Interviews

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

Dimitar Berbatov

Was he really kidnapped as a youngster? How close was he to signing for Man City? Did smoking have an impact on his career? Your questions answered in October 2018...

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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.