There are some footballers who we can all agree about. Lionel Messi, for example. There can’t be any serious observer who would think he’s over-rated. But such unanimity is very rare in football.
Split opinion is much more common and when it comes to Dimitar Berbatov, rarely can a player have divided opinion with such a gulf.
There are two armed camps when it comes to the languid Bulgarian; those who think he’s a brilliant and mercurial talent, and there are those who think he’s lazy, uncommitted and far too inconsistent.
Which side you are on probably depends on how you like to see football played. If you’re a fan of run-all-day players whose contribution is measured by perspiration, Berbatov will annoy the hell out of you because that’s not his game at all. Then again, why should it be? You don’t employ an artist to be a coal miner do you?
Much of what Berbatov does goes unnoticed by those who just want to see a man running around like mad dog. His ability to find space for himself and others, while not a demonstrative art form, is nonetheless a form of brilliance. This year he’s added goals to his creative game, and that will always get you more fans but the majority opinion, including that of his manager it would seem, is that he is a luxury player and not one for the blood and snot battles in the trenches.
This might actually be true however, as a neutral who just loves to see a footballer with craft and guile, it doesn’t concern me. I’ve always loved Berbatov because he is a footballer like very few footballers. He has an air of insouciance and when at the peak of his form, an understanding and ability that is second to none. The way he can hit a pass or a shot with the outside of his foot is to watch a true artist at work.
The best footballers always seem to have time and space; as though the universe moves slower for them than for the mere mortals who surround hem, and Berbatov has always had that unhurried quality. Granted, he won’t be Mr Consistent for any side. He won’t give you a seven out ten performance week after week, but such predictability is for lesser talents.
In some ways he’s a throw back to the days when football was more about skill than athleticism. When it was a slower game full of men who had talent to burn, looking to beat the opposition with flair and style. The likes of Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles, Eddie Gray and even George Best, often created similarly divided opinion. Like Berbatov they would blow hot and cold but then again, I’d argue it is to such rare talents that we turn for the genuine brilliance in football; the very inconsistency an expression of the precarious, the difficult nature of the game they instinctively want to play.
Berbatov is a football artist. His art may never appeal to the masses but perhaps that is always the case with real brilliance.