Dimitar Berbatov is less a divisive figure amongst United fans and more a Red Herring, any time his name is rolled out by rival fans it’s along the lines “you could have had Torres or Tevez for less money”. His lack of goals for United is a statistic you can’t ignore, over his two seasons at Old Trafford he has managed 3 more goals than his first season at Tottenham, playing in a better team who therefore create more chances. At Tottenham he was prolific at United he is profligate and his wasteful ways have earned him the ire of many fans, but there are those, who number only a few who still maintain “he’s great”.
For these fans Berbatov is the beacon of Luxurious football, blessed with as I heard one fan remark “Cantona’s gifts” the Bulgarian has a sublime first touch, he is good with either foot and can beat his man. He doesn’t elicit the chest-thumping roar of approval that the likes of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard get when they score a goal; you very rarely see Berbatov’s face contort in passion. For the Berbatov supporter’s his dispassionate nature is his appeal, silkily skilled and he know’s it, Dimitar strolls around the pitch at a snail’s pace at times not moving at all. As Ferdinand and Vidic take care of that dirty part of the game, defending, Berbatov is nowhere to be found but when the ball breaks though it’s a different story, bursting into the game Berbatov hustles and harries the opposing defenders trying to find that half yard of space. With the ball at his feet he is usually ten steps ahead of the defender and anything can happen. Capable of scoring from anywhere and prone to audacity Berbatov can light up a game with his performances. Despite his laconic image he has the pace to outstrip defenders in a race but it is not often that he shows this, conserving his energy for the goal-scoring opportunities. Berbatov is so good at scoring great goals that he often misses the easy ones so not to blot his record.
For his detractors though the target is easy. A misfit in the United squad, his lack of effort clashes with that expected of each and every United player. Often guilty of committing the cardinal sin of ‘not tracking back’ he is pilloried from the stands. Who is he to track back in these instances? His direct opponent is a Centre-Half who is going nowhere; to quote the United fan again “Berbatov is so good at football he doesn’t need to run around”. However, it is this perceived lack of effort when compared to Wayne Rooney will always be his downfall. In fact, always being compared with United’s iconic striker is his downfall. Wayne Rooney is an exceptional player, blessed with the same skills as Berbatov he adds to it with dynamic performances, popping up all over the pitch to provide support. Having added the aerial game to his repertoire he took Berbatov’s last remaining unique selling point and relegated him to sometime striker.
Berbatov thrives as a Big fish in a little pond, his connection with the fans as their goal-scoring hero he can become a totemic figure. Whilst at Tottenham his indescretions were forgiven until his transfer when fans will often turn on the target (See; Tevez and Mascherano) when he took the step to the European elite he stopped being the centre of attention and therefore lost his lustre. United fans had the promise of an elite striker, the player who can do anything with the ball, what they got however was a sometimes player, often cowed under the pressure of expectation and his transfer fee.
Since Cantona, United have always had a Luxury player or two, those whose image clashes with the professional nature of the rest of the squad. Some become bona fide celebrities and live their lives in the public eye (Ronaldo & Beckham) and some cultivate their image on the pitch (Yorke, Berbatov and Cantona). For a short period United had another ‘luxury’ player in Juan Sebastian Veron, when he moved to Manchester he didn’t flourish, often trying a forty yard pass when a 6 yard one was more appropriate (Michael Carrick is the polar opposite in this regard) the fans never warmed to him, this could be Berbatov’s last season to turn the tide of popular perception.
What you get in Berbatov though is hope, you know he is capable of the unbelievable and you pay your money to watch it. When it does come off it’s worth every penny, but when it doesn’t the disappointment is so much that it feels that much worse. If you are engrossed in the cult of Berbatov, you are a football lover, you enjoy watching the things you could never do, those single unifying moments of wonder that can unite football fans of both clubs in a round of applause. By the cold hard statistical nature of modern football, Berbatov has not been a success. He will not get the goals of Torres, Lampard or Rooney, he will not be good in every match and finally he will not be worth the money ‘we’ paid for him. That’s not the point, Berbatov should be ‘our’ player, the player that we defend against all criticism despite his obvious flaws, the player that when he scores gets that extra-special cheer because it’s often brilliant and really the player we wish we could be, unbelievably gifted but so, so lazy.
(An homage to the excellent “Federer as a Religious Experience”)