His great career started in Leverkusen back in January 2001. Dimitar Berbatov spent five and a years at Bayer 04 and he did not play more games or score more goals for any other club. The peak of his success on the pitch came later at Manchester United. 'Berbo' ended his playing career in 2018 with the Kerala Blasters in India. However, in September of this year, the brilliant player, goalscorer, provider and cool bloke officially announced the end of his playing career via Instagram. A couple of months before, in May 2019, the Bulgarian was back in Leverkusen for a special occasion…
Dimitar Berbatov was one of the first on that Friday afternoon. The Bulgarian was in the reception at the Lindner Hotel at the BayArena waiting to check-in – his sunglasses on top of his head, his smart phone in his hands. He first stood there over 18 years ago. Uncertain, almost shy, but already an incredible talent. As a 19-year-old youngster, the striker, just transferred from CSKA Sofia to Leverkusen, was dreaming of a great career as a footballer. Now, almost two decades later, he returns at the invitation of Bayer 04 as he has been voted by Werkself fans into the club's Bundesliga All-Stars team. And he wants to celebrate the weekend marking '40 years in the Bundesliga' on 10 to 12 May with his former team-mates.
Rüdiger Vollborn gives 'Berbo' a really warm welcome and immediately arranges an interview. "I'm just going for a quick shower then I'll be back," said the Bulgarian. Two hours later, there is still no sign of him in the foyer. "Who are you waiting for?," asks Boris Zivkovic who is on the way up to his room. "Berbo?" Zivkovic laughs. "He's most probably asleep. He always needed a lot of sleep." Zivkovic was a team-mate of Berbatov for almost 3 years – and he was probably right this time too. The Bulgarian comes to the arranged interview the next day and explains himself. He was on the phone to his children for a long time. "Apologies, I'm really sorry." Never mind as Berbatov in a good mood is better than in a reluctant or grumpy frame of mind. And this cool bloke, this exceptional footballer and magician on the ball, who delighted fans with his skill at Leverkusen and later at Tottenham, Manchester United or AS Monaco, is always worth forgiving.
Nobody could pull balls down as carefully and elegantly as he did from long passes. "Berbo was the best striker I knew," raves Vollborn. "It was just great fun to see how he played the ball and how he moved." And few people scored such spectacular goals as he did. Who can forget the 1-1 draw in Rome in 2004/5? The Champions League group match at an empty ground because Roma had been hit with a UEFA ban. Marko Babic passed the ball to Berbatov in the box, he flicked the ball up with his back to the goal, then in a fluent turn lobbed it over Roma's Dellas and finally gave the goalkeeper Zotti no chance with a chip into the far corner of the net from a tight angle. What a wonder strike! "Oh yes," laughed Berbatov. "I love that goal because it was so good technically but also because I predicted it in the dressing room. I said to the lads: 'I'm going to go out there and score a goal.'" The man was true to his word.
The magazine '11 Freunde' once wrote about the 'Bulgarian hitman'; "he scored goals that look like he thought them up specially for PlayStation." With back-heels, scissor-kicks, sitting down – nothing was impossible for him and it always looked equally simple and elegant. The same applied to many of his assists. Once, when he was at Manchester United, Berbo was playing against West Ham United when he controlled a diagonal ball just before the byline, put his foot on it, danced round the opponent with a mad move, ran another few steps and then whipped in a cross for the onrushing Cristiano Ronaldo to score with a tap-in. There could not be a better, more complete, more spectacular assist.
People with no idea, who didn't understand his skill, accused him of lethargy. They thought he just drifted around the pitch. In the British press, he was often described as a "lazy genius". Asked about that, Berbatov just nods and says with all modesty: "Yes, I was a genius but I was never lazy." Improvisation, anticipation quick thinking – those are the key things for the Bulgarian in football. "Today I see a lot of great players who do exactly what I did back then. But nobody can seriously maintain Zlatan Ibrahimovic is lazy," says Berbatov at the start of a longer explanation: "When the ball is on the way to me I know what I've got to do with it, where I have to pass it or how I’ll deal with it. I always try to compensate for my weaknesses with quick thinking. If you're clever enough and you know where the ball is going to be played then you can get into that space before the ball. That means you don't necessarily have to sprint but instead anticipate. It also means you can save energy for situations where you need it more." And after a short break, he adds with a smile: "I know not everybody can do that."
The young man from Sofia wasn't able to do that in January 2001. Berti Vogts was the coach when Dimitar Berbatov signed his contract in Leverkusen. The first months were hard. Berbatov rarely played, often sat alone in his living room and brooded. "After bad training sessions and lost games I thought: it's better if you go home." But Berbatov stayed and, when Klaus Toppmöller was appointed coach in the summer of 2001, the Bulgarian flourished. Berbatov was just his kind of player. "Someone who knew what to do with the ball," as 'Toppi' was happy to put it. Today Berbatov is grateful to Bayer 04 that not everything was taken away from him off the pitch. "I had to do a lot of things myself. But that's the only way you can grow up. That time was extremely important for my development. I arrived as a boy and developed into a man at Leverkusen. That's why I still have a sense of home about this city and this club."
At the beginning, he rarely had the nerve to put questions to players like Ulf Kirsten, Michael Ballack and Zé Roberto on the training ground. "But I learned a lot from them and at some point I plucked up the courage and went to Ulf, who was a hero, and asked: Tell me Ulf, how do you get to the near post?"
The 2001/02 season went like a dream for Berbatov. He had been in Germany for just over a year when he experienced, as part of the team, legendary performances like the 4-2 win against Liverpool, where he scored a goal, and he was suddenly in the Champions League final gradually following more and more in the mighty footsteps of Ulf Kirsten. After he retired in 2003, Dimitar wore the number nine shirt but he was a very different type of striker compared with Kirsten. The Bulgaria international was at Leverkusen for five and a half years. Longer than at any other club. He made by far the most appearances at Bayer 04 (202) – and scored the most goals (91). Of course, the goal in the 4-1 victory over FC Bayern in 2004/5 was one of the best in his career for him. "Because it was a team goal or, let's say, a Brazilian and Bulgarian co-production mainly involving Robson Ponte, Franca and me. Pass, pass, pass. It was an incredible move with lots of players involved. But when the ball was in the back of the net I just thought: 'What the f... – What a goal that was!' I think you can see that reaction in photos of me after the goal."
It was on the cards that the exceptionally gifted footballer would move on at some point. When he joined Tottenham Hotspur in 2006 he had achieved his next target. "English football suited me. I fitted in straightaway," said Berbatov who played for Spurs for two years. Then came the offer from Manchester United. "And that was exactly the moment I'd been working for. When a club like that comes calling then you can't say no." Berbatov was 27 when Sir Alex Ferguson took him under his wings and at the ideal age for a player. He celebrated his greatest success with the Red Devils winning the Premier League twice, League Cup once, the FA Community Shield twice and the FIFA Club World Cup once and he was top scorer in the English top flight once with 20 goals. Berbatov was at the peak of his career.
After four years at United and another two at Fulham, he left England to take up a new challenge in Monaco. "At my second or third training session – I was 33 at the time – I saw all these great players and most of them were very young: James Rodriguez, Falcao, Fabinho, Kondogbia, Martial, Carrasco – I wanted to keep up with all these lads. I managed it and I scored a few goals for AS when they were coached by Claudio Ranieri. It was a great time." He twice played against Bayer 04 for Monaco in the Champions League in 2014/15 – AS won 1-0 both times. "And I provided the assist for our goal in the win in Monaco," said Berbo as he had to laugh. "Oh man, I really hate playing against my old clubs as it always feels funny somehow. But he was really happy about the warmth of the reception from the Bayer 04 fans in both games."
After another season at PAOK Saloniki, Berbatov wanted to go back to England and end his career there. But nothing turned up. He was out of contract for one year. Then the former assistant coach at Manchester United René Meulensteen called him up and asked him if he fancied playing in India. Meulensteen was the coach of Kerala Blasters. Berbatov allowed himself to be persuaded, "although my body was telling me: Don't do it. It was completely different there. They really do their best in India and are extra nice. But they’ve still got a long way to go," said Berbo in summing up his final six months as a footballer.
The now 38-year-old, who lives in Sofia with his wife and two daughters, no longer plays. But he's as busy as ever. His autobiography 'My Way' was published in Bulgaria in November 2018. The first day it went on sale the autograph session at a shopping centre in Sofia attracted a huge crowd. Hundreds of people queued up to get a signed copy of the book by the Bulgarian record goalscorer. It was no different in Plovdiv, Varna and other big cities. "Bulgaria is a small country. But we have a lot of talented young players. I wanted to encourage them with my book. To show them how successful I was able to be as a Bulgarian," said Berbatov for who the support given to his young fellow countrymen has been a matter very close to his heart for many years. He set up the Dimitar Berbatov Foundation in 2008 and it regularly promotes and awards talented children and teenagers in the fields of sport, education and art. Berbatov is not only the initiator and founder but also active himself in many of the events. In 2017, he invited many of his former team-mates to an all-stars charity match to support his foundation with the game held at the Vassil Levski National Stadium in Sofia. Luis Figo was there as was Robert Pires, Robbie Keane, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and many more. He still has a close connection to Manchester. As he is currently working to get his coaching badge in Bulgaria, he was recently able to work with the Reds coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Does he really want to become a coach? "Well, it's not top of my list of priorities but you never know," said Berbo.
It's difficult to imagine the super cool oddity, who likes to publish pictures of himself in various yoga positions on Instagram ('berbo9') and has a very special way of taking part in the #bottletopchallenge, as a coach. More likely as a character in a Quentin Tarantino film perhaps alongside John Travolta, Uma Thurman or Robert De Niro. Berbatov also has a creative vein away from the football pitch. He's already made an impression as a cartoonist posting a drawing of Snoop Dog on his Facebook page and securing an enthusiastic response for other cartoons of Bruce Willis, Luis de Funès and other celebrities from the world of film. "I inherited the ability to draw from my father." His soft spot for film characters probably comes from his passion for films. In the all stars game at the Haberland Stadium, celebrating 40 years in the Bundesliga, he once again assumed the role of the man for the special occasion, plucking balls out of the air as in the good old days and scoring typical Berbatov goals. And that clearly made him feel at home in the company of the Zé Robertos, Sergios, Juans, Nowotnys and Kirstens. It was a case of ‘Once upon a time in Leverkusen’.