We’ve all got one. The one we weren’t allowed to look at; the one we had to admire in secret, from a distance. One more appropriate to deny than to acknowledge, to dismiss than to appreciate.
Guilty pleasures in football usually cross supporting lines. It’s very seldom that one can support one of the top sides and not suddenly themselves in awe, in nearly shameful veneration of a particular talent that not only plays for a rival team, but in fact produces footballing displays worthy of respect and justified envy.
This series of articles is about those players. Some of them played for your club’s worst of enemies, some of them even contributed to nights of disappointment for you and your supporter brethren. Whatever the narrative, they all share the characteristic of being so good at what they do in football, that you found yourself marveling at them while despising their allegiance, jealous that their talent didn’t manifest in the colours of your beloved club.
It was the 2nd goal. It was devastating. Not because it was Man United. Not because it was going to be even harder to haul back the result.
But because it was so damn good. A wave of ambivalence between despair and admiration. The execution was impeccable. Undone by brilliance. A goal by any foot of another club’s player would be lauded by Liverpool fans. Yet, as he often has throughout his career, Berbatov made it look pathetically simple to embarrass the senior defender on Liverpool’s block. I’ve always maintained when asked that Carragher should have done better, but what exactly I expected him to somehow manufacture to prevent that sublime bicycle kick escapes me.
Man United won 3-2 that day against Liverpool; the first hat-trick against Liverpool by a Manc player in 64 years.
And on that day, my guilty pleasure towards the football produced by Dimitar Berbatov began.
Football – Berbatov’s canvas
The first time Berbatov encountered my beloved Liverpool, it was 2002. A Champions League quarterfinal against a Leverkusen en route to an eventual final with Real Madrid. Berbatov scored, of course. I don’t recall noticing him then. Nor did I notice his artistry at Spurs, even though I should have scoffed at the ability the man possesses in spades.
After all, Berbatov has been considered a luxury player by some. Usually the technically gifted ones are like that. And Berbatov has enjoyed all those labels.
Nonchalant. Casual. Unassuming. Laid back. And yes… lazy. That last one is tantamount to the equivalent of excommunication in the Premier League, due to its sacred dogma favouring the exploits of those “blessed” with substantial work rate.
But what I saw – especially for Man United – making me both annoyed and impressed at the same time was a first touch to rival that of Eric Cantona.
For me, Berbatov was composed. Elegant. Calm. Intelligent. An artist.
The ball, the match, the teammates,… nothing rushes him. The ball moves to his clock.
Berbatov’s goalscoring exploits speak well enough to his craft; there’s enough highlight reels in season ending DVDs and YouTube clips to keep curious fans occupied to the extensive of his talent, but to understand why I found it so difficult to despise this player who eventually would take up Man United colours, you need to look past the goals.
There’s something about technique in football; the wizardry of audacious talents tends to charm everyone regardless of your allegiance, and create acceptance of results even if your own team is on the receiving end. It’s the reason people will still talk about players like Matt Le Tissier, David Ginola, Juninho, Gianfranco Zola and Dennis Bergkamp.
Why? Because technique, even though it can be taught, seems to be discriminatory about who it chooses as its masters. Many can run. Many can put their bodies on the line. Many can make heroic game saving tackles.
But only one in many can bend that ball to their will, force it to dance to a tune that the feet compose. Berbatov, through goals, assists, and various touches was one of those players who not only possessed that technique but purposefully used it to try and score goals. And not just any goals, but by the player’s own admission… beautiful ones.
The examples are there for us to see. There’s sheer silk in how he takes down this high ball from John Arne Riise.
There’s this ridiculous spin move and assist to Carlos Tevez for a goal vs West Ham.
And there are goals. Lots of them. Long range bombs. Volleys. Chips from short range. Little moments where he controls the ball to set himself for an unconventional finish (much like the one over Carragher’s head). And it’s been consistent, be it at Bayer or as recently as this eccentric one for Monaco vs Nice…
…or the 2nd one here, providing an example where his improvisation led to the spectacular…
And that’s just it with Berbatov. It’s not just about the goalscoring, and a goalscorer he was. But it’s the unpredictability attached to them. You didn’t really know what kind of goal he was going to try next, and that made him more frightening to me than players with larger presence like Ronaldo or Tevez. The latter felt more predictable, but Berbatov could just as easily score a backheel tap-in as he could produce a volley with the outside of his foot.
There’s more of course. Many more goals, neat touches and silky moves with both foot. All remembered in compiled tributes much like this one…
And therein lies the core reason for admiring him. Liverpool are a club with a rich history of striking talents, and it’s very seldom they not had the services of a striker with considerable technical abilities to supplement a turn of pace or a strong aerial presence. Fowler, Torres, Suarez and Sturridge in recent years have all shown technical brilliance in some degree or
another. And they’ve all produced goals. Beautiful ones. But alongside that, they’ve shown a poetry to the craft. The way they create for themselves. Or others. Scoring goals you’d expect. And then scoring the alluring ones you spend hours trying to recreate in juvenile sessions of FIFA.
And Berbatov has scored. 233 goals in 575 club appearances is nothing to sniff at.
So it’s not like his artistry is merely for show; on the contrary, he’s managed to sustain a consistent output alongside the aesthetics. He’s one of a handful of players to score 5 goals in one Premier League game. He’s won a Golden Boot, too. And far from conventional thought, he had ambitions of playing often. Winning. It’s a revealing interview in which his character speaks these exact tenets following his departure from Man United.
I may well be oversimplifying it. There may have been aspects about him that were unpleasant to manage, perhaps. Perhaps he was really lazy. Perhaps too much hipster about him 5 years too soon. But whatever the reasons, in my mind he remains a player who I admired throughout. A player who was competitive but sought to perfect his craft and score beautiful goals because they can be scored. After all, at its core, football is entertainment, and Berbatov is one of those players who are worth watching for that reason regardless of the colour shirt he’s wearing.
The ball is still on his clock. Expect brilliance. Because you can, and should.