Dimitar Berbatov is talking about the most disappointing day in his football career but he is in a conciliatory mood. In May 2011 the Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, told him that he would not be in the starting XI for the Champions League final against Barcelona. Even worse, he was not even in the squad.
For Berbatov it was an almighty blow and one he did not fully recover from at United: a year later he was sold to Fulham. However, when writing his autobiography, called My Way and out in English this month, he reached out to his former manager and asked whether he would write the foreword. Ferguson said yes without hesitation. Not only that, he apologised for leaving Berbatov out of the squad and admitted that he got it wrong.
“When I first saw what he had written I felt some very mixed emotions,” Berbatov says during our phone interview. “First of all, you have to be really strong as a personality to say ‘I’m sorry’ and the fact that he did only shows what kind of person Sir Alex is. His words made me feel good. However, I wouldn’t say I was surprised because I always thought I had a place in the team for that particular game. But that is now in the past and you can’t turn back the time.”
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Confidence has never been in short supply for Berbatov, but he may have a point as United lost the final against Barcelona at Wembley 3-1 with Michael Owen as an unused substitute. When he left United in 2012 he said that he did not say goodbye to Ferguson but a long time has passed and, as he contemplates a career in management, he knows that one day he too will have to disappoint some players.
“I know that if some day I am the manager and my team plays in a cup final, I will have to do the same thing not only to one of my players but to a few of them. Now I’m trying to see all these things from a manager’s perspective.”
So has he forgiven Ferguson? “Our relationship is good,” Berbatov says. “There’s nothing to forgive him for. I’ve never had any bad feelings, I was just disappointed [with his decision]. At first, I reacted impulsively and was really upset. But then, as time goes by, you start to realise what that decision was about.
“Having said that, if I could play any game again it would be that one, the 2011 Champions League final against Barcelona. That season I was United’s top scorer and I finished as [joint] top scorer in the Premier League as well. I was in great form and I had the feeling I would score every time I took a shot. I think I could have helped the team in that game.”
Berbatov left an indelible mark on English football after arriving in 2006 from Bayer Leverkusen, scoring more than 100 goals for Tottenham, United and Fulham. He is one of the most stylish forwards to have played in the Premier League but there always seemed to be question marks against his workrate.
Which begs the question: did English football understand Berbatov’s way of playing? “Some people did, others didn’t,” he says. “Some started to understand and appreciate it when I left but I’m not bothered about that. I always stayed true to my football style and my instincts, and that’s what really matters to me. Every club I was at I played the football I like. As a player I was lucky enough to have coaches who would let me express myself on the pitch. Nobody told me I had to change my style.”
Then he smiles and says: “I haven’t done the maths but in the end I think I did score more beautiful goals than ugly ones.”
The book, written with the Bulgarian journalist Nayden Todorov and Dimitrina Hodgeva, the director of Berbatov’s foundation, details how Berbatov, as he grew up in the south-west Bulgarian town of Blagoevgrad, often did not have a football to play with as a child. Instead he used a basketball.
“I was throwing that basketball up in the air and I was trying to control it with my feet. Thousands and thousands of times. Nowadays the young generation has enough footballs to practise with but the most important thing is to have the passion, the ambition and the consistency to do it over and over again. Sometimes the simple things are the ones that are the most effective.”
Sometimes he and his brother Asen even had to play with a pig bladder. Those were the last days before the fall of the communist regime in Bulgaria in the autumn of 1989 and life was challenging for most families. Berbatov’s father, Ivan, a former professional player, worked at a tobacco factory and his mother, Margarita, was a nurse.
Berbatov is tougher than most people think and one example of that steely determination is when he clashed with Berti Vogts at Leverkusen after arriving from CSKA Sofia in 2001. Vogts had promised to play him but did not do so. “I was young and I thought I knew everything about life,” says Berbatov. “And I had that ambition burning inside me to prove myself. So when I didn’t get that chance, I was really upset and wasn’t trying to hide it. I said to myself: ‘I’m going to prove this guy wrong.’”
And so he did. Vogts lasted only a season at Leverkusen; Berbatov five – scoring 69 goals in 154 Bundesliga games for Die Werkself. In 2006 he had promised to join Tottenham when there was a late call from Manchester United. Does he regret not joining United two years before he eventually did? “No,” he says without hesitation. “By that time I had already given my word to Spurs and I had two incredible years with them. I met Martin Jol, a fantastic character, and I managed to form a great strike partnership with Robbie Keane. And I was a part of the last Spurs team to win a trophy to this day [the 2008 League Cup].”
At United, Berbatov won two Premier League titles, one Club World Cup and another League Cup. As he prepares to embark on his next professional chapter as a manager, what advice, knowing what he knows now, he would give the 10-year-old Dimitar Berbatov? “To not change anything and do things his way,” he says quickly before pausing: “OK, maybe I would tell him to be more talkative when going to a new club and meeting new people. To not be that shy. I rarely let anyone into my inner circle.”