Seinfeld cameo at the end, as Jerry captures the only appropriate reaction to a touch like this.
That’s a ball ballooned 60 yards in the air, and Berbatov takes it down gently, perfectly, with his foot. (Note that NFL players sometimes struggle to catch a ball kicked 60 yards with their hands.)
Also note that Berbatov is standing where you might expect to find Fulham’s right back, which is interesting because as a striker he has absolutely no business being there. Positions are largely irrelevant to Berbatov, of course — he’ll abide by the rules of the game, sure, but he will not be constricted by such philistine ideas as tactics or roles. If a game isn’t being played the way he wants it to be played, Berba will drop back deeper and deeper, demand the ball, and then show his teammates exactly what they’re meant to be doing.
If you think this sounds extremely condescending, you are correct.
Here is Berbatov driving a teammate around on a lawn mower.
It has to be said that Berbatov is guilty of many of the things that people say about him. He is by all accounts lazy, and petulant, and looks down on those who aren’t as gifted as he is, which is everyone.
When former Fulham center back Brede Hangeland named his Premier League Lazy XI, Berbatov was starting at striker. Here’s what Hangeland said about his former teammate:
I’ve never seen a man get so many massages in my life. I’m certain he spent more hours getting massaged than he trained.
Whenever we were in the gym working out, Berbatov was getting massages.
The rumor at the time was that Berbatov, despite making a career as a professional footballer on a massage-only training regimen, managed to keep his washboard abs by smoking cigarettes and refusing to eat.
This is almost certainly untrue. Like a lot of untrue things about the man, I choose to believe them.
Another example: A friend of mine once told me that, in his home country of Bulgaria, the fans call him The Devil with the Angel Eyes. Again, I have found no evidence anywhere that this is real. I believe it all the same.
Did I mention that Berbatov is an amateur artist?
Berbatov is, depending on the type of person you are and what you value, either a genius or an asshole. It was so interesting he plied his trade for years in the Premier League, the most industrious of leagues, because he refused to merely settle for results. No, with Berbatov, the game needed to be beautiful.
I’m not sure Berbatov even cares if his team scores, which seems insane. But goals are meant to be the end result of a beautiful passage of play — if the play wasn’t beautiful, what was the point of putting the ball in the net? When he drops back into the midfield it isn’t just because he wants the ball, it’s also a punishment to his team. Here, play the game the right way or I will not score for you.
I have never once, in years of watching him, seen the man defend. It is beneath him, something other people can do, people who can’t do what he can do with a ball.
But that’s the whole point. Berba can be everything he is or rumored to be — selfish, condescending, chain smoking, lazy, committed to beauty above results, a passable sketch artist — because he could do the things that he can do with the ball. You can question everything else, but you can’t question that.