Dimitar Berbatov, perhaps the Premier League’s most unloved foreign import, has been furrowing eyebrows for most of his professional career, routinely criticized for such misdemeanors as refusing to celebrate teammates’ goals, wearing a hairband and never looking particularly sweaty. He was the first player gutsy enough to stand up to Daniel Levy, and fans used to compare him to Eric Cantona, until they realized Berbatov lacked the Frenchman’s inherent volatility. These days, Berbatov owes his unpopularity as much to his failure to pair refined gifts with a rough temperament, as to his refusal to track back.
When Sir Alex Ferguson finally rubberstamped Berbatov’s 30.75 million pound move from Tottenham to Old Trafford in 2008, he must have breathed a rather sizeable sigh of relief. The deadline-day deal marked the end of an epic, two-year transfer saga, and, with the finish line in sight, it had nearly fallen through. In the window’s dying hours, Tottenham accepted a bid for Berbatov from Manchester City before — or so legend has it — Sir Alex personally intervened, intercepting the player at Manchester Airport, where he had been sent to meet City officials, and driving him to Carrington for a medical.
Despite his obvious gifts — a magical first touch, a fantastic range of passing — Berbatov has struggled to win over a picky Manchester United support. The transfer wrangling that preceded his arrival left a bitter taste. To many fans, the hubbub had felt like a waste of time – after all, United were reigning European champions who already had, in Carlos Tevez, a suitable partner for Wayne Rooney. Berbatov’s less-than-energetic style of play, which contrasted noticeably with Tevez’s more industrious approach, didn’t help matters. United fans interpreted the Bulgarian’s most notable attributes – quiet, minimalist play and a refusal to betray emotion – as signs of apathy, and thus of disrespect.
It’s easy to kill Berbatov with statistics. His goal-to-game ratio is nowhere near as impressive as Ruud van Nistelrooy’s. He covers fewer kilometers per match than Rooney and Tevez. He once went almost two years without scoring a Champions League goal. But Berbatov’s value transcends statistics. We watch sports for entertainment, for a break from the dreary humdrum of our daily lives. Dimitar Berbatov, with his extravagant touch and hypnotic dribbling, is the ultimate entertainer. He performs for the crowd – or at least, for those members of the crowd bright enough to remember why they became so attached to football in the first place – as much as for the manager.
During his time in English football, Berbatov never strung together a full season of convincing performances, and he never singlehandedly won a major final. He hasn’t been a regular in the United first team for more than a year, and, even when he was, fans mistrusted him. Last season, he slipped behind Wayne Rooney, Chicharito Hernandez and Danny Welbeck in the pecking order. His status as an expensive substitute is now more-or-less official. Most of his contributions to the last few Premier League seasons came in snapshots: an audacious turn to set up a goal, a stunning volley, a ridiculous outside-of-the-foot pass.
Through an uncertain two years, Berbatov has always conducted himself with class and humility. After being left off the substitute’s bench for the 2011 Champions League final, he hid in the dressing room, too embarrassed to celebrate a potential United victory. Contrast that with John Terry’s behavior after Chelsea’s recent European success, and you get the picture. Berbatov won’t go down in history as a Manchester United legend – though his role in securing the legendary 19th league title deserves recognition – but he should be remembered as a fantastic representative of both the club and English football as a whole.
At the moment, Berbatov is in a weird footballing limbo, unwanted in the country where he made his name and seemingly ignored outside of it. When his inevitable exit is confirmed, few tears will be shed; Berbatov has played his last Old Trafford match, at least in Manchester United red. His future probably lies in Italy’s Serie A, where, at least in theory, he should find a more appreciative audience. Milan, who recently sold Zlatan Ibrahimovich and Thiago Silva to Paris St. Germain, are reportedly interested, and so are Juventus, though Antonio Conte hasn’t given up on signing Arsenal contract rebel Robin van Persie.
Berbatov will disappear from English football with the same quiet elegance that defines his playing style. Some fans may take awhile to notice his departure; he was always invisible in the big games, right? But when Berbatov faded out of a match, it wasn’t because he wilted under pressure. You couldn’t see him because he was always floating with effortless grace about ten yards above the play.