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Berbatov a misunderstood genius

When Dimitar Berbatov was a child, he idolized Robert De Niro, so it perhaps isn't surprising he plays the cold-eyed assassin well. There is a coldness about him, a sense of calculation that fits uneasily into a Premier League environment in which "passion" remains the foremost of all virtues. If anything, though, he probably resembles less De Niro than Clint Eastwood, laconic and unfussy, almost everything he does performed with an ironic glint.

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 Fernando Torres, then a rather more robust challenge from Jamie Carragher -- and on both occasions his sense of timing and positioning meant that the headers seemed effortless. An in-form Wayne Rooney -- he is certainly not that right now -- would have attacked either chance in a flurry of bustling shoulders and thrusting neck muscles.

Berbatov's other goal -- trapping the ball on one thigh and then sending it arcing over his shoulder and in off the underside of the bar -- was a classic of what Rob Smyth has taken to calling "Berbarotica"; one of those moments of skill and imagination whose brilliance elicits an instinctive warmth in the gut. And, as with all the greatest Berbatov moments, it felt as though he were operating on a different plane than everybody else on the pitch. How on earth did he find that much time in the box?

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, Carlos Tevez, is so energetic, so obviously passionate, that even on his worst days his sheer effort won the admiration of fans and pundits. And the criticism was heightened by the lingering sense of disapproval at the way Berbatov was perceived to have engineered his move from Tottenham. In other professions, of course, it's perfectly legitimate for an employee to leave a company for a bigger one offering better prospects, but football, driven as it is by the loyalty of fans, demands a level of loyalty from its stars as well.

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 Hristo Stoichkov. After the game, Berbatov's father, himself a professional player, arranged for his son to meet Stoichkov, who gave him a signed pennant. From then on, Berbatov's ambition was to be good enough to move to the capital and play for CSKA.

At 17, he achieved his dream, and played alongside Martin Petrov and Stiliyan Petrov in one of the great youth sides. In a derby against Levski, he fell awkwardly after a bad challenge and broke his arm, but he remained as dedicated as ever. His mother, Margarita, once went to visit him at the club dormitories during a holiday period when many of the other youth players were away.

"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, Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes is at Old Trafford, but it may also give him a different, less emotional perspective on the game. And it may be that it is just that detachment that makes goals like Sunday's overhead possible. He is, fundamentally, a very talented gun for hire.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.

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