His two headers in Manchester United's 3-2 win over Liverpool on Sunday were masterpieces of understatement, the ball guided in with a minimalist flick. In both cases he had to hold off markers -- first a weirdly insipid hold from
Berbatov's other goal -- trapping the ball on one thigh and then
Overhead kicks happen so rarely partly because they're difficult to execute, but also because usually a defender gets close enough that a referee will call dangerous play for the raised foot. Yet Berbatov, languidly elegant as ever, was so unflustered that there was time for the thought to crystallize: "Surely he's not going to try an overhead?" He was, and he did, and the result was a goal that stands out even in the saturated modern world in which we see a dozen brilliant strikes from around the globe each weekend.
That economy, not only of action but also, seemingly, of emotion, defines him. It gives him the calm that is central to his talent, but it also means that, in England especially, when things go wrong he is derided as a sulker, somebody who doesn't try -- an accusation that, quite ludicrously, was flung last week at Torres. Sometimes, it needs to be accepted that players are simply out of form.
What made it worse for Berbatov was that the player he effectively replaced at Old Trafford,
Berbatov loved a club once, but it rejected him, and it seems the experience left a streak of ice in his blood. He grew up in Blagoevgrad, a town in southwestern Bulgaria, and when he was 9, CSKA Sofia came to play the local side, Pirin, in a cup tie. CSKA remains one of the two great clubs of Bulgaria, but back then it had extra cachet as the team of the great
At 17, he achieved his dream, and played alongside
"It seemed to me there was nobody else about in the whole neighborhood, just a couple of dogs," she said. "It was one of the saddest pictures I've ever seen. He was lying on the bed, listening to music, like he was pining for somebody. I thought it must be some girl, but when I looked at what he was staring at I saw it was the badge of CSKA. That was when I realized how much he loved that club."
At 18, he stepped up to the first team, which he helped to the Bulgarian Cup in 1999, but those were difficult years for CSKA. And after he missed a string of chances in a derby in 2000, the crowd began to take out its frustration on him. When, on the first day of the following season, he was profligate again as CSKA opened up with a goalless draw at home to Litex Lovech, the reaction of fans was even harsher. Berbatov was abused and threatened, and the experience was deeply upsetting.
"He was devastated," his mother said. "His phone was ringing but he didn't want to talk to anybody. That was maybe the worst moment of his career. He suffered and it was very hard for the whole family."
He considered quitting the game, but his parents persuaded him to stick at it. He scored nine goals in the 10 additional games he played for CSKA, but the spark had gone and, rejected by fans of the club he loved, he rejected them, and joined Bayer Leverkusen the following January.
"For me, it was pretty difficult because I had some bad moments," he said. "You have difficult games and you miss some chances and the fans aren't great to you, your own fans, and it's difficult to accept that and you start to think about your future. After a while, you decide to go and play outside your country. When you overcome things like that, that's what makes you."
It seems he resolved then never to let himself become so attached again. His career path since, from Leverkusen to Tottenham to United, has been so straight, so logical, that it almost seems programmed, like a young lawyer outgrowing his father's small provincial business and plotting his route, step by step, to the plush corner office in an international firm in London or New York. But more than that, Berbatov seemed unmoved by the widespread criticism he received last season; it may have hurt, but he gave a very good impression of a man who just didn't care what others thought or said, and maybe he didn't.
It is a detached view that means Berbatov will never profess undying love for one club, will never go chasing lost causes into the corner, and may never seem fully settled, like the executive at the drinks party who glances just a little too often over your shoulder even as he engages in conversation and delivers killer one-liners. It probably means he will never be loved in the way that Rooney,