Dimitar Berbatov: 'If someone has great qualities, they don't need effort'
His attitude wins few admirers, but Dimitar Berbatov won't change for Wednesday's big match. He tells Sam Wallace about smoking, his work rate, and why he would rather leave penalties to others
Tuesday 26 May 2009
Is it Andy Garcia he looks like? Or is there a touch of the Rudolph Valentinos about Dimitar Berbatov as he makes his way across the dining room of the Manchester United academy for a reluctant interview? Whoever it is, there is definitely the brooding intensity of the moodiest of Hollywood leading men about United's £30m striker.
Berbatov, 28, is the real enigma of United's season, a man whose performances have divided their fans, whose 14 goals are seen as a poor return and whose position in the starting XI against Barcelona in the Champions League final in Rome tomorrow is by no means assured. And, yes, as he walks over to the group of reporters waiting for him, Berbatov – as is his way – takes his own sweet time.
The major criticism of the Bulgarian international? That the bloke just does not even look like he is trying. Certainly not amid the all-action styles of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez. But he has an answer for that, delivered as insouciantly as he plays. "You know," he says, "when someone has great qualities sometimes they don't have to put much effort into things. Sometimes the things I do look effortless but it's not like that. It's very difficult, but because of my style of play I make it look easy."
Delivered like the true maestro. What Berbatov is saying is that the things that most footballers find such an effort are as simple to him as scratching his ear or lighting a cigarette. Which takes us on a brief digression: having been photographed off duty with a cigarette in his mouth, is he a smoker? "No, sometimes when you see a picture I just pretend to smoke to make me more of a cool guy."
Already you are getting the picture: Berbatov is about as hard to pin down in conversation as he is when, in his best moments, he gets the ball at his feet and creates the impression that endless time and space are at his disposal. He comes across as something of a tortured soul and his style of self-appraisal is ruthlessly honest. His family history in Bulgaria was tough, and not just because of the relative lack of wealth.
But what about the season so far? He has scored 14 goals compared to 23 last year for Spurs, yet he has finished with the most assists in the team. "Of course I can do a lot better," he says. "But in the end it's only important what the boss is going to say to me, if he is happy or not. If he says he is not, then I need to work to improve so I can be better next season.
"When people see my name they see goals. I need to score more goals even though I don't play in my usual position. It's difficult to say to people that I enjoy making goals. My main aim is to score as many goals as possible and help the team to win the title again next year.
"There is always pressure. I am a realistic type of guy. I am my biggest critic. I know that when United pay a lot of money for a player the expectation will be higher, sometimes it's even ridiculous. I am used to that and I know everyone is expecting even more from me.
"I read in the paper that the most useful guy for the team was me. It made me feel good. I didn't score as many goals as I wanted and people are maybe a little disappointed with that, but in the end I made the most assists. I helped my team-mates to score and I will continue to do that. That's the most important thing for the team because we need to win the league every year."
Neither is he prepared to change his style, saying the only person who can make him do that is the man he refers to simply as "Boss". But Sir Alex Ferguson has a big decision to make before tomorrow night as to whether he picks his usual 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation with Berbatov at the point of the attack or Cristiano Ronaldo or even Tevez. Berbatov knew that even a star as luminous as he is would not be guaranteed a starting place at United.
"I was jealous [at Spurs] because they [United] were lifting every cup in football," he says. "I thought, 'Come on, I just want to be part of this team and feel what it is to lift the cup.' So today I am here and if the boss says, 'OK, Berba, you are going to play,' I will try to give my best."
He does not look very happy on the pitch – is he? "Of course I am enjoying it. It would be stupid if I was laughing all the time. I really enjoy myself. When we won the title I was in the locker room and so happy. I don't smile all the time but I smile inside. I am the happiest guy around, trust me. I don't like to show my emotions too much."
Berbatov has played in a Champions League final before, in 2002 for Bayer Leverkusen, who eliminated United on away goals in the semi-finals before losing 2-1 to Real Madrid in the final. Then 21, he came on in the 39th minute of the final and had a chance to equalise at the end but saw his shot saved by the substitute goalkeeper Iker Casillas. "This memory haunts me," he said. "If I can make it right this time it will be good."
Talking of haunting memories, what about that dreadful penalty against Everton in the FA Cup semi-final shoot-out last month, the one that made it look like he did not care? "I'm not angry because I am my biggest critic," he says. "I know what I did wrong. I go home and try to get over things. Obviously, it's very difficult when you make a mistake and everyone is trying to attack you. You try to be strong.
"It hurt a lot. I am not sure I would take a penalty [in Rome]. Let's hope it's not going to get to that because it's difficult. I am the new guy in the team. When you make a mistake people sometimes go straight for the new guy. I am not sure there are going to be penalties anyway."
In his defence, Berbatov pointed out that his penalty for Spurs against Chelsea in the Carling Cup final last year was identical but that one went in. Mournfully he answers questions about his childhood in Bulgaria. "It's not like I'm the only guy in the world who went through that," he says. "After the Communists were gone it was easier to go out of the country. You need to be a little lucky, work hard and trust yourself. I had so many difficult moments. I know I will have some more but you keep on fighting."
When talk turns to the great Bulgaria team of the 1994 World Cup finals, he is asked what it did for the Bulgarian people. "At last people knew we existed," he replies, glumly. Cheer up, Berba, you might even score the winner tomorrow, but if he does don't expect him to put the cup on his head or take part in any daft celebrations. It is just not his style.
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