Dimitar Berbatov: The Not-So-Poor Man’s Cantona


By Nick Kituno.

Eric Cantona is undoubtedly one of Manchester United’s most revered greats in recent memory. A man whose name is often entangled within sentences such as “1990s”, “Champions League” and “King”. To some he is a hero, and to many he is a legend. Now stateside in his attempt to rejuvenate one of world football’s folklore clubs in the New York Cosmos as their prestige-titled Director of Soccer, the Frenchman has also begun a campaign to run for French presidency, as the tenure of Nicolas Sarkozy in Parisien office comes to a possible end. His famous lobbing of the goalkeeper in an auspicious return to the United ranks, following the contemptible assault of a Crystal Palace fan resulted in a long-term ban, is one memory that many a Red Devil remember quite fondly.

But in recent times you could perhaps call Dimitar Berbatov a “poor man’s version of Cantona”. His goals against Fulham, Blackburn and Wigan recently, which ended 0-5, 3-2 and 5-0 respectively, showed the sort of class he could bring for the still burdensome price tag of £30.75million. Since joining the ranks of United on the final day of the Summer transfer window in 2008, ‘Berba’ has scored 47 goals in 105 league appearances for the club, and 55 goals in 144 appearances in total. Probably not the sort of goal return that many, as I’d assume, would have wanted for someone who was given the forced role of piggy-in-the-middle whilst a conflicting transfer saga between Tottenham Hotspur and Man United went on, but nonetheless he brings a gentleman-like character to his game that is very much an endearing sight to most.

Could you draw comparisons between Berbatov and Cantona? Well, logically and generally, yes. Despite the character contrasts between them in their games, such as Berbatov not having a disciplinary record like Cantona, they are both geniuses in their own right; for example Cantona’s goal in 1998 during the Munich Air Disaster Memorial match, which marked forty years since the tragic event against an European XI, is just a small piece of what he could offer at a high level – despite the match not being a competitive one, the goal is still one that hangs up in it’s own internet museum of YouTube. Berbatov has scored some spectacular goals himself in the past for the club, too. One I recollect is the goal he set up against West Ham United, when he beat the defender with what is now known as the “Berba-Spin” on football simulation videogame FIFA, giving Cristiano Ronaldo the opportunity to slide in and finish the exquisite move. Similarities so far? Both have/had incredible technique and balance to pull off mesmerising skills and tricks. Both in scoring and assistance.

Another one is both having experienced exile from the world around them, including Manchester United themselves. In Cantona’s case, it was the infamous event of January 1995, when he assaulted Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons with a “kung-fu” style kick into the crowd. That led to a huge stir in the media, followed by questions raised about his future at United. He was subsequently fined by the Football Association and was ordered to complete 120 hours of community service. Alas, during a press conference, he once remarked:

“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.”

The entire room was bewildered and confused by the comment he had made, but he missed the rest of season as United finished runners-up to Blackburn Rovers. An unorthodox and absurd event to happen indeed, something that would have greater repercussions today, and may have been the turning point in the rest of the season. Could have.

For Berbatov, it was nothing to do with a prison sentence or being fined by the Football Association, but slowly being alienated from the side as the club challenged for a record breaking 19th league title, even though he finished the season as the Premier League’s joint leading goalscorer.

Signing on the first day of September in the easing remnants of the summer transfer window at midnight, the £30.75million tag on top of Berbatov’s head still stands as the highest-paid transfer fee in Manchester United’s history. It would be a turbulent first few years for the Bulgarian as he tried to settle in Manchester, and the British media starting to pick away at what the future holds for him. The competition led by Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney for first-team places led many to believe that he would be on the way out and signalling transfer rumours to fly around Old Trafford. Italian, German and French clubs were all in the mix to be linked with him and poor performances that followed would only strengthen the chances of him leaving after only a year and a half. Despite being regularly quashed by Sir Alex Ferguson himself in the run-up to the 2009 UEFA Champions League final, and as the summer transfer window approached, it seemed increasingly likely.

But maintenance of calmness was reassuring. Some United fans were quite keen and adamant to see him leave, in a “good riddance” attitude towards him that later led to believe his time was up. Even so he still remained calm. A “keep calm and carry on” attitude to the situation, much maligned with the colloquially famed poster that has been revived in recent times since it’s incarnation during the second World War on British soil, gave him strength, will and perseverance in a time that was undoubtedly difficult. Nobody really knew how Berbatov was feeling about the situation – confidence low? Not settling in Manchester well enough? Home sick and wants to go home? Friction between him and the manager or team-mates? Even in interviews with the media, he admitted to becoming frustrated with his own performances on the pitch and understanding the fans’ anger towards him for not being able to convert, or go on a strong goal scoring run. Acknowledging the current situation and knowing where and how to improve seemed to bridge the gap a little more between him and the Manchester United faithful.

He has also once stated in the past that he is not a very outspoken or unreserved person. Someone who likes to keep to himself, be left alone and create a bubble of his own comfort. It would not necessarily come with the package in signing on the dotted line for United in ’08, but having a home to go and not feeling like he’s been left in the lurch. He can relate to that with Spurs. His time in London with the Lilywhites gave him the ability to be revolved around. Have a home to go to as the fans sang songs about him at White Hart Lane during games, cheered him on when he performed a silky piece of skill, and go ballistic when he scored goals for them. A sense of love and care for a man who became a rising star in the Barclays Premier League upon his arrival from Bundesliga outfit Bayer Leverkusen in the summer of 2006 in the region of £10.9million. He signified his mark on the soil of the Londoners’ club with 46 goals scored in 102 appearances.

Having been three years since, settling in is not the problem, but leaving is another. He doesn’t get that many games in a team that seems to revolve around the presence of Wayne Rooney, wherever he plays, despite a collective team effort, but still gets a warm reception. Not the type of reception he had at Tottenham, but well enough to be appreciated since the tumultuous times he went through when trying to make an impact in a team that was licking its wounds from the Tevez transfer saga to Manchester City and the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to pastures new in the inevitable alliance of Real Madrid C.F. News circulating media outlets suggests that he is on his way out in an escape back to Germany, as some had spotted him at Manchester airport, Frankfurt-bound to hold talks with some clubs that are interested in him. Worrying times to say the least for United since he is one of the top goalscorers so far this season and his excellent performance last year suggested that he was not just an average player.

So you could say that Dimitar Berbatov resembles King Eric. Someone that brings a touch of class to the team when it is dearly needed, an apt eye for goal and having experiences lowly times at a club that, to others outside it and to the media, were carrying dead weight with them. Both have personalities that do not relate to one another – for example Berbatov being discreet and professional about his personal life and Cantona bringing a strong sense of leadership to any side – not necessarily going out into public and putting across his views in inappropriate fashion, but a visible captain in the eyes of ten men that stand behind him, as he leads the line from the front and not the back.

Not many would pick Dimitar Berbatov as their captain. They do not believe that he has the influential qualities like most (probably not yet even) but his influence as a central player and ability to make something out of nothing, just when you start to get tired of him and frustrated about the shift he has put in, makes you love him again. It’s an awkward relationship indeed between him and the fans, despite having support from his manager and team-mates, but he can be silently called a ‘legend’ in his own right. A ‘genius’ even. But as the football saying goes, Berbatov is very much the “poor man’s Cantona”.

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  1. Speak for yourself. No player gives me more pleasure to watch on the pitch that Berbatov, because very few players come along with the kind of extraordinary gifts the Bulgarian possesses. What has happened to him at United verges on the criminal, and I for one will be all the happier to see him move on for the simple reason that talent like his needs to be out there on the field for all to savor, not languishing on the bench behind over-hyped workhorses like Rooney.

  2. Sideshow Bob on

    Rooney’s record this season is 18 goals in 23 appearances which is a more than acceptable stat considering he’s played a lot deeper this season. Put a functioning centre midfield behind Rooney and watch him shine. Rooney’s better form this season has come at the start of the season when Anderson and Cleverley paired well and laterly when Jones and Carrick have done well. A functioning midfield allows Rooney to have a freerer role.

  3. Michael Mannings on

    I agree, I think Berbatov is a man who possesses superb skill. However, we have never really seen the full potential of him. Maybe the answer would have been to build a team around him, but that was never an option with Ronaldo and Rooney. We’ve never seen Berbatov produce his magic on the big stage, in the biggest of moments and that for me is the biggest reason why he is no Cantona. Eric produced match winning goals in key games.

  4. Your first sentence goes back to you.

    I personally would hate to see him leave the club at this point and would hope he stays a bit longer, but I do agree that his talent is unrivalled at times with what he has been showing in the Premier League. I’d only hope that a suitable enough player is brought in if he decides to leave.

  5. United Football! on

    Berbatov is a very skilful player, he has a great first touch and is very strong on the ball. His ability to stay cool and work his way out of tight situations is unrivalled. He also scores his fair quota of goals.

    The problem for me is that his playing style just doesn’t suit our style of play. We are at our best when we play a high tempo instinctive game, with a fluid front four ahead of an anchoring midfield two. Berbatov doesn’t suit this because his laconic style tends to slow the pace of our play down. It is almost as if Berbatov doesn’t decide what he is going to do with the ball until he has it whilst everyone else has already made that decision before they receive the ball. Any space that our high tempo game has engineered is then lost to his thought processes. He doesn’t loose the ball, but we loose the advantage.

    Great player, just a square peg in a round hole.

  6. The football-termed definition in a player being a “poor man’s” someone else is the fact that they draw resemblances and comparisons between each other. Sometimes it is because of their personalities, other times it is because of their influence on the team they play for.

    For this, it is their technical qualities on the pitch and ability to relatr to each other in the way that they have experienced alienation from the club. Despite their personalities and influences on the club itself being different, of course Berbatov cannot really compare to Cantona in stepping up when sorely needed for United, Berbatov does draw things from himself that Cantona can too.

    Berbatov cannot lead like Cantona, but what he has gone through and the silent influence he has on us with some of the performances he gives makes it seem as if he is Cantona in disguise.

  7. “In 1999, I had Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the four best strikers in Europe. We are going towards that now with Javier Hernandez, Wayne Rooney, Robin, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa.- Sir Alex Ferguson

    It took signing RVP for SAF to forget about Berbatov. sad indeed.

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