Football fans retain a special affinity for mavericks, players who fail to fit the recognised mould but who possess an ability to produce moments of genuine magic.
Dimitar Berbatov was one such player, a footballer for who the game appeared to come effortlessly – sometimes quite literally – easily, the brilliant Bulgarian making a mockery of Premier League defenders in a languid pipe-and-slipper style.
He came, conquered and captivated audiences with a silky smooth first touch and penchant for scoring goals, several spectacular moments ensuring Berbatov remains a firm favourite amongst Premier League fans.
This is the story of one of the Premier League’s great Golazo Merchants.
Berbatov was born in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, as the son of two professional athletes. His mother, Margarita, was a handball player and his father, Ivan, a professional footballer who represented CSKA Sofia, the side where his son would later rise to prominence.
Despite the athletic success of his family, there were perhaps few – the self-confident Berbatov aside – who envisaged a boy from a small town near the country’s Pirin Mountains would become the greatest Bulgarian footballer of a generation.
After starting his youth career locally for Pirin Blagoevgrad, he followed in his father’s footsteps with a move to CSKA Sofia, signing for the side as a teenager and making his debut aged 18.
He featured sporadically as the Bulgarian Cup was won during that maiden campaign, before establishing himself in 1999/2000 with 14 goals in 27 league fixtures.
Berbatov’s fine form continued the following season with 16 goals in just 15 games in all competitions, his performances attracting interest from Bayer Leverkusen who made an approach for the young forward.
The striker, who grew up idolising Marco van Basten and Alan Shearer, had been handed an opportunity in a major European league, the €1.3m deal proving a shrewd investment for the Bundesliga outfit.
Berbatov’s initial months at Leverkusen saw him feature only intermittently for the senior side, as the winter signing adapted to the demands of German football.
The following season proved a true breakthrough campaign as Berbatov impressed in a fearless Leverkusen side, Klaus Toppmöller’s charges eliminating Liverpool and Manchester United on their way to the Champions League final.
Leverkusen’s incredible run came to an end with a final defeat to Real Madrid, whilst the club agonisingly finished as runners-up in both the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal as a historic treble unravelled in the final weeks of the 2001/02 campaign.
Berbatov finished the season with 16 goals in all competitions, and remained with Leverkusen despite the break up of a talented side, Michael Ballack and Ze Roberto departing for German rivals Bayern Munich.
The Bulgarian established himself as the lead forward of the side in the following four seasons, enjoying a prolific run of form with 69 goals in all competitions between 2003/04 and his departure at the end of the 2005/06 season.
Interest emerged from clubs across Europe with the likes of Bayern Munich and Valencia amongst those rumoured with a move, though it was Tottenham who secured his signing in a £10.9m deal.
Spurs had finished the previous season in fifth, their highest placing of the Premier League era at that time, and Berbatov recalled how the club’s persistence convinced him a move to White Hart Lane was the right career step.
The impact was almost instant.
His first goal came in a 2-0 win over Sheffield United in the second league fixture of the season, the only goal in his opening nine Premier League games before a flurry of finishes over the second half of the campaign.
Berbatov struck up a superb understanding with Robbie Keane and finished his maiden campaign as the north London side’s leading scorer, netting 23 goals in all competitions to become a firm fans’ favourite.
The Bulgarian’s languid style appeared at odds with the hustle and bustle of England’s top tier, Berbatov a player for who guile came more naturally than graft.
His penchant for ingenuity became quickly apparent however, including this solo effort as Spurs came from behind to win against Wigan in November 2006.
Having provided the assist for Jermain Defoe’s equaliser just seconds earlier, Berbatov is found in the left channel by Benoit Assou-Ekotto with Wigan’s Matt Jackson in close pursuit.
Anticipating the defender’s movement, the Spurs striker rolls the ball nonchalantly through the centre-back’s legs to take him infield before bending an unstoppable finish beyond Chris Kirland.
— Premier League (@premierleague) July 20, 2020
Berbatov’s brilliance had turned the tie on its head within the space of just two minutes, a sign of further things to come for a player growing in influence at White Hart Lane.
Later that season and Berbatov endeared himself to the Spurs support with a glorious goal against West Ham, scoring this fabulous late free-kick in a thrilling 4-3 win over the club’s London rivals at Upton Park.
The coolest man in a feverish derby day atmosphere, Berbatov took just one step before clipping a wonderful effort over the West Ham wall, his 89th-minute equaliser providing the platform for Spurs to snatch a dramatic three points moments later.
A sumptuous Dimitar Berbatov free kick 😻pic.twitter.com/V0Tg3Cb3zz
— GOAL (@goal) March 21, 2020
Berbatov finished the season with four goals in the final six league fixtures of the season, his performances during that debut campaign seeing him named as Tottenham’s Player of the Season and included in the PFA Team of the Year.
Amongst the magical moments of the run-in was this effort against Charlton at The Valley, a trademark piece of Berbatov brilliance which showcased the flawless first touch and technique that defined his game.
Berbatov is stationed just inside the Charlton half as a long clearance finds its way to the forward, a situation in which a lesser player may perhaps hold the ball and wait for support.
Dimitar Berbatov didn’t conform to conventional standards, however, and seized an opportunity to counter-attack against a Charlton side in need of three points to avoid relegation.
One exquisite touch cushions the ball beyond Talal El Karkouri, as Berbatov pirouettes the opposite way. Showing a burst of pace not often associated with the casual demeanour of the Spurs striker, he moves through the gears and past the flailing defender before finishing calmly beyond Scott Carson.
Smooth operator 😎
— Premier League (@premierleague) September 25, 2017
Berbatov was the star turn of a Spurs side seeking progress, a magician who regularly delved into his top hat to delight north London crowds.
His performances soon attracted interest from the financial elite and in the summer of 2008 he became subject of a transfer tug-of-war between Manchester United and Manchester City, the latter having recently been subjected to a billionaire takeover.
In Berbatov’s mind, however, there was only one destination and he completed a £30.75m move to Manchester United as the latest star signing for the reigning Premier League and European champions.
“When you see the shirt, the red shirt, the badge, the history, the players, the managers… I mean, you fell in love immediately.”
– Berbatov on signing for Manchester United (MUTV)
The marquee arrival joined a star-studded forward line containing the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, and whilst the goals failed to flow freely during his initial seasons, the Old Trafford faithful had a new maverick to cherish.
This series may pay tribute to the greatest goals scored by some iconic Premier League names, but perhaps the most signature skill of Berbatov’s time came with this inexplicable assist against West Ham.
Berbatov was headed towards the touchline with no avenue to escape from James Collins, only to perform a Houdiniesque escape from his attentions with a wondrous piece of wizardy.
An absurdly fluid pirouette and pass into the path of the grateful Cristiano Ronaldo, who could hardly have been afforded an easier chance following Berbatov’s byline bamboozling of the bewildered Collins.
The power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces ✨
cc: Dimitar Berbatov pic.twitter.com/xHvLNdNqQ7
— Premier League (@premierleague) November 3, 2020
That first season ended with a Premier League winners’ medal, though it was the star’s third campaign with the Red Devils in which he reached the heights previously seen at Spurs.
Berbatov finished as the Premier League’s leading scorer as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side won a fourth title in just five seasons, the Bulgarian the bright light of his side’s attack following the departures of Ronaldo and Tevez.
He began the season in fine fashion with three goals in four appearances, before an individualistic showing in English football’s biggest game cemented his position in Manchester United folklore.
Liverpool were the visitors to Old Trafford in a clash between the two North West powers, the fixture – so often a dull affair in the modern era – producing a classic encounter as the two sides exchanged five goals.
Berbatov opened the scoring after heading home Ryan Giggs’ corner, before doubling the home side’s advantage in extraordinary fashion.
Nani’s cross was cushioned effortlessly on the knee of the United number nine, who executed an outrageous overhead kick which cannoned in off the crossbar and left Pepe Reina watching on motionless.
Steven Gerrard’s double threatened to rescue a point for Liverpool, only for Berbatov to have the final say with a towering header to complete his hat-trick and seal all three points.
This Dimitar Berbatov goal against Liverpool back in 2010 😱
— B/R Football (@brfootball) January 17, 2021
Berbatov oozed class and confidence throughout the 2010/11 season and his performances reached their zenith in a 7-1 home thumping of Blackburn, the star becoming just the fifth player to score five times in a Premier League fixture.
The highlight of Berbatov’s quintuple was his hat-trick goal, starting the move himself with a clever backheel to Patrice Evra, before recollecting the ball and spraying a perfect outside-of-the-boot pass into the path of the onrushing Nani.
In signature style he meanders forward without breaking sweat, receiving the ball back from Nani to fire home for his second Premier League treble of the season.
Another league winners’ medal was claimed at the end of the campaign, alongside the Premier League’s Golden Boot and a second career inclusion in the PFA Team of the Year.
Surprisingly omitted from the match-day squad for the Champions League final, however, the decision proved the beginning of the end for Berbatov who featured infrequently the following campaign.
He left for Fulham and enjoyed a renaissance under former Spurs boss Martin Jol at Craven Cottage, scoring 20 goals in 54 appearances over a two-season spell, before finishing his career with stints at Monaco, PAOK and Kerala Blasters.
Mavericks are a rarity in modern football with an emphasis on pressing play and intensity, the languid luxury of Berbatov a two-fingered salute to cynics who pride running stats over gifted genius.
The finest footballers blur the lines between fantasy and reality and Berbatov was a player capable of such moments, an unapologetically gifted goalscorer with a velvet touch of class.