The big interview: Dimitar Berbatov – "I left Spurs to follow my dream – Man United was the top of the mountain for me"

Dimitar Berbatov

Sophia Loren, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Sean Connery. Photographs of a host of style icons adorn the walls of the Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge, and one more has just emerged from the lift to greet FFT.

Dimitar Berbatov may be a bit dressed down, during a week-long trip to London from his home in Sofia, but he still looks as cultured as ever. His hair slicked back in pristine fashion, Dimitar has long been known for being suave and sophisticated. “That’s right, I am,” he says with a smile.

Back in the city he regards his second home – spells with Spurs and Fulham came either side of time at Manchester United – the 37-year-old is in a relaxed mood as he sits down to talk, genuinely enthusiastically, about joining the long list of legends to have been interviewed for One-on-One. “Trust me, FourFourTwo, I read it all the time – since a long time ago,” he insists.

Berbatov is soon chatting in animated fashion about his penalties, kidnappings and sharing a dressing room mirror with Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford. The Bulgarian has had quite a career, so let’s start at the beginning…

Were you really kidnapped during your time at CSKA Sofia?

Glen Nolan, via Facebook

It was a semi-kidnapping, really. It was a confusing situation, and frightening because I was very young. This was late at night – they took me to some place and I didn’t know where I was. They did it as they wanted me to sign for another club in Bulgaria – this was probably the biggest mafia guy back home.

That was how things worked there – they’d say, ‘Go and f**king get him’. There was this guy talking s**t to me and I didn’t hear what he was saying. I was just thinking, ‘What the f**k? What the f**k? Where am I? Please help me’. There were a lot of phone calls being made. Thankfully I was able to leave in the end and I was OK, but it was frightening.

Is it true that, as youngsters at CSKA, you, Martin Petrov and Stiliyan Petrov didn’t have any money, so when you went to the coffee shop you charged things to a different player’s account? How hard was it for young players in Bulgaria back then?

Hristofor Hristov, via Facebook

We didn’t have any money, and when you’re young boys you try to be smart! The older players would buy you things, or you’d put it on their tab. Sometimes you’d say, ‘Can you give me this so I can pay?’ and later he’d check the amount and be like, ‘What?!’

The younger players lived together and your family sent you things to eat, but sometimes you’d eaten everything so you would take the crumbs and try to put them together so you could eat something. Or there wasn’t any water so you’d drink the juice from a pickle jar, which was salty, but you drank it as you had to drink something. I was 16 and they were really tough times. You think back and remember all of that s**t, but it’s good to remember stuff like that. It made me strong.

Like Liverpool this year, you once lost a Champions League final to a wonder goal against Real Madrid. Did losing to a moment of magic in 2002 soften the blow for Bayer Leverkusen?

Shaun O’Hara, via Twitter

F**k no, it didn’t soften anything! It was a painful moment of my career but the goal was just unbelievable. I was right behind Zinedine Zidane as he watched the ball drop and I thought, ‘No, please no’. Sometimes you can feel that a goal is coming, that Zidane’s going to catch the ball the way he caught it. We were a small team facing the giants, and we didn’t deserve to lose.

We’d beaten Manchester United and Liverpool on the way to the final – two teams that no one expected us to beat. The journey was worth it, even though things didn’t end well for us in Glasgow. It was a frustrating season because we finished second in the league and in the German Cup, too. We had great players such as Michael Ballack, Ulf Kirsten and Ze Roberto – I learned a lot from them.

You became the regular penalty-taker for Leverkusen soon after goalkeeper Hans-Jorg Butt conceded one of the weirdest goals in 2004 – were the two things related?

Thomas Leitner, via Twitter

When Schalke scored from the halfway line? Looking back, that was so funny! Jorg was our goalkeeper and penalty-taker, too. He scored one, then jogged back to his goal and high-fived everyone like he was Marco van Basten! Schalke took the kick-off really quickly, Jorg was still running back, and the guy [Mike Hanke] chipped the ball into the net. We were like, ‘Jorg! What the f**k?!’ After that I said it was now my turn to take penalties – it’s the striker’s job to take them, not the f**king goalkeeper...

Why did you go to Spurs? They weren’t exactly big hitters at the time...

Jimmy Burns, via Facebook

I was scoring goals for Leverkusen and my agent said there was interest from England, from Spurs. I thought, ‘What? I wanted Man United, Barcelona or Real Madrid – the biggest clubs in the world’. When you’re young, you think like this. You always want to run before you can walk. But then I started to look at their games and their players, and they were the most persistent.

Martin Jol was their manager and he was saying, ‘This is my guy, I want him’. You want to feel special as a striker, you want to be the main guy, and you know if the coach wants you, he’s going to be good for you. They were fighting for the Champions League, so I watched their matches and thought, ‘Maybe it’s time to go’. It was a great move for me.

Was Robbie Keane the most effective strike partner you ever had?

Alan Bird, via Instagram

I had a great understanding with him – he was always willing to run and fight for the team. I was like, ‘OK Keano, you run everywhere, I’ll run in my head and it’ll all be great!’  We had such good chemistry. I knew where he was before the ball even came to me, and it was the same the other way around.

If you look at the way we scored some of our goals, I knew exactly what he was going to do – it was almost telepathic. Sometimes you don’t need to work on it at training – it just clicks and you feel like you’ve known each other forever. Good players can play with each other.

Former Spurs defender Dorian Dervite bizarrely claimed that he once saw Keane demonstrate his tackling skills by slide-tackling two girls in a bar on a night out. Did you ever witness him doing anything like that?

Frances Chatham, via email

What?! No I never saw him do that, I’ll definitely ask him about it! Robbie did practical jokes on everyone at Spurs, although not so much to me. Especially when I arrived at training in the morning, the guys knew that they shouldn’t ever f**k with me, otherwise we’d have a problem. You’d have some morning people who’d always be like, ‘Hi! How are you today?’ and I’d be like, ‘F**k off, it’s too early’. I just wanted to be left alone to wake up in my head!

Why wouldn’t you go and warm up as a substitute during one of Martin Jol’s last games in charge at Spurs?

Stephen Rudd, via Facebook

Something happened with Man United coming after me, and when someone is putting transfer thoughts in your head, you get distracted and get yourself into some problems. We had that moment away at Newcastle. I was on the bench and wanted to play. Then in the second half I was told to warm up and get ready to go on, but I said, “I’m ready to go on, I don’t need to warm up”.

When you’re young, you’re cocky. I went on but I was giving out some attitude to the coaches that they didn’t deserve. I apologised to them afterwards, and because Martin’s a great guy he didn’t take it personally.How did it feel scoring that penalty for Spurs in the 2008 League Cup Final?

Ollie Jeanes, via Instagram

It was f**king tense, as it was a massive moment. It was a penalty at Wembley in front of 90,000 people, Petr Cech’s in goal, it’s Chelsea and the Spurs fans are behind the goal. Afterwards I watched some clips of it on YouTube – everyone with their phones saying, ‘Berba, please score!’ You realise how much it meant to the Spurs fans and that was probably the turning point of the game, because Chelsea were the favourites.

I tried to look cool and not show any emotion, but inside I was really nervous. Sometimes you can sabotage yourself in those situations, as we’re all human beings and the negative thoughts can outweigh the positive ones. You start to think, ‘What if I miss?’ But if you keep thinking about questions like that, you are f**king f**ked! I thought, ‘OK, stick to the way you normally take penalties and it’ll be fine’. It was a good penalty.

Nobody probably gave us a chance in that final but we won. It was amazing, lifting a cup at Wembley. It was Spurs’ first trophy for a very long time and it’s still the only trophy in the last 10 years. It was a special day and I hope I’ll see that again soon. The club deserve that with the players, manager and stadium they’ve got now. They have everything. Sooner or later – and I hope it’s sooner – they’ll lift a trophy again.

How much of the decision to depart Spurs for Manchester United in 2008 was down to you?

Joshua Pemberton Boyce, via Facebook

It’s difficult. You see it all the time with players moving clubs. In my case it was simply me following my path, because ever since I was a small boy, I’d always imagined playing for the biggest club in the world and playing with some of the best players in the world. That was the top of the mountain for me. When that moment finally arrived, I know a lot of people were angry with my choice, but I needed to follow my path.

How close did you come to signing for Man City instead of United?

George Pacitto, via Instagram

I don’t think it was close, to be honest. My agent told me about some interest but I said, “Don’t even bother mentioning anyone else, I’m going to Man United,” because of the history, the players, the tradition, everything. I think it was the night before City signed Robinho from Real Madrid and my agent said, “Berba, there’s another team in for you.” I said, “F**k off, we’re going to Man United.” He said, “But they’ll give you more money!” It’s not all about the money sometimes, though. I was like a horse with blinkers, saying, “No, I’m going to Man United.”

For me it was the right decision to go to United, because going to the top of the mountain was my dream, especially when you come from Eastern Europe, from a small town, and no one’s done it before you. I’d worked extremely hard throughout my career, had my ups and downs, and that was my reward, going to one of the biggest clubs in the world. It was a great feeling.

What are your fondest memories of working with Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo?

Steven Ross, via Facebook

That was crazy. You appreciated every moment of training, not just with those three but with everyone at Old Trafford. You could see how passionate everyone was about winning. In training there’d sometimes be fighting because in small games someone kicked somebody else and someone was losing – but as soon as you stepped onto the pitch, we were a team and we played like a team.

You saw the way Ronaldo trained: the first one at the training ground, staying after training and going to the gym. All of the things that made him one of the best players in the world. You saw the way Rooney trained, too: charging around the pitch like crazy and chatting with new players to help them integrate into the team. He was great at that, giving advice to everyone and speaking to the young boys, even if he wasn’t captain then. From time to time he acted like one and eventually he became one. You saw all of these guys training – Giggsy, Scholesy, Gary Neville – and thought, ‘OK, for f**k’s sake, you need to keep high standards if you want to play’.

Who spent the longest looking in the mirror: you or Ronaldo?

Anna Ritson, via Facebook

Well, we had a lot of mirrors! You would come to the dressing room and see me, Cristiano, Rio, Evra... Good times.

Was the pirouette assist for Ronaldo against West Ham in 2008 the best piece of skill you’ve done on a pitch?

Stu Longshaw, via Twitter

Probably not, but it was one of the best and I practised it a lot – not too much at the training ground, but at home. When you’re at home, you have nothing to do, so you start kicking a ball around, trying to come up with something new that’ll help you during a game. Then you go to training and think, ‘OK, let’s try out that thing I was doing at home’. A couple of times you fail miserably, but then you’ll get better and better at it.

The spin was something I was trying to do, because when you’re on the byline, the defender thinks you have nowhere to go. His guard’s down, and that’s the time to improvise. I spotted James Collins and he was thinking, ‘You’ve got nowhere to go, Berbs’. The spin was perfect, and what made it so special was that the move ended with a goal. If it hadn’t finished with a goal, it would just be another trick. But when you make a goal it’s extra special, and if the goalscorer’s Ronaldo, it puts even more weight on the assist!

After he’d scored, I tried to look so cool – no emotion, just walking back to the halfway line like nothing had happened, like, ‘Yeah, this is a usual day for me’. But inside I was like, ‘F**king hell, did you all see that?!’

What did you think of the Eric Cantona comparisons at United?

Martyn Stockley, via Facebook

I wasn’t a fan of them – I never tried to be anyone else and never understood some of the comparisons people made, even with players today. For me, that’s completely wrong. It puts pressure on the younger players and everyone plays differently. There was no comparison to make – Cantona was f**king incredible. I tried to play my own way.

Was the hat-trick at home to Liverpool in 2010 the greatest moment of your Manchester United career?

Adam Leason, via Instagram

It was up there because it was against Liverpool, and we won. I was in great shape and everything was happening for me – the second goal I scored, the overhead kick, demanded special skills. Again, it was improvising, and it looked cool because it went in off a post! You don’t sleep after a game like that; you keep replaying it in your head all night.Who’s your favourite striker?

Liam Dobinson, via Instagram

I’ve got two favourites – one of them is Alan Shearer, who would smash goals in from all over the place. Smashing goals, smashing noses... he was unbelievable, and you know his goal celebration? That was iconic. [Raises one arm in air, starts chanting ‘Shearer! Shearer!’]

At first I supported Blackburn because Shearer was there, then Newcastle. My parents got me a Newcastle No.9 shirt because they knew I loved Shearer so much. I would sleep in it. Later I lost it, but I went to see my mum recently and she had a shirt for me. I said, ‘What the f**k? That’s my Newcastle shirt!’ I was so happy to see it again.

My other favourite striker is Marco van Basten – he was technical, gracious and so sophisticated. I would try to copy his movements. I had a VHS with his goals, and when he had to retire due to injury. It showed his San Siro farewell where he was crying and fans were crying – I was crying watching it, too.

Were you proud to match a Shearer record by netting five Premier League goals in a game, against Blackburn?

Victor, via Instagram

I could have scored six – Paul Robinson saved it! I was the first foreigner to hit five goals in one game, and to be in the company of Shearer and Andy Cole was unbelievable. I always say that coming from a smaller country makes it more special and that’s the truth. Scoring five goals in probably the biggest league in the world – it was a great achievement.

Having been a substitute in the 2009 Champions League Final, how gutted were you to not even make the bench for the 2011 showpiece at Wembley?

Allan Bell, via Facebook

That was definitely not a great feeling, because I really thought I deserved to be there. But it was the decision of the manager, and the good thing was he later admitted it was a mistake to not put me on the bench. There’s no hard feelings, it was what it was. I probably wouldn’t have made much difference as Barcelona were amazing that night, with all of the players they had and the way they played. It’s finished now, it’s in the past.

Why do you think Alex Ferguson made you second choice in 2011/12 straight after you’d won the Golden Boot?

Rory Skinner, via Instagram

I don’t know. Javier Hernandez came in: he was young, a different kind of player and he scored goals. You try to work as hard as possible to reverse what’s going on. When you don’t play it’s frustrating. You want answers and I could be quite persistent with Alex, asking him, “Why am I not playing? I want to play please!” You need to have a conversation, but I was probably a bit too much at times.   

He was an unbelievable manager. He spoke to everyone differently and that’s an important thing in football, especially with players at the bigger clubs because they have bigger egos. To manage big egos in a side, you must be a specialist.

Why did you turn down Juventus to join Fulham in 2012?

Adalberto Pascarelli, via Facebook

Because I love England and the coach was Martin Jol, so I knew he was going to say, ‘The team starts with Berba’. At the time, I needed that. Sometimes you lose confidence, and if you don’t play it doesn’t matter how strong-willed you are, you can start to doubt yourself and think, ‘Maybe I’m not good enough’. But Jol always trusted in my ability, so I was thinking, ‘Berbs, you’d better not let him down’. There was interest from Spurs to sign me back, too, but I’d given my word to Martin. I went to Fulham and scored 15 goals in my first season.

How would you respond to people who called you lazy?

Kobey Wilks, via Instagram

That’s a misunderstanding. If I showed them the running stats at my clubs, I’d always be in the top five. You have some players who are just showing off for the fans and TV commentators. Sometimes it’s obvious the ball’s going out of play, but they’ll chase it as they know people are going to think, ‘Yeah, well done, look at how he’s working!’ I don’t like players like that, or coaches yelling instructions and trying to pretend they’re working – no one ever hears instructions from the coach!

Some players want appreciation because they’ve had a s**t game, so do a few sprints and people say, ‘Look how hard he’s working for the team!’ F**k off, they’re doing nothing, it’s fake!

When you played for Monaco, did you expect the sudden rise they’ve made over the past few seasons?

Arthur Cornell, via Instagram

In my first training session, players were flying around me so fast. I was thinking, ‘What the f**k is going on – am I too old?’ I was 33, but you had James, Falcao and Martial all running around and making me look stupid. But I loved it there.

I enjoyed the game when we won at Arsenal. You could see from the start, from their body language, from the way they passed the ball, that they had underestimated us. People ask if I knew about Kylian Mbappe then and, to be honest, no. I’m not going to say, ‘Yeah, he was there, I gave him some advice and that’s why he’s so brilliant now...’

Did your smoking habit ever interfere with training?

@ballandthecity, via Twitter

I think that’s the biggest misconception in the world – I never smoked in my life. Back in the day my friends smoked and I gave them s**t about it. I pretended to smoke because I looked cool holding a cigarette, but that’s it, so I don’t know why people think I smoke just from one picture. Now cigars are different – that’s not smoking! Smoking is with cigarettes.

Is never getting to play at the World Cup one of your big regrets?

Fin Hallman, via Instagram

That’s always the risk when you come from a small country – your chances of playing at a World Cup are very small. That’s probably one of the regrets in my life, but one of the proudest days of my life was breaking Bulgaria’s goalscoring record. That was a tremendous honour because the record had been there for a while. Hristo Bonev was a great player.

You posted on Instagram that David James’ tactics at Kerala Blasters were ‘chip the ball to the striker’s chest and we take it from there’. Can you tell us more about his coaching ability?

Darren Walsh, via Facebook

I didn’t think he treated me in the way I should be treated, with respect and an understanding of the game – I told him that and it didn’t go well. I didn’t think football should be played that way. Everyone else there was fine with me. To go to India and witness a different culture was interesting – it was completely different to what I’m used to. But at that stage of your career you want to keep playing.

Are you hoping to continue playing?

Mike Green, Cardiff

People ask where I’m going to play this year but they forget that I’m 37 now, even though I still look 25! But as much as I want to play, you have to be a realist and know where you’re at. I want to be at Man United, Real Madrid or Barcelona, but it’s not going to happen. You want to play but you also don’t want to embarrass yourself.

If an offer came soon I might give it another try. I’m in good shape and train every day. Football is difficult to give up, it’s the love of your life. When you stop, a small piece of you dies. You had your rituals: you wake up and go to training. But when you stop, you wake up, drive the kids to school, and if you don’t have a plan you’re lost

Could you be the next Robert De Niro?

Tony Watson, via Facebook

I love movies and I love Robert De Niro’s, especially The Godfather. I did this movie back home, which was great fun and the reaction was good. I’ve got a lot of interests, but my main focus is still football and I’m doing my coaching badges – you never know, at some point in the future, maybe I’ll be a manager.

This feature originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe! (opens in new tab)

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