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Dimitar Berbatov: Idiot or Savant?

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"Lazy, laid back, ineffective, and not interested in his team's success." Such sounds the chorus about Bulgarian soccer star Dimitar Berbatov in parts of the British press and among soccer fans in blogs and message boards.

There are, however, observers who would differ. Pundits rate him as a genius on the pitch, admiring his silky ball control and consider his tactical oversight second only to that of Zinedine Zidane. Few players of the game currently evoke as much debate as Mr. Berbatov.

Berbatov is his country's all-time leading goalscorer and has won the Bulgarian Footballer of the Year award six times. In 2001, he stormed onto the European scene in Germany, nearly winning the UEFA Champions League with the underdog Bayer Leverkusen. There, Berbatov earned a reputation as a world-class player, with coach Klaus Toppmöller branding him "Europe's biggest striking talent". After his move to England in 2006, Berbatov achieved instant success with Tottenham Hotspur and was voted part of the Premier League's "Team of the Season" by his colleagues in 2007. But it was after his swoop to Manchester United the following year that Berbatov faced widespread criticism.

The rather cold reception he has received, especially among ManU fans, has as much to do with the huge transfer sum of £30.75m as with Berbatov's displacement of fan favourite Argentine Carlos Tevez, who embodied British preferences for high-tempo, non-stop action with lots of fighting spirit. Fans that scorn Berbatov's seeming inactivity and lack of commitment are thus unimpressed by official figures suggesting that he, in fact, ranks among the most highly effective players in both team strategy and overall match
build-up. Actim Index, an official ratings system, rates the Bulgarian striker among the most efficient players of the English Premier League.

Nonetheless it is the British penchant for "blood and guts" matches that explains why many observers miss the finer facets of a player that combines tactical awareness with the ability to make difficult technical manoeuvres seem effortless. All the same, the claim that Berbatov could do even better is not completely unfounded. Even back in his early career there were
doubts about his work ethic on the pitch. Former Leverkusen coach Toppmöller once remarked that Berbatov needed "constant kicks in the butt" to perform up to his ability. Many believe that this is still the case.

Hardly any real soccer fan doubts Berbatov's technical skills. At the same time, his cult status among many fans started due to his portrayal in British tabloids as a cigarette-smoking athlete with dodgy family members and alleged mafia-links. Those wishing to read Berbatov's virtues or shortcomings can follow the ongoing discussions at redcafe.net or the Guardian sport blog. For those seeking to indulge in the maestro's brilliance, please check his highlight reels on berbatov.net.

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